After Hurricane Sandy, One Man Tries to Stop the Reconstruction
Geologist Orrin Pilkey predicted exactly what a storm like Sandy would do to the mid-Atlantic coast and New York City. On a tour of destruction after the deluge, he and David Gessner ponder a troubling question: Why are people rebuilding, as if all this isn't going to happen again?
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THE PROPHET AND I return to the drowned city. Trailing robes behind him, he will point his wooden staff at the places where the waters rose, the subway steps turned into rapids, and the cross streets became fast-flowing inlets. He'll gesture toward the river, explaining how it was pushed back by the winds and tide, how the full moon affected this most modern of places. Four years ago, when he pointed at these same spots and told me what was going to happen to New York City, I only half believed him. Now I believe, along with everyone else. We have seen it with our own eyes.
More: Tracing Hurricane SandyPortraits of a coastline in transition.
The prophet's name is Orrin Pilkey, and his day job, for many years, was as a coastal geologist at Duke University, where he started teaching in 1965 and is now a professor emeritus. (Duke is honoring him by building a $6.8 million marine-science center in Beaufort, North Carolina, with his name on it.) In lectures and in 40 books—including 2009's doom-laden The Rising Sea, cowritten with fellow coastal geologist Rob Young—Orrin has issued steady warnings about the dangers of living by the shore during an era of climate change. At a time when everyone seems to be using military terminology to describe our battle against the attacking ocean, he has a term of his own: retreat.
“The storms will only get worse as the seas rise and grow hotter,” says Orrin, who at 78 doesn't really have robes or a staff but does sport a prophet's bushy white beard. “This is just the beginning. We need to retreat from the coast.”
Abandon the coast? We're doing just the opposite: these days almost 30 percent of the U.S. population lives by the shore. We've flocked there despite the dangers, treating the wild edge between land and water like it's suburbia, as if shifting sands and rising waters will naturally respect property lines.
Particularly appalling for Orrin is what's happening now in New Jersey, where emotional cries to rebuild at all costs started the morning after Sandy roared through. The $60 billion federal aid package—hastily passed by Congress last winter—specified that a significant portion of the funding should go toward what the bill called the “most impacted and distressed areas.” As Orrin points out, this means using taxpayer money to rebuild in flood zones, on the same spots that were just wiped out. Which is a little like rebuilding on a train track.
I first met Orrin when I moved to a barrier island in North Carolina ten years ago. After enduring two or three hurricanes, I started taking an interest in coastal issues, and one name kept coming up during my research. I called Orrin to interview him in 2007, and he invited me to travel the Outer Banks with him, to examine the places that would be most vulnerable during future storms. We hit it off, and in May of 2009 we took another trip, this time to New York, where Orrin predicted, down to the exact subway stop, what would happen if a major came through.
A few months after Sandy, I suggested a new trip, one that started in North Carolina and took us through most of the worst-hit areas in New Jersey and New York. He was game, and we made arrangements to travel in late February and early March, when winter was lifting and springtime recovery efforts would be moving into high gear.
ORRIN AND I are both early risers and big coffee drinkers, and when I ask if I can show up at his house in Durham at six on the Sunday morning of February 24—our launch day—he says fine, he'll have a pot brewing. An hour later we're on the road, having also picked up Jeremy Lange, our photographer. We head east through the flats of North Carolina toward the ocean. When we are still more than a hundred miles from the shore, the land begins to look sunken, a great bowl of a place filled with pond-size puddles from recent rains.
“People worry about the beach and the cities because that's where the money is,” Orrin says. “But if the seas rise seven feet, this is all underwater, too.”
A hundred different amounts have been predicted for sea-level rise by the year 2100, and Orrin stresses that his is a “working number,” not a prediction. But he believes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's original estimate of a three-foot rise was too conservative, not taking into account the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. When I contacted Jim Hansen, the former head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and an internationally recognized climate-change expert, he replied that Orrin's was a “good choice, in my opinion,” as we prepare for what's coming.
Orrin is always hungry, so we stop at a restaurant to gobble down ham and eggs, then fuel up, as is our tradition, on McDonald's coffee. We cross over to Manteo, near where our country's only wild population of red wolves roam, before taking the next bridge to the Outer Banks, the barrier islands that arc into the Atlantic like a fragile shield.
If we're going down, this place is going down first. But that hasn't stopped rampant development, a kind of sprawling, rich-man's ghetto along the shore. South of Nags Head, we pull over at a spot Orrin wants to show us. A dozen or so houses stand out on the low-tide sand; they appear to be migrating into the sea. We walk below them, gazing up at old rusted doors that open to nothing and stairs that dangle in the air.
Orrin points out that this is the third generation of homes to have marched into the ocean here, where the beach has receded dramatically from storm erosion. But new homes are still being built. No more than 50 feet from the ocean, we come upon a concrete septic tank half-buried in the sand, a great square sepulchral tomb of shit. Orrin kicks it.
At first it was thought Sandy would make landfall on the Outer Banks, not the Jersey Shore. If that had happened, the destruction would have been old hat. Back in the 1970s, Orrin and other coastal scientists watched all the houses going up around here and figured that, once the first hurricane blew through, people would know better than to rebuild. Instead, hurricanes became what Orrin calls “giant urban-renewal projects.” The wind would barely die down before new construction started.
We drive south to the famous Cape Hatteras lighthouse, which Orrin and others fought to have moved back 2,900 feet from the eroding shore in the late 1990s, despite the fact that many North Carolinians found the retreat unmanly. “There was one powerful local woman who was virulently opposed to moving it,” Orrin tells us as we approach. “She said, 'Someone is going to get hurt if they move it.' A fellow scientist misunderstood and tried to reassure her. 'No, Mrs. Dillon, we can move it perfectly safely.' I had to explain that that was not what she meant.”
We pull in at the lighthouse and walk from where it was first built in 1870 to where it was moved in 1999. It rises above us like a giant barber pole. “Mrs. Dillon always claimed that moving the lighthouse killed her husband,” Orrin says. “The stress, you know.”
I ask if Mrs. Dillon has also passed away.
“She's still alive. Unfortunately.”
People who build on the beach aren't always thrilled with Orrin's message, since his bottom line is: You shouldn't be here. He tells them that their natural urge to defend themselves, to build a wall or pile up sandbags against the encroaching water, is wrong. That by building barriers they're keeping the beach from doing what it wants to do, what it needs to do, which is to move up and over itself in a slow natural roll that speeds up dramatically when a storm hits. This movement is how barrier islands have always defended themselves from storms, through a kind of elemental rope-a-dope.
We decide to spend the night in Nags Head at the Comfort Inn, a high-rise. The choice of lodging is both ironic and apt, since it epitomizes the kind of building that should never happen along the shore. Buildings like this take away all flexibility, because they can't be moved.
“That's why I worry that Florida is due for a truly epic disaster,” Orrin says. “What can you do when you have hundreds of miles of high-rises on your shoreline?”
Orrin never set out to become a coastal advocate. He was a low-profile deep-sea sedimentologist until the late 1970s, when he did a stint on a research vessel off the Atlantic coast with a fellow scientist named Jack Pierce. During their downtime, the two men played cards and talked, and Jack described to Orrin how people were building vacation homes on unstable shorelines and then expecting the government to bail them out when storms inevitably came. Pierce found this puzzling, but Orrin's reaction was more visceral. He was outraged, and that outrage changed the course of his career.
Orrin began to research the way we arm our shores, and the result was a 1975 book called How to Live with an Island, his earliest attempt to express his philosophy of retreating from the beaches. He got a lot of responses—many of them very angry, which he didn't mind. “I learned that I really like stirring things up,” he says.
He's been doing it ever since. Even in retirement, Orrin is still fully engaged with coastal issues, rumbling through his days like a middle linebacker. He does this with both gusto and a sense of humor, jokingly referring to himself as “world famous.” During our travels, he points at a sign on the beach that reads DO NOT ENTER and says, “That doesn't apply to us.”
WE SLEEP TO the rhythm of the ocean splashing against heaped piles of sandbags. In the morning, we drive north to the Audubon Sanctuary in Corolla, North Carolina, where Orrin is impressed by the sanctuary's attempt to fight erosion with oyster beds and other soft defenses. Over the long haul, hard defenses like seawalls and rock jetties tend to destroy not just beaches but also the ecosystems of fish, birds, and crabs that help make the islands what they are. One of the high points of Orrin's career came in 1985 when North Carolina, pushed by the state's scientists, outlawed the building of new hard coastal armaments.
Our next stop, two hours up the road past swampy Virginia lowlands, is Norfolk, a place that has become a model for how coastal cities might adapt to climate change. At Old Dominion University, we talk with Larry Atkinson, a professor of oceanography and an old colleague of Orrin's, who outlines what's going on here. Sandy barely grazed Norfolk but still left it under three feet of water. The town is used to flooding: through an unlucky combination of low elevation, subsiding land, and rising sea level, downtown streets are often submerged.
Larry says that he's been impressed by Norfolk's mayor, Paul Fraim. Rather than debating sea-level rise, he has “jumped over it” as a political issue, simply declaring that Norfolk has to prepare for rising seas. In North Carolina, members of the state legislature, pressured by real estate interests, have argued that climate change should not be factored into sea-level rise by state regulators. Virginia has followed suit, with one state senator claiming that the phrase is a “left-wing term” and suggesting it be replaced by “recurrent flooding.” But here in Norfolk, leaders know the problem is urgent, and they have a powerful ally: the U.S. military. Right down the street is the biggest naval base in the world, where a massive project is under way to raise the docks. Here, sea level isn't a conservative or liberal matter but a practical one.
We thank Larry and head north, crossing the Bay Bridge to the Delmarva Peninsula, the big swath of land east of Chesapeake Bay that's home to stunning coastal portions of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Our plan is to spend the night in Ocean City, Maryland, and then drive to Lewes, Delaware. From there we'll take the ferry across the Delaware Bay and into New Jersey.
Sandy's most publicized damage began just to the north of us, but of course the storm came into being far south of here. Like many tropical depressions, it first boiled up from the ever warming waters of the Caribbean. It started as a tropical depression on October 22, 2012, and by the end of the day was declared a tropical storm, capable of producing sustained winds of up to 73 miles per hour.
On October 24, Sandy hit Jamaica, the first major hurricane to strike that island in more than 20 years, tearing roofs off buildings on the eastern shore. By the time it made landfall in eastern Cuba, 110-mph winds were pushing 29-foot waves, and storm surge added another six feet. Sandy's eastern flank submerged large parts of Haiti, killing more than 50 people.
The Bahamas and Bermuda were luckier: the winds had slowed by then, but there were still massive power outages. After that, Sandy looked to be heading directly toward my coastal home at the mouth of North Carolina's Cape Fear River, but then it bulged eastward, changing from a straight arrow into a crude question mark, arcing eastward before gradually circling back toward New Jersey. By then the winds had slowed, but it wasn't wind speed that would define Sandy in the north but duration, timing, and size.
Sandy would end up second only to Hurricane Katrina as the most expensive storm to hit the U.S. But while Katrina's maximum winds were felt over a coastal area of 300 miles, Sandy's spread out over 900. The shore became, in surfer's parlance, stacked up—tremendous amounts of water pushed toward the beaches, bays, and inland estuaries, unable to recede until the winds slackened. Sandy's huge size and water push, not the ferocity of its winds, are what made it a historic monster.
ON TUESDAY MORNING, the third day of our trip, we drive across the bridge onto Long Beach Island, New Jersey, 30 miles north of where Sandy made landfall. Five years ago, I took a tour of this island with a former student of Orrin's, a geologist and coastal planner named Sue Halsey. Sue showed me how poorly designed the streets were, running straight from the island's ocean side to its bay side, so flat you could roll a bowling ball down them. When a storm hit, she predicted, the waters would rush in and turn those streets into powerful streams.
Which is exactly what happened on the night of October 29. The winds came in from the northeast and turned with the storm, gusting to 80 mph and sustained at 60 for about three hours. Sandy's landfall coincided with high tide on the night of a full moon. Water and sand churned down the streets; houses were bullied off their foundations, left in splinters, knocked clean across the island and out into Barnegat Bay.
We drive to the end of 82nd Street to examine the artificially built seaside dunes. Without the 14-to-16-foot-tall dunes, the damage to the homes would have been much worse, but they weren't placed consistently. Some homeowners refused to sign the easement that allowed dunes to be built in front of their homes, complaining that because of their height they ruined the ocean views.
We run into Dennis and Sean Cleary, father and son, who grew up right here on 82nd. Dennis is a tall man in his late forties who owns a construction business; Sean is heading off soon for the Air Force. Like everyone else, they're still digging out four months later, but unlike most, they rode out the storm.
“I was on the damage-evaluation team,” Dennis says. “When we drove around the next day, we saw no houses where houses used to be. But there was this hissing noise. The gas lines hadn't been shut off yet and were spewing gas.”
They drove down streets covered with four or five feet of sand. Single-lane roads would eventually get cut through the sand, which was piled up in roadside banks like snow.
“This guy didn't sign the easement,” Sean says, pointing at a neighbor's crumpled home. His destroyed house came unmoored and took out the house behind it, which belonged to a friend of theirs.
Since the storm, most locals have gotten the dune religion, but a few still refuse to sign the easements, even though governor Chris Christie has made it clear that huge protective sand barriers up and down the Jersey Shore are a major priority for him. On our drive to the north end of the island, we pass a sign that reads PROTECT YOUR TOWN. EIGHTEEN EASEMENTS UNSIGNED.
“A monumentally selfish act,” Orrin says. “These idiots are still worried about their views.” Then he starts shaking his head. “It's hopeless anyway,” he says.
I ask what he means.
“An island that's flat as a pool table, with only a seven-foot elevation straight across.” To Orrin, dune building is just a stopgap. “Now is not the time,” he says, “to simply hold the shoreline in place without giving some thought to the long term.”
He's right, no doubt, but this fact hasn't given pause to many people.
Back in December, governor Christie and others howled in protest when a group of fiscally conservative Republicans in Congress threatened to slow down Sandy's massive relief bill. But in the fever to do something—”There's no quit in Jersey!”—staggering amounts of money were thrown at the problem, including $5.4 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to build berms and dunes to protect coastal towns.
“Yup, this place is hopeless,” Orrin repeats, this time with more enthusiasm.
“That's not much of a political platform,” I say.
He smiles. “Of course, it's not to be said out loud around actual people.”
At the north end of the island, we find one positive sight. The beach at Barnegat Light makes us remember why people love the coast in the first place. We walk through acres of dunes carved like sculpture, dotted with beach heather, juniper, and twisted oaks. Wind blows and whitecaps boil, and the dunes themselves seem to be rolling in like steep waves. This beach is not entirely natural, since it has grown thanks mostly to the presence of a jetty to the north. But it is an example of how a human community, by showing some restraint and common sense, can let nature work for them.
At our hotel that night, Orrin joins me for a beer. I ask him about his writing career, and he tells me he's had two main motivators: fame and glory (“of course”) and advancing a cause.
I'm down with the first, not so much with the second. I tell him, perhaps a little pompously, that my goal as a writer is to present the messy complexity of what I see. Earlier today we passed an exit for Corson's Inlet, a protected coastal reserve in Cape May County. Now I quote A. R. Ammons, who wrote a famous poem about the beach there that contains the phrase “no humbling of reality to precept.”
Orrin likes the phrase but asks me to express it in plain English. “It means that reality is messy and rules don't always apply,” I say. “That ideas about a place should evolve from a particular place.”
Orrin gives that a “hmmph.” He doesn't think of writing in this way. In fact, he no longer even defines himself as a scientist. “I'm a scientific advocate,” he says.
Scientists are vital, and Orrin has been a good one, but in this world where scientific truths are often ignored, someone needs to help make them heard. That's Orrin's job. It requires a quick tongue, a thick skin, the toughness to sit in a town meeting where everyone is readying the torches, and the wit to get out of there alive.
THE NEXT DAY, we get a look at Mantoloking, in north central New Jersey, ground zero for Sandy destruction. Our guides are Cathy Totin and her son, Matt, who live just to the north in Point Pleasant Beach. Cathy is out-going, a longtime resident of Point Pleasant and a fount of local knowledge. Matt is a self-described weather maven who studied Orrin's books in college and casually drops phrases like “downdrift erosion” and “wave action.”
We meet them at their small barracks-style home, on a side street 200 feet from the shore. The flooding stopped one house short of them on the ocean side, but they spent weeks digging out, dumping all the sand in the street, where it was then moved by state emergency workers with backhoes and trucks.
“The high tide was everything here,” Matt says. “Eleven feet was our previous record, but this one was 13.5. The full moon accounted for the extra feet.”
“The power was out for weeks,” Cathy says. “Then, finally, I had everything fixed but the cable. One day a Cablevision truck pulled up on the street. I was excited, but the Cable-vision guy went to the back of the truck and took out his surfboard.”
“The waves were really great after the storm,” Matt says.
Matt shows us the neighborhood, where many houses are being built on stilts, the way it's long been done in North Carolina. Matt explains that the zoning here has changed and that homes now must be raised to be insured.
Raising a house can cost more than $100,000, on top of substantial boosts in flood insurance, not to mention the cost of rebuilding itself. But many will decide it's worth it. “One guy up near Mantoloking had his house up on stilts already,” Matt tells us. “Everyone bitched and moaned about the way it looked. But his house survived.”
Orrin's hope, so far unfulfilled, is that raw economics might stop the rebuilding eventually. But the land itself is so expensive—Cathy's postage-stamp lot is worth around $450,000, the house only $150,000—that few are likely to just give up and walk away.
Before we drive down to Mantoloking, we're joined by Sue Halsey, who I last saw five years ago when we toured Long Beach Island. Her license plate—4Dune—announces her beach politics, and she, opinionated and brash, announces herself.
We all climb into Cathy's SUV, chattering about coastal issues until we hit Mantoloking, where all talking stops. Four months after the storm, the place still looks like it was just bombed. Huge mansions lie splintered. Some houses are cracked in half with their innards revealed: TVs, rugs, lamps, books, and furniture.
State police watch from every corner, keeping drivers from stopping, gawking, and looting, which was a problem early on. We park, get a press pass, and walk down the devastated streets. The first house we come to slumps into the bay, half on land and half in the water, and the second lacks a front wall: we peek in at a dining room where everything is shattered except for a still-hanging chandelier. Out in the middle of the bay, a house floats, listing to starboard.
Cathy tells us that when she first saw this wreckage last week, she cried. Orrin isn't crying, but he isn't gloating, either. He has more sympathy with these residents than those of the Outer Banks, since here they had less historical reason to expect such a storm.
Matt says there's always a certain element of randomness to hurricanes. “Look at this house,” he says. “It's untouched. The grill still sitting in the backyard. And now look at this one.” The house next door looks like it's been chopped into tiny pieces by a team of manic lumberjacks.
“The rich got hit the hardest,” Orrin says. “The best houses got it worst.”
It's true. Those who chose to live right next to the sea learned a little about the consequences of doing so.
I wander off alone to the beach, thinking that the ocean isn't really the enemy. No one wants to defeat it, and no one with any sense thinks they can. People build homes here because they love its wildness and beauty. But uncertainty is the reality of the seaside realm. Is it unpatriotic to suggest that respecting a storm's primal force, even getting out of its way, is a better idea than fighting it?
During the thousands of years of human existence, living by the sea has always been a gamble, carrying with it a decent chance of being wiped out. That's why the shore was often merely a migratory destination, a place to move to during the milder months and away from during the stormier ones. We used to build shacks here; now we build mansions. Orrin is saying we should give up on building anything at all. But as someone who lives by the sea, I know it isn't that simple.
THE FOLLOWING morning, our procession rolls into New York City. Sand and empty coffee cups litter the floor of our rental car, which has taken on the feeling of a dark, dank cave.
Four years ago when we traveled here, Orrin noted the particular dynamics of the Hudson River, how if the tides and winds were right it could back up over the wall at Battery Park—which is exactly what happened the night of October 29, just before the lights died. During that earlier trip, Orrin precisely described how the New York subways would fill up—a problem that could be fixed with elevated entrances. More interesting to me was his description of the straight streets crossing the island east to west, how they were good for finding your way in the city but bad for flooding, since they ushered the water in.
“These people don't seem to understand that they are living on an island in a time of rising seas,” Orrin said. “That what happened isn't nearly as bad as what will come.”
“What will come?” is the trillion-dollar question. While few scientists will say that climate change has definitely led to fiercer storms, most will privately acknowledge what common sense suggests: warmer waters will lead to more and stronger hurricanes.
We park on the Lower East Side and walk along Water Street, which during Sandy was flooded by a storm-swollen East River. It's a street that, if Orrin's predictions are right, will be permanently underwater by the end of this century—with or without a hurricane.
I have a friend who lives in Manhattan who says the lesson learned from the storm was New York's remarkable permeability. She was amazed at how the whole place was soaked through and yet up and running a few weeks later. And it's true that lower Manhattan looks pretty good at first—no obvious damage of the sort we saw on Mantoloking.
But look closer and you see clear signs of lasting problems, starting with the rectangular placards in building windows, notices of evacuation and closing and condemnation. As we walk farther south, descending almost to sea level, Orrin points out the water marks on the sides of buildings, five or six feet up. He mentions that many of the city's 14 wastewater plants sit at the water's edge and have outfall pipes at sea level. During storms those outfalls quickly become infalls, sending sewage backward into the pipes, guaranteeing not just deadly disasters but smelly ones. Where we are now was briefly a lake during Sandy, one made up of millions of gallons of water, sewage, fuel, and everything else the sea swept up. We stop and talk to a store owner who confirms this, describing how he watched mannequins from Abercrombie and Fitch bob by in the water.
The administration of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying to address the problem of sewage and water treatment, and to push innovative projects like 12-foot-high removable steel walls. On a national level, President Obama is committed to a rebuilding plan that focuses on resilience and green infrastructure. But many of the solutions are vague, and none will do much good if the seas rise seven feet.
Orrin is hungry and tired. We climb John Street and decide to eat at a place called the Open Door Gastropub. We sit down, ready to feast, but then on a hunch I go to the bar and start a conversation with a man who turns out to be the owner. “You gotta see this,” John Ronaghan says, and so we abandon our table and follow him down narrow stairs to a cramped cellar where the water flowed in. I imagine this place on the night of the storm: to get to the olives, you would have had to swim underwater like Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure. When the water receded, it was time to deal with the lesser plagues that struck the neighborhood: rot, mold, flood insurance.
“Everything ruined,” he says, adding: “And this is nothing.”
He wants us to see his other restaurant, the Paris Café, which is down on the waterfront near the old fish market. He asks his co-owner, Peter O'Connell, to give us a tour. Workers have been going strong for weeks, but it is still in ruins; during the storm, the water rose above the heads of where his customers usually sit.
I ask the obvious question. What if it happens again? “What if?” he says, thinking it over.”We're taking a shot,” he says.
That's one of the more realistic sentiments I've heard during our whole trip. It contains no illusions about building walls or controlling the uncontrollable. He is not saying we will defeat the ocean. He's saying he will roll the dice and see what comes up. Not a desperate craving for certainty where none exists. But a realistic assessment. A gambler's play.
ORRIN HAS TO get back home, so the next day I see him off at LaGuardia Airport. With the expert gone the trip is over, or so I think. But the next morning, Jeremy and I decide to drive out to Rockaway Beach, the especially hard-hit coastal area of Queens.
Quite by accident, we park by one of the nursing homes that were featured on national news after the storm. The residents were not evacuated, and videos soon surfaced of the nightmare they endured: waves rocking the building, seawater flooding the first floor and shorting out the building's power.
As I walk up the street from the home, I run into a man wearing a hoodie and walking a schnauzer. While he refuses to say his name, he's not reluctant to talk.
“FEMA was horrible,” he says. “Their answer was 'go to a shelter,' but there was no public transportation. It was the apocalypse, like in a movie. Our police station was underwater. If you went up to 130th Street, a row of houses were on fire. Saltwater and sewage in all the houses. No power for weeks. We saw sand in our nightmares.”
He points to his place, a three-decker. We're not in Mantoloking anymore: here the structures are crammed together and include many apartment buildings and, farther east, high-rise projects. Both fire and water ravaged the neighborhood on the night of the 29th, and I am soon walking along the charred blocks, houses completely leveled except for the small debris of human lives: bricks and scattered garbage and rusted-out bedsprings and cinder blocks.
Crowds are gathering along the street for the St. Patrick's Day Parade, which is being held here two weeks before the holiday. Worried about getting trapped all afternoon, I move my car a few blocks inland. It's during the walk back to the beach that I see it. A sign. There it is in huge letters, painted on canvas that is being attached by two men to a fence in front of the Seaside Towers apartments. The sign reads ROCK JETTIES NOW!
The syntax confuses me for a second but then I get it. It means Give the Rockaways rock jetties, and do it now! I hurry toward the men, who are already climbing back into their double-parked van.
John Cori, the driver, is the founder of Friends of Rockaway Beach, and he tells me his message is meant for Mayor Bloomberg, who will be walking in the parade.
“Look up this coast,” he says. “All the other towns have rock jetties. They deflected the storm, slowed down the waves. Then look at our beach. We need protection, too.”
After he leaves, I walk down the beach and see that he's right. Feeble wooden jetties, like rows of rotten teeth, are all that protect Rockaway Beach. Farther down, rock jetties jut out from wider beaches. Those jetties are the kind of beach-altering armament that Orrin rails against but also the kind that Cori wants.
Back along the parade route, I watch kilted men march and bang on drums. When Bloom-berg walks through there are some cheers, some boos. MAYOR BLOOMBERG: MAKE ROCKAWAY'S BOARD WALK A SEA WALL says another sign along the route. The message is clear. The rich may have gotten it worse down on the Jersey Shore, but here the poor are the ones getting screwed.
WHO CAN BLAME people for wanting to defend themselves? Orrin could, but I doubt he would. Walls may destroy beaches in the end, but in the short term they protect homes. How can you tell someone who lost his house that obstruction of the sea is a bad idea?
While I'm glad that people are starting to open their eyes to the dynamics of living by the sea, I don't expect this change to proceed logically. It's natural for the residents of Rockaway Beach to want to wall off the ocean, just as it's natural for the leaders of New York City to start contemplating much larger walls, defensive barriers at the Verrazano-Narrows, Arthur Kill, and Throgs Neck, structures that would theoretically shield Manhattan in the manner of the Eastern Scheldt barrier that protects the Netherlands.
One thing Orrin has learned over the years: try to convince someone not to protect themselves and you're in for a hard argument. The hope of certainty, of protection and security in this world, is powerful. The hope that you can keep out not just the troubling ocean but something a lot more frightening: the constant uncertainty of life on earth.
But walls breed false security even as they are doing their destructive and disruptive work. Hurricanes are defined by uncertainty. Sue Halsey thinks dunes are the answer on barrier islands, but Orrin remains skeptical. Dunes, like walls, allow us to temporarily ignore the rising sea.
It may be unfair that the Rockaways don't get the advantages of richer towns. But in the end hurricanes are quite democratic. And in the end we are all in the same uncertain boat. New Yorkers will now get to experience the uneasy feeling that people in my state get every summer when hurricane season rolls around. Maybe the only realistic philosophy for those who choose to live near the sea is the one Peter O'Connell espoused back at the Paris Café. All you can do is take your shot.
David Gessner is the author of eight books including, The Tarball Chronicles, about the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.