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In Harm's Way

The NOAA’s director for Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, Margaret Davidson, explains how communities can best prepare for impending natural disasters and rising sea levels.

By Green Builder Staff

GB: I think it’s important for people to understand the connection that you and NOAA have to the building industry, because I think a lot of people think of NOAA as “those weather people.”
Margaret Davidson
MD: NOAA’s actually small and relatively inexpensive agency that does a bunch of big things. We not only monitor the weather, we monitor everything in the environment around us, from the floor of the deepest, darkest ocean to the surface of the sun. We’re a resource management agency, so we’re involved in the protection of fish and marine mammals and also coral reefs, in conjunction with our colleagues at the state level. We also support transportation, and we’re involved in coastal tourism, coastal construction and a whole range of economic activities. Increasingly we’re involved in wind energy issues, but I think the thing most of your colleagues would be interested in is the nexus between our weather and climate data.

GB: Yes, let’s hear more about that.
MD: I focus on the coast because there are some important issues both for our country and worldwide. Where the population is, so is the money. The U.S. and world’s great cities are on a coastline because of marine transportation. They’re the heart of America’s economy. I live in Charleston, South Carolina, myself, and live at five and a half feet. I want everyone to realize that when I talk about some of these issues, it’s not just a professional interest; it’s actually a personal interest too.

GB: And even if you don’t live there, most people have at least visited the coast.
MD: Everybody loves a coast. Tourism in now the single largest economic activity sector in this country and most of it does take place on the coast. The other thing that’s becoming clear is the cost of bad weather. Tom Friedman wrote a column in the New York Times a while back, saying that scientists had done everyone a disservice by referring to this process as global warming, and that if only we had called it “global weirding,” everyone would have gotten it! We’ve all seen weird weather—hotter summers, colder winters, bigger snowstorms, bigger rainstorms—and we’ve also seen the cost of those disasters grow exponentially. We’ve broken records on every continent and category of natural disasters. Both 2011 and 2012 were both record years. Multi-billion dollar disasters have become a way of life, not an anomaly.

GB: Given inflation, is the cost of these natural disasters an accurate reflection of their severity?
MD: Four years ago we had the 70th anniversary of the Long Island Express, the big storm that hit the Northeast Coast in 1939. It was somewhat similar to Sandy. A guy named Roger Pilkey, Jr. published a paper which talked about this—the change in dollar value, property value and population density. If you do adjust for all those things, if the storm of ‘39 were to hit again in a similar pattern, it would be close to a $100 billion storm. I don’t think Sandy got up to $100 billion, but then again, the numbers aren’t all in. But even when you make the adjustment, [these storms] are costing more. In the U.S., it’s actually crowding out other parts of the domestic budget. These emergency supplementals are traded against public schools, public health, highways—they all come out of the same part of the budget.

GB: And these disasters don’t just affect coastal areas, of course.
MD: Be it coastal storms, floods, tornadoes, drought, wildfire, or even the severe thunderstorms that have been prevalent the last few months, it’s an issue more people are becoming aware of. Another issue, particularly along the coast, is how do we take care of people—the sick, the elderly, the poor—who won’t leave their houses because they have too many dog and cats and won’t take you in the shelter?

 Katrina image NOAAGB: Of course that was a huge issue during Katrina, all the people who refused to leave.
MD: For the last few years, since Katrina, I’ve had to listen to my enlightened colleagues talk about, “How come us rednecks didn’t know better than to live where we lived?” I can’t deny I was slightly amused to see the tone of the conversation change when New York and New Jersey—much more educated and much more important areas, financially and politically—were hit.

GB: What’s changed?
MD: One reason is the cost of disasters, but I also wanted to point out some reasons from the building community. There’s a house in New Jersey that, after Sandy, was the only house left standing. This guy, who was a retired engineer, built the house 20 years ago. His neighbors thought he was a little crackers for building a house with deeper and more pilings, with tie-downs from the pilings all the way up through the roof, and with better shingles and nails that actually turn. Although the cost of building the house was less than 10 percent more than the houses around him, he had to endure ridicule for 20 years before he was proved right.

GB: Let’s talk about construction methods that minimize risks.
MD:The Institute for Business and Home Safety, which is a consortium of casualty loss insurers, now has a full-scale wind tunnel to figure out better building methods and materials, to see if we can fortify our businesses and houses. The answer is clearly yes, and we can do it for only about 5 percent more cost. You can build a safe room in your house for less than $10,000. You can build a safer, stronger building for only about 5 percent more. I just renovated a little house on the marsh that I’m living in and I did some of this stuff myself. I went in and retrofit straps, both top and bottom. I also put on a steel roof because it got me a break on my insurance for fire and wind. I also went a little crazy and did more than that: bamboo cabinets with no VOC; recycled glass countertops.

GB: Why do you think there’s so much resistance, or should I say, denial?
MD:Some people are still not sure about the “climate thing.” Well let me just tell you, we don’t even have to talk about that; we just have to talk about the increase in the number and severity of weather-related events. A chart from Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance corporations, shows that—at least over the last 30 years—there hasn’t been a big increase in geophysical events such as volcanoes, landslides or tsunamis. But there’s a very clear increase in the number of weather-related events, be they hurricanes, tropicals, nor’easters, floods, droughts, wildfires or tornadoes. They’re increasing in frequency and severity.

GB: And sometimes they’re happening in new locations, right?
MD: As an example, when I was growing up in Texas in Forth Worth, I was at the bottom of tornado alley. In the last 20 years we’ve seen them shift to the Southeastern U.S.—where we don’t have cellars but we do have trailers—and we’ve seen them stay on the ground longer. That’s why the more recent outbreaks in places like Birmingham and Oklahoma have been so much more deadly than previous tornadoes.

GB: That’s interesting.
MD:For those of you who do wonder about that “climate thing,” there’s this place called Greenland, and it’s melting at a rate not even imagined by the most catastrophic climate models from 10 or 15 years ago. It’s already shifted the temperature distribution of the Atlantic Ocean, which in turn is shifting the Gulf Stream. For guys who ship stuff across the ocean, they’ve already noticed this and adjusted their trade routes.

GB: Can we talk a little about sea-level rise?
MD: The trend of slow rise, which we’ve been observing for several hundred years, has been dramatically accelerating in just the last decade or so. The Greenland ice sheet alone will add five meters of level to the Atlantic Ocean, and I didn’t even talk about the West Antarctic ice shelf. Fortunately, that’ll have an impact on the Pacific Ocean, which is a much bigger basin, but it could put as much as seven meters in the Pacific Ocean. When we’re talking about our oceans, five to seven meters higher is big.

GB: We’ve seen recent headlines about the North Pole and how it’s turning into a lake…
MD: Oh, and now they’re arguing about whether that’s related to climate change or not!

GB: In articles I’ve read, they say it’s one thing to see it in July, but the real measurement is going to be in September. Do you have any comment on the rate of melting?
MD: I have seen the data, both from NASA and NOAA. Not only are we having a greater rate of ice melt, but when the ice does melt, it’s slushier and more transitory than the permafrost we used to have. Our ability to “re-grow” ice in the winter has diminished, so that exacerbates the melt problem, which in turn exacerbates the shoreline erosion problem. A simple understanding of statistics would suggest that it’s a meaningful trend that’s anomalous with the last hundreds, if not thousands of years. You have to go back to 18,000 B.C. to see these kinds of melt rates, when there was a big temperature shift.

 Oregon Coast rising sea levelsGB: If this is accepted as a given in some circles, what are different entities doing to prepare?
MD: Wherever the Navy and Marines have coastal facilities, they take this issue very seriously. Major ports do, too: New York, New Jersey, all the big boys are already on board because it’s not a question of if, but when. New York City had been preparing for more flooding in their subway—that’s why they already had some giant balloons in place, so they could keep water out of the subway.

GB:And someone has to pay for all of this.
MD: It’s the other big issue in the construction trade. This past July, you may have noticed, brought us the Flood Insurance Reform Act. For some reason, the people in New York and New Jersey are less adamant about flood reform now than they were back last summer, and they’ve united with some of my colleagues down on the Gulf Coast to roll down the actuarial pricing on flood insurance policies on the coast. In the meantime, for every one of you who doesn’t live on the coast, thank you for subsidizing my way of life on the beautiful and scenic coast. So, we know how to buy down flood risk. Flood insurance is one way.

GB: If anyone follows the financial headlines, they’re seeing that the insurance industry is starting to require certain development practices. Do you see that being as big an influence, if not bigger, than any other influence out there?

MD: I think that the conversation, hopefully inside D.C., is beginning to change, partially because the reinsurance and some of the big insurance companies—and some of the other big financial interests like JPMorgan Chase—are paying attention. One of my colleagues at the U.S. Chamber will not talk about “climate” for policy reasons. But they have, however, developed a robust “disaster/community resilience” initiative, and I’ve watched at least two dozen corporate foundations develop new funding portfolios in this theme area as well. When I start seeing Fortune 500 companies and big money brokers come into this space and articulate concerns, I think it changes the dimension of the debate.

GB: And where the money goes, the jobs follow.
I like to say to the young folks, from science to land use planning to construction: this is a growth industry, how to build safer, smarter and more resilient. There’s going to be SBIR monies coming from different parts of the government, and you’re going to see new standards on things funded by the government. Construction and roads contracts are going to require things to be weather and climate resilient.

GB: I couldn’t have said it better myself. What would you say to developers?
Where and how you fight is just as important as the kinds of materials and methods you use. After every major event from natural disasters to oil spills, the Dutch come in and say, “Would you like our help? We know how to do this! We’ve been doing this for a while!” It’s true. The Dutch are the world’s best engineers. After 2,000 years of holding back the sea with a dike, concrete work and constructing a weir for the 10,000-year storm surge, they’ve figured out they have to design with Mother Nature. So they’re now constructing off-shore berms, recreating their barrier islands and marshes, elevating ridges, elevating houses, elevating highways, building floodgates and levies and pump stations and the whole nine yards. They’ve even begun a process of moving people out of low-lying marginal areas, which they’re not going to bother to protect at all.

GB: Are states beginning to reassess, saying, “Maybe we shouldn’t be building this close,” or even just simply saying, “We’re not going to build this close, we’re moving it back”?
Yes, and I even use a tagline I got from one of those people involved in that effort in Delaware: “Today’s flood is tomorrow’s high tide.” All of the states on the West Coast, almost all of the Great Lakes states now, certainly New England down through Maryland, have already addressed these issues related to increased flooding and sea level rise. The state of North Carolina attempted to through very thoughtful study, then the legislature decided to “legislate away” sea level rise. They were subjected to so much ridicule that they decided to push the issue back another five years. In South Florida, even though the governor is opposed to any of this kind of work, the five southernmost counties have banded together to form a Southeast Florida Climate Compact because in South Florida, not a week goes by where someone doesn’t send me a picture of Highway A1A underwater.

GB: When you mentioned Hurricane Sandy, that reminded me of the movement happening in New Jersey and New York on the topic of relocation. They’re telling people, “You know what? You can’t rebuild there.”
We did this after West Valley, New York had a problem. We did this in Greensburg, Kansas. We’ve done this with some small towns in the Upper Red River. I thought it was pretty ballsy and smart of [Mario] Cuomo to arm wrestle people over putting money on the table. We used to have more buy-out money available, both through FEMA, and 20 years ago, through NOAA. I think we’re going to have to do all of it: build smarter and safer, create more resilient infrastructure, and be prepared to help people relocate out of harm’s way.

Margaret Davidson has been an active participant in coastal resource management issues since 1978, when she earned her J.D. in Natural Resources Law from LSU. She later earned a Master’s degree in Marine Policy and Resource Economics from the University of Rhode Island. Margaret served as special counsel and assistant attorney general for the Louisiana Department of Justice and was the executive director of the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium. She joined NOAA as the director of the NOAA Coastal Services Center in 1995. From 2000 to 2002, Margaret also served as the assistant acting administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service. More recently, she was appointed acting director of the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

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