Just over two months since “Super Storm Sandy” wreaked havoc on the New York York/New Jersey coast and on the very day that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that 2012 was the hottest year ever in the US, I paid a visit to a hand full of towns to see what condition they were in and what rebuilding was taking place. In what often feels like a place that has been through war, what I found were very visible scars and painful damage that will take a very long time (if ever) to recover from. As giant construction vehicles and engineering teams are hard at work stabilizing houses that managed to survive, the real structural-scientific challenge seems to be the rebuilding of beaches and coastal barriers that have been completely wiped out.
As you travel along Ocean Avenue, the standard name for the road that every shore municipality in New Jersey has for the road that borders the beach, you see the massive mountains of sand followed by long stretches of nothing. The nothing is the site of former boardwalks, recreation areas, homes, and sand dunes that once served as protection from the ocean, all wiped away like some giant eraser came down and wiped the canvas clean. The mountains of sand are what is to become the new barriers against future storm surges, which everyone seems to nervously hope will not be as strong anytime soon. What becomes very obvious to any observer, is that if anything like this recent storm hits this coast again in the coming year, the ailing ocean barriers and residents will be easily overtaken and further destroyed.
Moving from town to town on foot and by car, I hear the announcement on a local radio station, “The NOAA has announced that 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the United States.” According to their data, the average temperature in 2012 was one degree higher than the previous record and 3.2 degrees higher than the 20th-century average. In a statement that seemed to be directed especially at those staring at decimated towns like the ones I visited, they went on to say that the data is “part of a longer-term trend of hotter, drier and potentially more extreme weather.”
There is a cruel reality that has mixed with the normally stubborn air that has long kept beach communities alive and rebuilding after major storms. People are salvaging and rebuilding already, either because they don’t feel they have a choice or because they want to show that they aren’t intimidated by extreme weather. The state government makes booming emotional statements of support and commitments to rebuilding what is, among other things, an economically important area. But meanwhile if you’ve seen how easily a “Super Storm” can not only cripple a region but wipe entire towns off the map, it is hard to look at the mountains of sand and the never-ending stretches of destruction and think — this place will be ready for what is to come.