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Fooling Around With Mother Nature

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A person vaguely familiar with Scripture may mistakenly remember Jesus advising against building a house on sand and in favor of starting with a good solid rock foundation. It is a mistake because, in the pertinent verses, Jesus was offering guidance, not for building but for living, and just used the construction metaphor because it was pretty obvious, even two thousand years ago, to a wise person, that a solid foundation was the essential starting point in the construction business.

Luke 6:46-49 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?   I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

So, how can we explain the rapid, government promoted, beachfront development that has gone on in the USA in the last 50 years?  How can we explain the New York Stock Exchange and associated financial nerve center of the USA being at the southern tip of Manhattan, just a few feet above sea level?  How can we explain all those New York subways below flood stage?  Of course the explanation is that all the great settlements and centers of commercial activity started close to the water because of its importance for transportation. The idea of trekking long distances over land on foot or horseback just wasn’t that attractive so it made perfect sense, for example, that the New York Stock Exchange was born in 1792 under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street and that one of the greatest cities in the world grew from that point. However, at some time, long since passed, it became foolish to maintain that critical infrastructure directly in the path of regularly arriving storms. Lower Manhattan will always be a great tourist center, but it is long past time to move important infrastructure to higher ground. And it is time for the government to stop promoting hazardous beachfront development with “beach nourishment” projects and government flood insurance.

I have always loved creeks, rivers, lakes, ponds, and oceans and had a childhood fantasy of being a well-employed husband and dad living on a lake with a nice dock and boat and with lots of spare time to enjoy it. I fulfilled that fantasy, though our children were well into adulthood, when we built a home on a pond in Blythewood, SC, shortly after my 1999 retirement. Before we built, we carefully examined the topographical maps to make sure that the lowest point of our house was well above the emergency spillway of the dam that formed the pond we lived on. We did not want a water problem. We also took comfort from the fact that utilities were underground in the development and cleared away trees that would be likely to fall on the house in an ice or wind storm.

Before settling in Blythewood, we had briefly considered moving to the Charleston, SC, peninsula. Having lived in Tokyo, the idea of living in town with lots of shops and restaurants and most everything one might need within walking distance was very appealing. As part of the process, I rented a boat at the Charleston Marina and cruised around the tip of the peninsula just checking to see what it all looked like from the water. It looked LOW!  It looked like one giant tsunami or hurricane could inundate the peninsula. It just didn’t seem wise to us to move there.

We left the Blythewood pond six years ago and now live on the Congaree River in downtown Columbia, but well above flood stage, having checked that out carefully before buying. So, although I love the water, I have always sought out high ground for family living.

My conservatism and respect for Mother Nature never had anything to do with global warming or other climate change. Mayor Bloomberg, in the wake of the Hurricane Sandy disaster, issued a statement last week in support of addressing climate change, justifying that position with a prediction that such as Sandy will happen again. Well, I think he is safe in that prediction since destructive storms have been regular occurrences over recorded history and will continue at least for a few centuries or so regardless of any climate change in any direction. But whether global warming and sea level rises are in our future or not has nothing to do with changes that should be made to reduce the impact and cost and heartbreak and suffering of future weather events and other misbehavior of Mother Nature.

The fundamental change we should and can easily make is to stop trying to figure out how to control the sea levels and global temperatures and direct that effort and money to just getting out of the way, moving to higher ground so to speak. We can disperse key infrastructure to higher and less exposed areas not expected to suffer earthquake damage and outside the areas of high frequency of tornadoes and snow and ice storms. And, if individuals and companies can afford to build uninsurable homes and resorts on the beaches and pay for the beach renourishment projects they demand, let them build and nourish, but refuse to spend taxpayer dollars supporting such and make it clear that so doing is at their own personal risk.

There is a proposal now to build a huge storm-surge-blocking gate at the entrance to New York Harbor at a cost of several billion dollars. That shows less hubris than trying to control the level of the sea, but it would be much better, I would argue, to spend that money to move stuff out of the way of Mother Nature than to use it to fight her. We all know it is not nice to fool with Mother Nature. That was common knowledge even 2000 years ago.

Originally Published 11/9/12