Like most boys growing up near the shore, I spent a good part of my childhood – and adulthood, come to think of it – constructing elaborate sand castles at the beach.
My friends and I most enjoyed building doomed fortresses just below the high-water line at low tide, and then, when the seas returned, digging moats and buttressing the walls in a frantic but inevitably futile attempt to prevent our palace from washing away.
“We need more sand! Bigger rocks! A deeper trench!” we’d shout, but of course, the waves rose higher and higher until one finally breached the walls, and all was lost.
The next day, we’d be back at it with our plastic shovels and clam shells.
I thought about all this impractical industriousness the other day while viewing some of the damage wreaked by Hurricane Sandy: smashed houses, ripped-up piers and sand-covered roads strewn with debris.
In most media interviews during the immediate aftermath of Sandy and other such storms, homeowners and politicians make an identical pledge: “We will rebuild! It will be better than ever!”
Until, of course, the next tempest.
I’m not suggesting a full-scale retreat from the shoreline or that nobody should ever be allowed to rebuild near the water – but I hope property owners, authorities and insurance companies think longer and harder about the future before repeating the same formula for disaster.
The city of New London made a wise decision after the Hurricane of 1938, which wiped out an entire neighborhood at its southern tip. Officials bought the private waterfront properties and created Ocean Beach Park, today one of the city’s most treasured and popular attractions.
Similarly, the state of Connecticut eventually took title to a former beachfront community in Groton that was also destroyed by the great storm nearly three-quarters of a century ago. That property is now Bluff Point Coastal Reserve, the largest undeveloped coastal peninsula between New York and Cape Cod and one of the most magnificent shoreline parks in all of New England.
You can still see remnants of the old foundations from washed-away cottages.
Without getting into the whole political debate over who is to blame for climate change, the evidence seems incontrovertible that the earth is getting warmer and ice caps are melting, causing the sea level to rise and storms to intensify, thereby further threatening coastal development.
Requiring waterfront property owner to purchase expensive federal flood insurance has to some extent limited reconstruction in hurricane zones, but evidently some well-heeled residents are willing to gamble with no policies and risk losing everything to a big storm.
Making such irresponsible homeowners pay for their losses may be all well and good, but allowing those in especially vulnerable areas to rebuild doesn’t eliminate the government’s need to maintain access, provide services, and all too often, carry out expensive and dangerous rescue missions.
I wouldn’t want to be the official in charge of telling someone whose family has owned a waterfront cottage for three generations that he or she cannot rebuild on the site, or deciding who and how much should be paid for properties deemed uninhabitable.
But if nothing else, Sandy should remind us that sooner, not later, we will have to be making these decisions, or else we become just like kids building sand castles at low tide.