Parkways that become lakes, leaving a trail of flooded vans and cars scattered as so much flotsam?
The Great Neck LIRR station a waterfall?
New Jersey streams transformed into flashflood death traps?
As much as we would like to assign these severe weather events solely to climate change, the reality is, these episodes are not recent occurrences. We have seen these images countless times before and we will see them again.
Weather comes in cycles, and the recent back-to-back events of Henri and Ida are a grim repeat of what seasoned meteorologists have seen over time. Typically, 20 years ago I reported on the heavy rains that assaulted Bound Brook, New Jersey, with two back-to-back tropical storms that hit the area and caused the same devastation Jersey endured during the closing days of August 2021. Over decades I have reported on nor’easters, tropical depressions, hurricanes, and blizzards that have targeted the New York metro area. The neighborhoods may be different but the images are the same. You can make book that versions of these storms will appear again, soon, and often.
There remains much debate among climatologists over how, or whether, climate change has impacted the frequency and intensity of this kind of severe weather. Whether you embrace the idea that fossil fuels and carbon emissions have been behind 21st Century climate change, science reveals that earth has been subjected to climate change for as long as recorded time and countless epochs before then. In truth, were mankind to disappear from the planet tomorrow, climate change would continue to sweep over the empty continents because planet Earth is a dynamic, evolving, and ever changing host to unimaginable forces.
On a far more immediate and local level, tracking the history of storms over the last half century will reveal that our region has been repeatedly pummeled by winds and rain decades before climate change became a current issue. Our consistent response has been to stand transfixed by the enormity of the damage and then move on. It’s time we stopped and recognized that this pattern of weather attention deficit disorder requires us to acknowledge it for what it is along with an appreciation that your Tesla in the driveway and those solar panels on the roof are not going to lessen the impact of the next storm. Their manufacturer created a carbon footprint.
Instead, we need to get serious about how best to mitigate the repeated crises these storms create, and those tactics can get pretty expensive. After Ida, the MTA was cited by media for not routinely clearing the drains in its subterranean mass transit system. Acting MTA head Jano Lieber responded that the MTA was never meant to operate as a submarine. OK. We can check that box of bureaucracy refusing to acknowledge this is going to happen again on their watch. Sad but true. Maintaining and improving existing infrastructure doesn’t make for ribbon cutting ceremonies but you can depend on the likelihood of the parkway flooding in the same location next time. Without a political constituency pushing to clean the storm drains, people will continue to run the risk of drowning in their cars.
Anticipating severe weather can get very granular. Sure, everyone puts those flashlight batteries somewhere in the back of the drawer to cope with the blackout, but how many homeowners who embrace their trees regularly hire a professional arborist to conduct an inspection of their oaks to determine their health and potential failure in high winds.
Diplomats carrying environmental credentials will continue to warn that climate change is upon us, offering up their white papers, forwarding disturbing images of the Arctic, and producing international commitments to reduce greenhouse gases by “x” percentage within the decade. And well they should. To be clear, however, without an uncompromising political and community resolve to storm hardening, with a multi-billion dollar budget for making it so, no spirited denunciation of our carbon footprint is going to dry out Long Island after the next storm.
Bill Evans is the co-owner of WLNG, Sag Harbor and a former Senior Meteorologist at WABC-TV