In fits and starts, East Coast adapts to a future full of Joaquins

The states in Hurricane Joaquin’s path experiment with different ways of preparing for more extreme weather

America’s East Coast may be spared the brunt of Hurricane Joaquin, but many states are still girding themselves for heavy rainfall and flooding as the hurricane grazes their coastlines. Governors have declared states of emergency in five states (New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and North Carolina), and other states may also soon be inundated with water.

Joaquin is a harbinger of a future: Climate change and rising sea levels make flooding, heavy rainfall and related extreme weather events far more likely along coasts. Jessica Grannis, the adaptation manager at Georgetown Law School’s Climate Center, said human-induced climate change does not necessarily guarantee more hurricanes for the East Coast. But it will likely produce “a combination of sea level rise and extreme storms that’s problematic from a climate perspective,” she said.

As a result, many of the states in the hurricane's path are preparing for a future full of Joaquins. Officials in East Coast states are mobilizing to guard their coastlines, even in states where lawmakers are reluctant to discuss the scientific link between greenhouse gas emissions and extreme weather.

“It’s happening in different ways, and people are talking about it in different terminology,” Grannis said. “In Louisiana, where you can’t necessarily talk about climate change, people are still talking about sea level rise.” In other states, she says, “some people are talking about sustainability and resilience. We’ve seen a dramatic uptick in that conversation since Sandy."

The conversation has been accompanied by action. Brenda Ekwurzel, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, singled out New York and the surrounding region as an example of where officials “are actively planning around climate change."

In 2013, New York City unveiled a plan, called A Stronger, More Resilient New York, that emphasizes coastal protection as one of its main planks. The plan calls for more bulkheads, tidal gates and other man-made instruments along the coast to protect against surging water levels. But the plan also encourages steps to invigorate natural flood protection, for example, by reinforcing dunes and beaches with additional sand.

Ekwurzel told Al Jazeera that such “natural shoreline defenses" can be more effective than seawalls when it comes to checking floods.

“Healthy barrier island dunes, dune grass, beaches, wetlands, mangroves in parts of the deeper gulf area — these are all really good systems for protecting against storms if you build behind them, not on top of them,” Ekwurzel said.

The politics of the conservative Carolinas may be, on the surface, more hostile to climate change activists, but those states have taken significant steps to protect their coastlines. “Even before climate change was an issue, the Carolinas were some of the leading states in managing coastal resources and making sure that coastal development was not reducing the natural capacity of beaches and wetlands when it comes to storm impacts,” she said.

That has changed in recent years, as climate change has become a partisan issue. In recent years, the state legislature has gotten into the business of revising official sea level rise projections, bringing them closer in line with historical trends.

Still, with unprecedented shoreline retreat and extreme weather affecting many parts of the coast, the overall regional trend has been toward adaptation. That takes many different forms, depending on local politics, available policy instruments and topography. “There’s not a one size fits all approach,” said Ekwurzel. 

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