Saturday, January 19, 2013

Superstorm Sandy Contd.

Coastal Disaster: Superstorm Sandy
Steffen Schmidt

One of the topics we revisit constantly in the online Coastal Policy and Politics class I teach every summer are marine and coastal debris. It is one of the consistent issues that interest us from a scientific point of view. It’s also a major concern for ocean and coastal managers. See my blog

For example, USA Today reported, “Officials estimate that [Superstorm] Sandy created more than 10 million cubic yards of debris in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut — enough to fill the old Giants Stadium more than four times.” reports that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has pulled 90,000 potentially hazardous items from the New York City rubble alone.

Day to day human activity produces lots of trash and debris on the best of days. We know about all the plastic bottles, straws, cans and a host of other “stuff” that human beings discard and that washes out to sea and unto beaches all over the US and the world. That’s at the level of concern about “litter” along roads and highways, a problem we have been attacking for decades now with education campaigns, fines for littering, and very organized cleanup efforts.

But then we have the massive and truly challenging debris volume that’s created by storms, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. Here the scale is massive and the cleanup and disposal a true challenge.

Hurricane Katrina created roughly 100 million cubic yards of debris spread out specifically over the city of New Orleans and surrounding towns, the state of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and a number of other states. It’s not just this massive volume of trash and damage that’s daunting. It’s the content of the debris that poses such an enormous challenge.

Human beings produce all kinds of stuff that, when used appropriately and according to label instructions, can be at least tolerably safe. When these things suddenly “go wild” as I call it, there will be deep, deep trouble.

One example is energy. In the past we used wood to heat, cook, and light. That was biodegradable. Now we use all kinds of oils and fuels. And, just think of those new and energy efficient CFL light bulbs that we have all been using more and more and that will soon be the only bulb produced and sold. What if you break one of these?

The Environmental Protection Agency instructions: "Fluorescent light bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. 1. Open a window and leave the room (restrict access) for at least 15 minutes. 2. Remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner. Wear disposable rubber gloves, if available (do not use your bare hands). 3. Place all cleanup materials in a plastic bag and seal it..

WOW! Now think of hundreds of thousands of these bulbs broken by Superstorm Sandy!

US reported that at a Queens, New York park the EPA workers “don full-body suits and gas masks and then attack the toxic soup of debris." Imagine that. A city park so contaminated that it becomes a HAZMAT zone!  The report said that these workers then, “… scramble through the piles of debris to pick out hazardous materials like aerosol cans and electrical appliances. Other EPA workers test the air for a range of hazards including bacteria, viruses and fungal agents, hazardous fumes, and lead paint."

To conclude, the crisis of coastal and beach debris, waste, and garbage is big enough under normal circumstances. Under a sudden crisis scenario such as Superstorm Sandy it becomes an unimaginable task. And Sandy was only one storm in a string of very bad coastal storms and we expect that it was not the last.

Sandy's kinetic energy for storm surge and wave "destruction potential" reached 5.8 on the NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's scale (0-6), the highest ever measured. Sandy caused at least $315 million in damage in the Caribbean and as much as $100 billion in the US.

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Suggested graphic: The "before" and after at Mantoloking, New Jersey or Staten Island New York -
  Run your curser over the picture to see before and after. (see below courtesy NOAA)

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