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Climate Change, Hurricanes and the Fate of America’s Coastal Cities

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Climate author and activists Mike Tidwell argues “we are all New Orleanians up and down the East Coast,” as he relates the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy to the experience of those in the past of similar storms that hit the Gulf Coast. “The fingerprints of climate change are all over this storm” and others, says Tidwell as he joins us from Takoma, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., where the federal government has shut down and life has come to a complete stop as the nation’s capital faces power outages and flooding related to Superstorm Sandy. Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and author of “The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re going now to bring down the music. We’re bringing down the music right now so we can bring you our next guest. We are going to see now if we have Mike Tidwell on the phone. He writes for The Nation magazine. It was posted yesterday, the piece we’re going to talk about, “We Are All from New Orleans.” Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and we’re going to go to him in just a minute. Meanwhile, here in Salt Lake City—we are broadcasting to you, remarkably enough, from Salt Lake City. Again, my colleagues in New York, electricity all cut off. And so, we are broadcasting from where I am on this 100-city tour. We do have Mike Tidwell on the phone right now.

Mike, can you talk about, well, this title, “We Are All from” — “We Are All from New Orleans”?

MIKE TIDWELL: Yes. I think that it’s clear from Hurricane Sandy that we’ve reached the new normal when it comes to Atlantic storms that are so powerful that, you know, our conventional coastal communities just—just can’t be sufficient for that. I mean, the astonishing water we saw in New York City—I mean, you talk to New Yorkers who’ve lived there all their lives, they’ve never seen water in the subways like this. They’ve never seen cars completely flooded in the East Village and power shut down by ConEd. This is the—these are new frontiers of impact, and clearly climate change—the fingerprints of climate change are all over this storm. And as a result, you know, we are all New Orleanians up and down the East Coast. We have rising oceans. We have bigger storms.

We’re going to have to do two things moving forward: one, stop buying fossil fuels that are driving the climate change, of course; but, two, additionally, we’re going to have to start building levees. Unless we want to retreat from New York, retreat from Baltimore, Washington, Miami, we’re going to have to build levees and floodgates. And in the coming decades, much sooner than we ever thought, the East Coast is going to have to be armored with levees and floodgates, much like New Orleans.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Mike, you are author of the book, The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities. In your book, you write, “New York City remains the great sleeping giant of hurricane disaster scenarios. So many mutually reinforcing factors point to catastrophe in America’s largest city that, in many ways, it’s even more frightening than New Orleans. 'The Bobbing Apple' might be the name we use once the perfect storm arrives here.” “The Bobbing Apple.” Mike Tidwell, talk about what we are seeing now and also where you are—you are, what, in Takoma, Maryland—the effect on the—on the coastal—on the whole coast, and what you think—how policy needs to change.

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, we’ve—none of us has seen a storm like this. It’s just so massive. Yes, I live in Takoma Park, Maryland, which is basically the inner suburbs of Washington, D.C. And the wind has been blowing and making a sound not unlike a train for the past 24 hours without pause. We’ve had power outages in this region. We’ve had flooding. The Metro, train and bus services are cancelled for a second day. The federal government is cancelled for a second day. Life in the nation’s capital has come to a complete stop. Similar scenes are being repeated up and down the East Coast, and—and then New York. You know, New York, because of its geography, really is a worst-case scenario if you get the kind of surge that we had late last night. The almost 14 feet of water, of surge water, this broke the 1821 high water mark by several feet—just astonishing.

And what’s also astonishing, Amy, is, you know, we—we don’t typically get hurricanes in Florida in late October. I mean, it’s just two days 'til November, and this massive hurricane struck the United States. That's rare even for Florida and Louisiana. More rare is to get a hurricane that late this far north. I mean, just land-falling hurricanes in the northern—northeastern United States at any time during the hurricane season is rare, but getting one in late October striking New Jersey and New York, it’s the weather equivalent of snow in Saudi Arabia. It’s just completely off the charts and anomalous.

And so, you know, why is it happening? I mean, the president has refused to talk about climate change, but clearly climate change has chosen to speak to them, just days before the election, with this massive storm coming on record sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic, five degrees above normal, a size of a thousand miles in diameter in terms of its area of influence. And this has got to be finally the event that brings our leaders’ attention to policy, our nation’s attention to policy, because we have so little time to get off the fossil fuels that are driving superstorms like this and begin transitioning to a world where we adapt and we use clean, renewable energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Tidwell, explain what causes the surge. I mean, in New York City and the tides rising, the issue wasn’t as much drenching rains yesterday, as reported by my colleagues in the very dark studios of Democracy Now!, but the water rose, and the subway system in many areas was flooded, as is places like Red Hook in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, as well, along Battery Park. What causes this rise in water and the surge, even without drenching rains?

MIKE TIDWELL: Well, rain and wind are normally smaller factors in terms of damage caused by a hurricane anywhere. The real damage, as we saw from Katrina and Wilma and other storms and now Sandy, the real damage comes from the surge tide. A hurricane is a tightly packed, rotating system of wind that’s moving, that’s on the move. And that rotating strong wind is pushing a giant dome of water in front of it. It’s literally pushing a big bulge of water in front of it with those—with those spinning winds. And as those winds hit landfall, it just—it just pushes that dome onto the land.

The problem with New York, New York City has some of the highest surge tide values, what emergency preparedness people call “surge values.” New York has some of the highest on the East Coast. Why? Because it’s right on a shallow part of the continental shelf. As that hurricane got closer and closer to New York, the water got shallower and shallower. And as the water gets shallower, that dome of water in front of the hurricane rises. It has nowhere to go but up, because the water is getting shallow. And then, as it approaches through Long Island Sound and through New York Harbor, it gets funneled. It gets funneled into the East River. It gets funneled into the Hudson River. And again, it has nowhere to go but up. And then you—then we see just how much of New York City is at or just above sea level. All these areas that have been flooded—Battery Park, East Village, along the Hudson—very low-lying. New York itself is a virtual basketcase of sea-level rise vulnerability. And, you know, historically, these kind of storms just didn’t get this far north. The city has survived, but unfortunately, I think that as the Atlantic Ocean gets warmer and warmer further and further north, you’re going to see hurricanes like this more frequently.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Mike Tidwell, for being with us, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, speaking to us actually from Takoma, Maryland, has written a very interesting book, not to mention piece for The Nation. His book is called The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities. He’s just posted a piece at The Nation called “We Are All from New Orleans Now: Climate Change, Hurricanes and the Fate of America’s Coastal Cities.”

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