Climate change is not a particularly hot topic among residents of Midland Beach, a seaside enclave of middle-class families in New York’s politically conservative Staten Island.
Six months after Superstorm Sandy propelled a 10-foot wall of ocean over the low-lying community, most people are too busy reconstructing their shattered homes and lives to talk about greenhouse gases and extreme weather patterns.
But eventually, they know the subject must come up.
“Maybe this was a blessing in disguise. Maybe it will bring up that conversation, and something good can come out of all this,” says Thomas Cunsolo, an 18-year resident of Midland Beach whose three-story home was totaled by Sandy.
Cunsolo, a 52-year-old retired carpenter, needs no convincing that human-caused climate change contributed to the lethal fury of Sandy. “Any person who really thinks about it honestly has to know the proof is in the pudding,” he says. “Katrina was the first big eye-opener.”
If Katrina was a once-in-a-lifetime storm, Cunsolo asks, “Then how do you explain Sandy? Something’s going on to get these storms to this magnitude. Do we all believe in it yet? Publicly, people aren’t talking about reducing emissions…but they know it’s a big issue that we need to start talking about.”
Experts and scientists overwhelmingly agree.
“I don’t think anybody would try to correlate one event to global warming,” says Tim Barnett, a research marine physicist at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. “But it does make things worse. “With Katrina, Gulf temperatures were the highest on record,” he notes. “That’s what gave Katrina its kick.” Barnett also estimates that half of Sandy’s force can be attributed to global warming.
The probability of bigger storms, meanwhile, “shifted in one direction: the 100-year storm is now a 20-year storm. There’s an increasing probability it will happen again.”
On the morning of October 29, 2012, Cunsolo, his wife Karen, his sister, two sons, daughter, and 18-month-old grandson were at home. And though Sandy loomed on the southern horizon amid talk of evacuations, they weren’t particularly concerned.
“We didn’t think Staten Island would be hit,” Cunsolo recalls. “They cried wolf the year before with [Hurricane] Irene. Everybody evacuated and nothing happened. So with Sandy, we thought, ‘This is baloney.’ ”
By 7:30 that night, Cunsolo had changed his mind. As he frantically packed his family and dog into the car, power went out everywhere. Terrified, the Cunsolos fled, but two-foot-high floodwaters slowed their escape.
“Then I look back in the mirror and see an eight-foot wall of water coming at us,” Cunsolo says. “Only by the Grace of God did we make it out.”
His neighbor was not so lucky: He was still home.
Cunsolo brought his family to a nephew’s house on higher ground. He hoped to rescue his neighbor, but wind, rain and darkness made it impossible. At dawn, he tried driving home, but Midland Beach was under water.
“Trees were down, houses were down, cars were piled up and sand and raw sewage were everywhere,” Cunsolo recalls. He spent the next several hours shuttling shell-shocked neighbors to safe ground. Both evacuation centers he tried had themselves been evacuated, so he opted to drop them at a BP station under construction. “Kids were screaming, people were bloody,” Cunsolo says. Elderly couples were wrapped in blankets and rags.
There was still no sign of his neighbor. Crews checked the house and said nobody was there. Unconvinced, Cunsolo waded through freezing-cold muck to reach the home. His neighbor, hit by a floating refrigerator, had collapsed upstairs. Cunsolo rescued his friend and managed to reunite him with his wife, who was sheltering at their daughter’s house.
The last person Cunsolo saved was a man bleeding from his leg, one hand clasped under his shirt. “He just had a liver transplant and his health aide never evacuated him. I brought him to the firehouse. It was the only thing I could think of. I don’t know who he was, and I don’t know if he made it.”
Human deaths, of course, were Sandy’s bitterest legacy. At least two dozen died on Staten Island, though Cunsolo believes the death toll to be much higher. Either way, the hell and high water unleashed on Midland Beach, like so many communities, affected everyone. It will take years to recover.
Housing was the first crisis. Many homes, now condemned, were buckled or pushed off their foundations. Boilers and electrical systems were corroded by saltwater. Cunsolo’s house was structurally twisted, its foundation footings compromised. Repairs will cost more than tearing it down and starting over. What’s worse, work is stalled due to zoning codes and ever-changing BFE’s, or base flood elevation: the height to which homes must be raised. “Right now, mine is 15 feet,” Cunsolo says. “I’d literally have to take an elevator to my first floor.”
Now, the Cunsolo family, unable to find a space big enough to accommodate everyone, is camped out in two apartments located about 25 minutes apart. Their plight isn’t uncommon: Sandy triggered unprecedented rental demand in New York, with some rents spiking 65 percent.
Some residents have managed to return, but many houses remain empty, some still plastered in synthetic spider webs for a Halloween that never came. Of the 71 businesses that lined Midland Avenue, “maybe 20 are up and running,” says Cunsolo, who has since formed the Midland Beach Alliance to assist Sandy victims.
Midland Beach waits, and languishes, half-empty. Looting is a problem: Copper pipes are often ripped from gutted houses under renovation.
And summertime brings new horrors. “Once it reaches around 80 degrees, the mold is going to spread,” Cunsolo warns. “If one home that didn’t have mold remediation is next to one that did, that home will get infected again. Spores can travel.”
In one report, 420 of 690 households surveyed had visible mold; remediation attempts failed in more than a third.
It’s worth noting that while rising global temperatures warm the oceans, giving rise to more extreme weather events, they also cause the ocean levels themselves to rise, which adds to the destructive effects of storms like Sandy.
In April, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report stating that, “Sea level is rising, and at an accelerating rate, especially along the U.S. East Coast and Gulf of Mexico.”
Average levels rose about eight inches from 1880 to 2009, with the rate increasing from 1993 to 2008, at 65 to 90 percent above 20th-century averages.
“Global warming is the primary cause of current sea level rise,” the UCS warns. “Human activities, such as burning coal and oil and cutting down tropical forests, have increased atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases and caused the planet to warm by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880.”
Global warming, of course, unleashes far more than superstorms and coastal devastation. The grueling impact of climate change has been well documented, and it will only get worse. Heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, rainstorms and blizzards seem to grow more severe each year.
The debate that hasn’t yet hit the shores of Staten Island continues to rage in the political and scientific community. Despite the evidence, a very small minority of scientists and their political allies argue that climate change is not caused by human activity.
Many such opponents balked when President Obama proclaimed in his 2013 State of the Union address that more needs to be done to combat climate change. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen, were all just a freak coincidence,” he said, “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science.”
Critics cite concerns that the government’s attempts to curb emissions will damage the economy and shrink the job market; Forbes columnist Peter Ferrara called Obama’s “threats” a “global warming regulatory jihad” and said his assertion of more severe weather was “a fairy tale.”
Most scientists reject this rhetoric as self-interest masquerading as reason.
“People who make those arguments generally come from the energy industry,” says Barnett. “They are not published in this area. They take facts and twist them, like the era of ‘safe’ cigarettes, when the industry’s men in white coats were just a bunch of yahoos off the street.”
Back on Staten Island, Cunsolo, a registered Democrat who has voted for both parties, insists, “politics are out the window. This isn’t a Democratic or a Republican thing.”
The stormy weather is only projected to worsen.
“We expect that the overall intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic basin will continue to increase with higher sea surface temperature, but there is no strong consensus about how the warming atmosphere and ocean will affect the number of tropical storms,” says Dr. Virginia Van Sickle-Burkett, chief scientist for global change research at the U.S. Geological Survey.
She adds, “There is presently no mechanism for humans to stop global warming, at least for the remainder of this century. Changes that have already been made in greenhouse gas concentrations will continue to warm the climate for decades to come.”
Scripps’ Barnett is equally gloomy. “Sandy destroyed the waterfront with a storm surge,” he says. “Imagine if the normal level was a meter higher. Those beaches wouldn’t be there. At every high tide, the water would run everywhere.”
New York State has offered to buy out homes destroyed by Sandy, and Cunsolo says that option is becoming increasingly attractive. But most people want to stay.
Bad move, says Barnett. “They can rebuild all they want, but it’s the dumbest thing in the world. As the ocean gets higher, it will win.”
Humans, he warns, “are effectively creating another planet, whether we like it or not. And if your kids don’t like it 20, 30 years from now, there’s not a damn thing you can do. The problem is not unsolvable, but greed and power will be the downfall of the human race.”
It’s still too much for many Midland Beach residents to ponder. Even as they rebuild, they’re casting a wary eye on the Atlantic Ocean.
“Hurricane season is just a couple of weeks away,” Cunsolo says, who’s currently working on establishing evacuation routes. “I got people calling me, saying what do we do if we get hit again?”
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