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Taking Safety Littorally

PASADENA – In 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan’s coastal region. Last year, Hurricane Sandy caused a wall of water to engulf low-lying coastal areas on the East Coast of the United States, particularly in New York and New Jersey. Such catastrophic events underscore the vulnerability of coastal regions worldwide to extreme weather events that produce intense storm surges (increased water depth at the coast) and large, powerful waves.

Although Sandy, at its peak, was only a post-tropical cyclone when it hit the US, its winds spanned an area of 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles), leading to extreme storm surges and waves that decimated the Jersey Shore, flattening communities and destroying the casinos and boardwalks on which the local economy largely depends. At Battery Park, on Manhattan’s south end, the surge height reached 4.2 meters, flooding homes and businesses and plunging millions into darkness. Waves also reached extreme heights, with a buoy near the entrance to New York Harbor measuring a peak wave ten meters high, from crest to trough.

Seven years earlier, Hurricane Katrina struck the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the US as a Category 3 storm. With a surge height of 7-10 meters, and flooding at some locations extending 20 kilometers inland, Katrina caused catastrophic damage to the Gulf Coast, which has yet to be fully repaired. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck near Charleston, South Carolina, with a surge height of nearly four meters. The list goes on.

When coastal areas were not heavily inhabited, such storms, while violent, did not cause significant, lasting damage to people’s livelihoods and lifestyles. But now, with commerce and recreation dominating coastlines worldwide, the “let it be” approach of the past is no longer practical.