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Tim Blagg

Rethink living on the edges

Thoughts on coastal living, storms

Americans have always lived near this continent’s margins — particularly the East Coast.

That’s mostly because of our history.

Back in the early days, colonists from Europe stayed near their source of supply, their lifeline back to the home country.

Transportation was faster and easier by water, so coastal schooners moved goods up and down from Canada to the Caribbean, while others moved north and south on the big navigable rivers like the Connecticut, the Hudson, the Delaware, the Ohio and the Mississippi.

Fishing provided a cash commodity and shipping moved raw materials out and manufactured products in, so ports like Portland, Salem, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Charleston and New Orleans grew faster than land-locked cities.

But more recently, the coasts have drawn Americans out of the heartland and into the giant BostWash megalopolis and its West Coast counterpart Frisco-San Diego. Retirees and others have also driven enormous growth in the Southeastern U.S., more than doubling the population from 1980 to 2003 ... Florida alone grew more than 75 percent during that same period.

There are a number of positive factors in this trend, but there is a serious negative impact as well.

I’m talking about Hurricane Sandy ... and Andrew, and Irene, and Katrina-Rita.

Not only do all those extra people put tremendous pressure on the fragile and crucial eco-systems of the coasts, but they are at risk when large storms come ashore.

That risk is not only to life and limb, but to the economy of the nation.

Irene, for example, roared along the East Coast and then rammed hard into the heart of New England, dumping billions of tons of rain collected during its trip. In addition to killing 56 people, Irene racked up $15.6 billion in damage in the U.S., plus $3.1 billion in the Caribbean and $260 million in Canada.

Some are estimating that Sandy will far surpass those numbers.

In addition, many scientists believe that sea levels will rise steadily over the next century, flooding low-lying areas along our coasts, increasingly putting all that development at risk, even in normal circumstances.

As we hunker down and await Sandy’s arrival, the idea of national zoning rules that might mitigate future damages and loss of life are worth considering.

State laws seem to be helpless in the face of heavy financial and population pressure, and have been unable to prevent even the most outrageous buildings being erected on the sandy beaches of the Atlantic coast.

The question, obviously, is not WHETHER a new and larger storm will come ashore and wreak havoc, but WHEN.

How long are we going to pay the price, in disaster aid and damage to our economy, for this unlimited coastal growth?

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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