Igor's destruction sends message to coastal communities

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The devastation is astounding in a place where the once-cold waters of the North Atlantic used to break up hurricanes into post-tropical depressions by the time they made landfall. Towns cut off, great chasms in roadways, the army and navy to the rescue -- and people struggling to make sense of it all.

There's a message in Igor's assault on Newfoundland. Something to pick up our attention that has wandered since hurricane Juan smacked Halifax in 2003, since Katrina destroyed New Orleans in 2005 and even as behemoths of unprecedented enormousness keep either roaring by unpredictably or taking random potshots at the east coast of North America.

The point is that we are vulnerable to "100-year storms" more or less every year now -- Newfoundland to Category 1 storms, the Maritimes to Category 2s, farther south to worse, with the ultimate nightmare being a direct hit by a monster on low-lying New York City.

The question is, what are we doing about it? "Is Lady Luck our policy?" asks an article I picked up on the Ecology Action Centre website. The author is Jennifer Graham, EAC's coastal co-ordinator, who's on a campaign to raise awareness about our coastal vulnerabilities and to prod action, with the message that it's going to be cheaper to address this now than later.

Not that awareness is lacking. The rising seas; the uncontrolled development that goes on in some counties of Nova Scotia over wetlands, cobblestone beaches and sand dunes; the vulnerable roads and other coastal structures, including in low-lying areas behind dykes; the exposure of entire towns like Truro, or of entire infrastructures like the Trans-Canada Highway and the main rail line at the top of the Bay of Fundy -- all this is well-enough known, officially and otherwise.

The problem, rather, is with the action part. In Nova Scotia, there's a great, clunking bureaucratic thing theoretically moving towards a coastal strategy. But it involves some 15 federal and provincial departments and agencies, plus the municipalities -- all with their different laws and points of view, some in conflict with each other. The whole thing lacks urgency, political direction, and even a mission statement to protect coastal areas, says Graham. Its scope is too limited and the fact that it's co-ordinated out of the small and cloutless fisheries department is an indication of its low priority, she says.

Some bits and pieces are happening. Halifax Regional Municipality has laid down setbacks for development -- 30 metres back from the high water mark and 2.5 metres above it. Graham says even if the province cut through the red tape and imposed this province-wide, or if other municipalities did it on their own, "it would be a great first step."

There's been federal money trickling through for some pilot projects, mostly marshland reclamation -- the Geological Survey of Canada having estimated that damage to shorelines and property was less during hurricane Juan where salt marshes and barrier beaches were intact. At Pointe-du-Chêne, N.B. near Shediac, they've actually hauled some houses to higher ground. Meanwhile, the Insurance Bureau of Canada has also been funding projects.

Some municipalities other than HRM have also been working at it. In fact, Graham has been on a round of presentations to municipalities -- talking up points like building standards, community emergency plans, construction setbacks, hazard mapping, sewers, dykes and others.

Although municipalities are on the front lines, they're the ones with the least money and jurisdiction. Nevertheless, having the municipalities primed will make "the process go farther faster when it does get going," she says.

As the TV images flow in from Newfoundland showing the effort to construct temporary bridges and roads, the disquieting question is this: How much of this should actually be rebuilt, at least as it was before, if there an even chance that it's going to be whacked again?

In New Orleans, it was the fifth anniversary of Katrina. It was a celebration of rebuilding, but the joy was ambiguous (all the more so as the news was dominated by the BP oil spill). There too, the question hovers: what about the next hit?

It's a question everywhere there's coast. In Nova Scotia, the least we can do is get this bureaucratic process moving faster.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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