Water, Water, Everywhere

I crave the sea, which explains why I live at the beach. But as was made abundantly clear two and a half years ago, living near the ocean is fraught with danger when, due to forces seemingly beyond the understanding of TV meteorologists and politicians, the ocean rebels against its shores and overflows with a vengeance.

The City of Long Beach is on the westernmost of the Outer Barrier Islands off the south shore of Long Island, at the very southern tip of New York State, bordered on the south by the Atlantic Ocean and on the north by Reynolds Channel. A large house with big trees that was on the corner across the street from my house was demolished after Superstorm Sandy and now I have a fantastic view from my front deck of the opposite bank of the Reynolds Channel. It was especially fun this past 4th of July weekend to watch fireworks from as far away as the north shore of Long Island. On clear nights you can see the Freedom Tower and the colors of the Empire State Building to the west. I’m praying that no one builds on that lot, but it’s waterfront, with a dock, so I am certain that some wealthy person is going to build a massive complex that totally obliterates my current pleasant sightline.

Barrier islands are geologically designed to deter the raging ocean waters from coming up on to the mainland (hence the name “barrier”), so it is unsurprising that Superstorm Sandy – and any hefty hurricane that batters the Atlantic coast as far north as New York – impacted the barrier islands first. They’re SUPPOSED to. Which might lead one to believe that humans shouldn’t build huge developments and expensive homes on barrier islands, but in recent decades they have tended to do so with frequency (and from the inception of insurance companies, they have been charged a premium to insure them). In fact, the charming bungalows of Long Beach’s West End (many of which, as an aside, managed to survive the last “Storm of the Century” in 1938, including mine, which was originally built in 1929) are being replaced by these 3-story monstrosities, some on double lots, because the updated building code requires any new construction in Long Beach to have no living space below eight feet. The New York Rising grant program being administered by New York State is enabling people to raise their houses – I am actually going to be taking advantage of this in the coming months (hopefully), and I’m sure will have plenty to report about it on this blog – but the whole nature of the area is changing. The West End features alternating wide and narrow blocks, and the narrow blocks are barely the width of two normal-sized cars (forget about those big-ass SUVs and minivans – they’re a real tight squeeze). A friend who lives on a narrow block complains that all the new 3-story towers lining the block have made it feel like he’s driving down a canyon. But what is the alternative? Suffer costly flood damage every couple of years? And with rising sea levels, I venture to guess that hundred-year storms like Sandy and the Hurricane of 1938 will probably be occurring more frequently than every hundred years. I suspect I will see another one (or more) in my lifetime, as will my daughter, who has made me promise not to sell the house so she and her potential children will be here for as long as the ocean permits. So of course I have to raise my house, but it will just be a bungalow on cement stilts, basically. That’s what they should have required in this neighborhood, in my opinion, but no one listens to my opinion, especially not about the parking situation. But that will be another benefit to raising the house: MY LONG PARKING NIGHTMARE WILL BE OVER. I’ll actually be able to go out in my car on summer weekends and also can feel comfortable inviting visitors and having parties! I will definitely be investing in a sleeper sofa and a futon when I re-furnish my higher house.

But truth be told, I don’t like to go IN the ocean all that much. I think that disinclination was the result of being stung by a jellyfish when I was about 12, which left a huge red welt down my leg that was on display when I wore my cute mini Nehru culotte dress on the first day of sixth grade. Also, as with my fruit-eating preferences, the water has to be PERFECT in order for me to enjoy a dip: temperature, of course; cleanliness; roughness. And inevitably I will get water in one or both of my ears that will give me a headache, cause endless one-footed hopping and finally trickle out a week later.

I also don’t like the sand, and the fact that you can’t eat anything at the beach unless you want the gravelly crunch in your teeth for hours afterward. And sand can be notoriously hot to walk on, especially the fine white sands of Caribbean beaches and, actually, Long Beach, NY, which has some of the powderiest (word?) sand I have ever trod painfully upon.

As far being ON the water rather than IN it, I can certainly appreciate seeing boats – especially sailboats – out on the waters, and I have enjoyed certain boat excursions I have taken, especially with my friends Wendy and Claude. But even though Claude is an experienced boatman and I always feel safe sailing with him, I am always reminded that boats (like cars) are instrumentalities of death if not handled correctly. Even ferries and massive cruise ships are not immune to disasters at sea (or even on shore, as the deadly Staten Island Ferry incident of 2003 demonstrated).

So why, you may ask, do I love living at the beach so much when I seem to dislike everything about it? The view, for starters. Maybe I’d be better off with a villa high up on a cliff overlooking the Aegean, like my friends Erika and Curtiss (although the climb with groceries or suitcases – or ANYTHING, really – is a bit tortuous). Their villa is within vertical walking distance of a gorgeous beach, but if the waters of the sea overflowed, it’s high enough up the hill to avoid flooding (although I guess a landslide is always a possibility . . . geez, I’m such a doom-and-gloomer sometimes!).

I also love the sound, and the scent, and the freshness of sea breezes. Even though I live two long blocks from the ocean side of the Long Beach barrier island, on most nights I can still hear the pounding surf and smell the sea air. The other night I took the dogs for a walk on the beach (illicitly, as dogs are not permitted on the beach, even after hours, which doesn’t seem right, but it’s certainly not a given that Long Beach dog owners would be responsible enough to clean up after their pets). The blue moon was so big and bright, it was as if there were klieg lights on and the water was glowing from within.

Another weird disconnect between my love of the ocean and my reality is that I’m not much of a fish eater. I like my fish best when it doesn’t taste, well, FISHY. I could take or leave it all – shrimp, lobster, crab, clams, any kind of white fish, salmon, you name it – and yet I am a firm believer that seafood is a legitimate form of protein for humans to eat. Not that fish can’t feel pain; I’m sure they do, despite most fish species having a sort of tiny prehistoric proto-brain. But they exist in such abundance that, if managed properly (and that’s a big “if”), there will always be a replenishment of the supply — barring overfishing and pollution, that is, which are definitely problems. (Check out a really well-done mini-doc about global overfishing in Episode 3 of Season 3 of the HBO Series “VICE”.) And of course I am not talking about marine mammals, which are some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet and should never be killed unnecessarily, for food or anything other reason.

Sometimes when I look out over the little bit of the Atlantic Ocean that I can see from Long Beach (which itself is only a small fraction of the world’s waterways), I marvel at how much water there actually is on our planet, and how beneficial and dangerous it is at the same time. And I wonder why there aren’t more efforts by the world’s engineers to come up with systems for getting water from where there’s too much to where there’s not enough. I was especially thinking about that during the winter, when there was so much snow up in Buffalo and Boston. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some kind of WATER pipeline (rather than oil or natural gas) that could transport all that excess water to combat the drought in California and the western deserts, or to be used to fight wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains? What about more widespread methods of desalination? I’d much rather put my tax dollars behind those efforts than for wars over oil in the Middle East. Before long (as predicted in the Mad Max films), FRESH water will be the most valuable resource on the planet and SEA water will have been the cause of civilization’s destruction. Have you seen those horrifying computer-generated photos of what major cities (including NYC) will look like when they’re underwater? It’s pretty damn scary.

Ultimately, for the foreseeable future, I will continue to live here on my barrier island, hoping that the hurricanes and nor’easters have mercy on me and my house. And I dream of a time when humankind finally figures out ways to work WITH our amazing planet – and the water that covers over 70 percent of it – rather than AGAINST it.

A final thought, from a friend’s Facebook post today:  “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”  Because I’m fortunate enough to live at the beach (at least for now), I can take advantage of the sea “cure” every day.

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