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Despite Risk, Many Residents Can't Resist The Water


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jacki Lyden, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Come hell or high water, these days, it can feel like the same thing. More than half of Americans live within 50 miles of the coast, and still more live by rivers and lakes. What is this primal human pull to the water's edge?

Not everyone lives where they do by conscious choice. Often, it's because of a job or family. But lakefront, oceanfront, riverfront, we want to go there, just like our forebears did. And as Hurricane Sandy made painfully clear, living near the water can present a torrent of dangers as sea levels rise.

So we want to know: What draws you to live by the water? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Pete Townsend joins from The Who, and he'll be talking to us about his new memoir.

But first, living by the water. And let's begin with a call. Dennis is calling from Sacramento, California.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Dennis.

DENNIS: Thank you. I appreciate being on.

LYDEN: So why - Sacramento's not really so near the water, as I recall.

DENNIS: Well, Sacramento is - the Sacramento River is one of the rivers that's always talked about as being right behind the Mississippi as prone to flooding, although it hasn't flooded for quite a while. And I grew up in Sacramento, so the ability to live right by the river where I can see it from my living room window, it was just a draw to watching the blue herons fly around and see the river flow and the boats go by. It's like nothing else. It's really important to us.

LYDEN: It sounds beautiful, and you seem to be living there by choice. You mentioned the Mississippi, which I covered an enormous flood there in the early '90s. It was seven miles across. Have you had that kind of experience in Sacramento?

DENNIS: No, the river has risen. We've seen it rise to where it starts looking like we should be concerned. But it hasn't broke - breached any levies, or overtopped any banks or anything. But then, of course, that's always a possibility. There are several dams on the Sacramento that help control that flood possibility, but, you know, sometimes things can go awry.

LYDEN: All right. Well, thank you for sharing that with us, Dennis. Let's go now to John, who's calling from Savannah, Georgia.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, John.

JOHN: Hey. Thank you for having me on.

LYDEN: Thanks for coming on. So you are living where, near a tidal basin?

JOHN: I live on a tidal creek with marsh, looking out on an island that's owned by the Girl Scouts. So it's basically uninhabited. But it's just an amazing spot, and just watching the seasons change on a marsh is a really unique experience. It's just incredible.

LYDEN: How long have you been there?

JOHN: Thirty years.

LYDEN: And do you ever feel that there's any risk to where you live? It sounds like it's pretty low.

JOHN: Yeah, I mean, when you - well, no, actually, fortunately, we're about 24 feet above sea level. So it's actually pretty high for a coastal area where the house is. And you feel somewhat protected, a little bit, by having marsh around you, also. But, you know, it's risky. I mean, we watched Hugo barreling in, and it turned right at the last minute and unfortunately hit Charleston. But, you know, you just pay attention and have a plan and hope for the best.


LYDEN: OK. Well, thank you. We hope your luck continues to hold, John, there in Savannah.

JOHN: OK, thank you. All right.

LYDEN: But living by the water is not without its risk, and one person who knows more about the risk than most is Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He's been studying disaster risk management for decades, and for many years, he had warned of New York's vulnerability to severe flooding in a major storm. And he lives in Piermont, New York, along the Hudson River. And when Hurricane Sandy hit, he wasn't spared the storm surge.

And thank you very much for joining us, Klaus.

KLAUS JACOB: Thank you very much on having me.

LYDEN: Are you drying out?

JACOB: Slowly, yeah. We got power back.

LYDEN: Well, I don't imagine that you are running around the city saying I told you so, and yet, tell us, you came to live on a river, even though you had been - you were - are a scientist and predicting that the area, with all its coastline, was vulnerable.

JACOB: Yeah. It sounds like an irony and contradiction, but it is not. And here's the story. My wife wanted to move to the border, and I didn't. So we compromised. We said OK. We buy the house, even though it's by the water, tidal water, similar to, like, the gentleman from Savannah, John, who lives on a tidal creek.

And we bought the house with one compromise that I insisted on, that we would raise the house. So we bought the house. We were going to raise it, and then we found out that we could raise it only one foot because the zoning laws didn't allow us to raise it higher because it would be too high for the neighborhood. And there was one option to raise it more by chopping off the third floor, which we maybe foolishly, whatever, not did.

And so we really couldn't do the mitigation that we wanted to do and I had planned to do. And talking now to my building inspector and the mayor and others in the village, I think they are now ready to give us that option to raise it beyond what was before not allowed. So...

LYDEN: Right, so you'll be able to go higher and therefore get off of the first floor and move up the...

JACOB: Yeah, and maybe raise it above the 100-year FEMA flood zone. But, obviously, Sandy was smarter than us. And so we suffered about one-and-a-half feet of water in the living room.

LYDEN: Klaus, what exactly was the warning that you had been sounding about New York's vulnerabilities?

JACOB: Well, first, we started a study in New York City that Mayor Bloomberg called upon a science and engineering commission called the New York Panel on Climate Change. And when we did that study, we had an inkling that something wasn't quite right here in New York City for much of the infrastructure in some neighborhoods.

And then the state, when it saw that New York City was really moving along on this, didn't want to fall behind, and they commissioned a study. And so in rapid sequence from the year 2010 to 2012, these two studies came out. And I was in charge of two chapters, namely transportation and communication infrastructure.

And with the help of a lot of Columbia graduate students and one of the engineering professors - a colleague of mine, George Deodatis - we went to work and put a 100-year flood into New York City, and then we asked our first question: Where would the water go?

And we got a lot of help from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to give us all the details of the openings, the subway entrances, the ventilation grades and all these wonderful things. Then we put the students to work, and they calculate how fast the water runs in. And sure enough, the answer was in 40 minutes, most of - actually all of the tunnels that cross the East River and the Harlem River would be flooded.

Lo and behold, Sandy did it, and proved us - unfortunately - right. It's not always a happy ending if you are right.

LYDEN: No, no, obviously not. Well, and yet it seems that we want to be by that water. Let's take another call from Bill. He is calling from another hurricane zone.

Bill, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION from Slidell, Louisiana.

BILL: Yeah, good afternoon, Jacki. Yeah, after even Hurricane Katrina, just living on the water, just the serenity, it's the calmness, it's the peace. I grew up in South Jersey, so I got, actually, family who were minimally impacted by Sandy. But just looking at the pictures of the Jersey Shore is just heartbreaking. But we always come back to the water.

LYDEN: It must bring back - well, Bill, I could ask you a lot of things, but it must bring back memories, number one. And, two, I see you are still on the water.

BILL: Yes. It brings back a lot of memoires. The first thing I was thinking was take it seriously. We've evacuated seven times since we've been down here. In 2004, the military brought me here, and we retired here. And all I kept thinking was take it seriously. This is not, you know, the boy crying wolf. You've got to take these things seriously, because lives are at stake.

You could replace property. And I saw the families, especially over in Staten Island. And just seeing that, it's just, it's devastating and heartbreaking. And, you know, we reach out to them monetarily, do we can to help them out, but you've got to take this stuff seriously. You can always rebuild.

LYDEN: OK. Thank you so much, Bill. And let's go now to Christina(ph), who's calling from Alameda, California.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Christina.

CHRISTINA: Oh, hi. Good morning. You know, I would never - I just don't think I could live too far inland where you couldn't smell the water or know that - you can actually feel, in my basement, when the water table, when it's high tide, my basement floor gets really cold. And I come upstairs, and I said to my neighbor, I said, oh, it's got to be high tide. Check the tide table. My basement's so cold.

So we do have a really low water table. We actually gave - the city gave the shoreline area over to the state, because we couldn't handle the erosion.

LYDEN: And what water are you near?

CHRISTINA: I'm actually facing - I'm next door to Oakland. I'm - there's an estuary in between Alameda and Oakland, and it would Oakland, Berkeley, and then to the right would be San Leandro. But to the near right would be Bay Farm Island, which is also part of Alameda.

And everybody knows the Alameda Naval Air Station. And so we're just this body of water. Like my sister says, I guess we're just a big sand dune.

LYDEN: And you like it that way.


CHRISTINA: Well, the beach - you know, I lived on the beach for 14 years, and the erosion is so bad now that this morning, I was down there walking, and at high tide, there is no beach. I mean, there's just the beach, and then there's just this sheer drop of about eight feet, and the water's lapping against the shore. So...

LYDEN: It continues - thank you so much, Christina. It continues to be this primal pull, living near the water, even when we know that disaster can lurk. And we're speaking with Klaus Jacob, who is a research scientist at Columbia University. If you choose to live by the water, tell us why. Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. We'll be back in a minute. I'm Jacki Lyden. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


LYDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And as we heard, living near water presents a risk, and as sea levels rise, and the risks are increasing, it's easy to ignore the dangers, and we often place ourselves squarely in harm's way. Yet we continue to want to live there.

Let's take another call. We're speaking with Dave, who is calling from James Island, South Carolina. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Dave.

DAVE: Thank you so much. We live here for surfing. My wife and I and my daughter are - we've been surfing forever, and we come here for the waves. Matter of fact, you know, as hard as it is to see these hurricanes offshore, we can't wait for hurricane season to come because the swells are so great.

And, you know, we were some of the folks who got hit by Hugo. So, you know, we're certainly in the bull's eye. But like the last caller from Louisiana said, you know, you have your plan to get out, you know where you're going to go, you keep track. So for us it's sort of a double-edged sword. We keep track with our surfboards waxed and waiting for the swell to come in and then get ready to get the heck out of there if we need to.

So, but it just draws us, you know, and there's nothing better than surfing in a good hurricane swell on (unintelligible) island. It's just - you know, we save our vacation days to be able to do it.

LYDEN: Thank you, Dave. Klaus, what do you make of Dave's willingness to take what sounds to me like a lot of risk? And I also want to hear about what happened to your own home in Sandy.

JACOB: Well, I think what James(ph) is doing is fine. He uses the ocean as entertainment, but if you build structures and infrastructure, that is different than surfing. We have invested billions, actually trillions, of dollars in surf zones, and surfing is fine, but you don't put subways or sewage treatment plants or nuclear power plants or regular power plants in the way of a hurricane if you have no protection.

And that's where our nation is right now. We are unprotected. We have seen it in New Orleans when we even thought we were protected. And the real story is here, that as sea level rises, right now you need roughly a hundred year storm to make a disaster like now we have gone through a week ago. By the year 2100, by the end of the century, on a nice, sunny day, without winds, you will have the water level just about one foot below where Sandy was 10 days ago.

And that will be the new reality. And then you have weather and storms on top of it. And the question is: How does the nation approach this whole issue? Some call for barriers to be built. That may be locally justified for a certain limited period of time, maybe 50, at most 100 years.

But as we still put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we have front-loaded that gun, and the ocean will keep rising, and it will rising above any barrier levels, they will become dysfunctional, as we have seen it during Katrina in New Orleans.

So we have to combine these engineering defenses with smart, coastal land-use policies. We will have to retreat to higher ground where there is higher ground, and we will have to retreat farther inland where there is no higher ground. There is no way that the entire United States can defend itself like The Netherlands has tried to do, and they are struggling with that right now.

LYDEN: Klaus Jacob, thank you so much for joining us. Klaus Jacob is a research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and he's been studying disaster risk management for decades. And we hope that you, yourself, in Piermont, New York, recover well, get the cars replaced, and we're just glad that you are OK. Thank you so very much, Klaus.

JACOB: Thank you for your well wishes, thank you.

LYDEN: And now we're joined by David Ropeik, who is a consultant in risk perception and risk management, and he studies the psychology of risk perception. Last week he wrote a piece for Psychology Today called "Why Do We Live in Harm's Way," which you can find a link to at our website at TALK OF THE NATION. David Ropeik, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVID ROPEIK: Hi, Jacki, how are you?

LYDEN: Doing just fine, thinking about some of these calls. You've been listening, I know. You know, you've heard about why we live there. You've heard about Klaus' warnings. How do we respond to these risks?

ROPEIK: Well, it's actually interesting. I was particularly struck by Professor Jacobs', let me put this politely, justification for taking the risk that he knew he was taking, right.

LYDEN: That's right.

ROPEIK: He did the same thing that all your other callers did. He was living in harm's way, and there were advantages to it, and basically here's how it works. And by the way, I'm citing the research of many smarter people than me. I'm more of a journalist who's read up on this stuff.

LYDEN: All right.

ROPEIK: We talk ourselves into doing things that have benefit, but also risk, by playing down the risk. We want to do risky stuff. I wanted to be on NPR today. I risked my life driving to get here.

LYDEN: Thank you.

ROPEIK: You know, I mean, it's not dissimilar. All over our lives, we do risky things that we know are risky, and we have a bunch of mental tools that allow us to play down the risk and bungee-jump our way through life. And so that's - psychologists call this risk versus benefit. The greater the benefit of a choice, the more mentally we are going to play games, use mental tools, I don't want to be pejorative, to play down the risk, as the professor did living on the water. That's fine, none of my business.

So what are those tools? One is called optimism bias: It won't happen to me.

LYDEN: Right.

ROPEIK: You've heard some of your callers say it. We say it to ourselves all the time with all kinds of risk: The storm will hit up the beach; the flood won't hit me; that guy who said he's 24 feet high, does that feel safer than 22 feet? Well, it didn't during Hugo. It won't happen to me.

A second one is we deny the power of nature by pretending that we have control. You covered the Mississippi flood. You saw the people with the sandbags. People board up their homes. We do all sorts of things - we buy generators, I have lots of friends in New York and Long Island and family who are still without power who protected themselves all sorts of ways and stayed because they thought by doing something they had taken some control over the risk. Well, nature scoffs at that, of course. But psychologically, if we think we have a way of taking control, we can play down the risk in our head and live on the water, which is beautiful.

Then there is a third problem, and it's called the problems - well, I call it we have problems with probability. We have an intuitive sense of how the odds work and probability works. Unfortunately, it doesn't match reality. So many people who live where there's a 100-year flood or a 500-year flood, and I can't tell you how many people have told FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers to get rid of that lousy language, and they persist because they say the law requires them to. It's lousy language, and here's why.

If you think something is a 100-year flood, and it just happened, you've got 99 years before the next one, right?

LYDEN: That's true.

ROPEIK: No, the weather hasn't gotten that memo yet. Probability doesn't work that way. If I flip a coin five times, and it comes up heads over that short a span, the sixth time is just as likely to come up heads, and yet that's not how our intuitive probability works.

That explains, for example, why people who live on rivers are so poor at buying flood insurance. The uptake is very poor in those zones, as well as in places along the coast. Well, we just had Sandy, phew, New York's good for, like, whatever, a decade, a hundred years.


ROPEIK: So, but all of these things - forgive the soliloquy here. All of these things are - it's really important to know this - subconscious. This is - you know, we're talking about here consciously, right, as though it's rational.

LYDEN: Suppressed in our optimism bias.

ROPEIK: Yes, suppressed in all sorts of things that let us do risk choices, but they're innately subjective. And so when Professor Jacob, somewhat naively I think, talks about retreating to higher ground, well, that's going to be hard to do with a third of the population of the planet.

We want to live in these places. We are innately going to want to live in these places. A better way to deal with it is his suggestion and others, building codes, economic incentives and disincentives, zoning codes. There's a beach in Massachusetts - I used to be a TV reporter - that floods all the time during the storms. It just recently did.

The people who have houses that are damaged there can rebuild only if they drive pylons down to bedrock and raise their house 18 feet above the water. OK.

LYDEN: OK, well Dave Ropeik, let's go to a city where people are not going to be able to do that, but neither, I think, are they going to move. Let's check out the optimism bias of Harry(ph) in San Francisco, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Harry, if he's - and I think that perhaps Harry has gone. Let's then go to Ginger(ph), who's calling us from Ashland, Oregon. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Ginger.

GINGER: Thank you, Jacki. I - I'm actually in Central America right now and just outside of Des Moines, but I live in Ashland indeed. I just want to echo some of the things, of course, that people have said. And I also want to mention that I grew up in Minnesota, and so the draw of water, I think, is universal, whether it's salt or fresh. I can smell water from miles away. One of your other callers said something, in fact, you know, nothing like smelling that.

I went to the flood of Fargo-Moorhead in '97, so I also understand that people are very hard-pressed to really take Mother Nature seriously and prepare. In one way, there's no way we can predict. It doesn't matter what the forecasts are like. But I just want to chime in and say it doesn't - to me, it doesn't matter what kind of water it is. That allure and that fascination is pretty universal. So thanks.

LYDEN: But, Ginger...


LYDEN: ...don't go away just yet. When you hear Dave Ropeik say, this is why people do it, and they think it isn't going to happen to them, and you've already witnessed the flood in Fargo, one of the most significant interior floods that we had in the last 15 years, does it all go in one ear and out the other?

GINGER: I don't think so, and I guess - I think there's a lot of context. Freshwater is different from saltwater in the fact that there is some land border in an interior way. At the same time, I think it echoes some of your other guests' comments, is that we believe what we want to believe. And if it hasn't happened to us - our recent memory as a population is extremely short.

So we're ever the optimist. We're Americans. We're going to make it happen. Then something happens. We're like, oh, no, I should have listened to that. So it's - you know, at our core, we're emotional beings. And so there's really going to never be a static response or way, that even if we think we want to react that way, we may not because when it comes down to it, we go with our gut and our emotions.

LYDEN: OK. Thank you very much, Ginger. Dave, I want to take another call if we can, and let's go here to Daniel(ph), who's calling from Treasure Island, Texas.

DANIEL: Good afternoon. I think - I live on a very narrow peninsula, at the very end of it, which means I'm surrounded by water on basically three sides. We're not much above sea level. My home is 16 feet off the ground, but even that's not today, that's eight years ago when my home was built. Now they're building them 22 feet off the ground.

You can prepare, but you can never underestimate Mother Nature. It's - the - I stood - when Ike was coming on my porch and prayed that it would just go 30 or 40 miles down the beach from me, and then I would be on the clean side of the storm, and in fact that's what happened. And unfortunately, for the people on Bolivar Peninsula, another narrow peninsula, their homes were wiped away, literally just nothing. There was nothing left. It is a risk you take, and I don't think that I negated or belittle it or don't know it's possible.

LYDEN: So, Daniel, I just want to jump in. What is the draw of living there then? You're talking about sort of the prayer option, the prayer insurance. It must be powerful.

DANIEL: Yeah. I'm about a thousand feet from the water. I'm not right on the water, but to get up in the morning and to look out and to see that beautiful water and those beautiful sunrises and sunsets and the wildlife, like the other fellow was talking.

There's red-tailed hawk and kites and all kinds of just beautiful bird and waterfowl, and the sound of the ocean at night when you're going to sleep. And my house being off the ground, if there's a good wind, the house sort of sways a little bit, and it's just a - it's a feeling that's wonderful.

But you do have to know to get out. I also survived Alicia in '82 and even Irene or Allison a few years back. And that was just the (technical difficulty) of water falling. I think you have to think of what the Earth looks like from the - from space and know that, you know, this has been going on for a million years.

You can never stop the force of nature. Ike left gashes in the Earth 40, 50 feet wide and literally hundreds of feet long. It's going to happen, and it's going to happen again no matter where you look. You can just tell by the topography of the Earth. You think about the Grand Canyon.


DANIEL: You know, it was cut by a stream, and you look at that beautiful, beautiful thing.

LYDEN: All right. Daniel, thank you so much for calling in from Treasure Island, Texas. By the way, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's just try and get one more call in here. Leslie(ph) is calling from Pensacola, Florida.


LYDEN: Hi, Leslie.

LESLIE: Hi. I just wanted to say that I grew up in coastal Connecticut, so I've lived on the water most of my life. But after having lived through Hurricane Ivan, I would never live on the water again.

LYDEN: And so you finally - you are one who reached the tipping point and left.

LESLIE: I live - my new house is not in a flood zone. It's on a hill. And even then, every hurricane season, as I buy my supplies and get ready, I'm just filled with terror because I never experienced anything like that. And, you know, when the floodwaters go up so that they take out an entire highway bridge, you know, there's no way to prepare for that.

LYDEN: OK. Thank you, Leslie. David Ropeik, you've been listening to a lot of these calls now, and I understand that you and your wife are looking for a home close to the water.

ROPEIK: On the water, and we saw one the other day. It was on a pond, and my wife said, nah, it's not a broad enough view.


LYDEN: So shall we be listening to a thing you say?

ROPEIK: Well, yeah, because I'm just as guilty of being human as the next guy. I'm not saying that it's right or wrong or smart or stupid. What I'm describing are innate truths about - and your listeners and callers are all evidencing all of this sort of stuff - truths about how we work our way through the decisions of our life, and cognition is not perfectly fact-based and rational. And all these patterns do lead us sometimes to put ourselves in harm's way not only on the water, but there are a lot of people living on earthquake zones and under volcanoes and whatnot.

And so because it's innate - and true of me and my wife as much as the next guy. In fact, Daniel was calling from Treasure Island, it sounded like he was on the beach. I wanted to go to the beach, you know?

LYDEN: It did sound like he was on the beach. But I love...

ROPEIK: I love the water. And we love the water. And all of those reasons we love the water, those who choose to live on the water - most of us live there because circumstances have put us there - those are real and valid reasons. But as a matter of policy, the governor of New York, today, asked the federal government for $30 billion to recover because some of what Professor Jacob's suggested in terms of protecting infrastructure hasn't been done. Well, that's going to come out of everybody's pocket.

So we need to look for ways to account for this innate, subjective human nature in the policies that we've set because we're always going to want to live in pretty places.

LYDEN: Including you. Just in 10 seconds, so what are your criteria for your place?

ROPEIK: Affordable, not too far from where I am and high.


ROPEIK: Having a good view.

LYDEN: All right. David Ropeik is a consultant of risk perception and risk management, and he's the author of "Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Dangerous and What's Safe in the World Around You," and he joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. David Ropeik, thanks very, very much.

ROPEIK: Great show. Glad you're having the conversation.

LYDEN: And after a quick break, rock star Pete Townshend joins us. You'll want to stay with us for this. I'm Jackie Lyden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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