News Release: Return to New York

categories: Cocktail Hour


Regular readers of Bill and Dave’s know most of what is contained in the News Release below.  The new twist is that Orrin Pilkey and I are now heading back to New York City, by way of the Outer Banks and Jersey Shore, following the trail of Sandy. Outside Magazine has asked me to write a feature for the anniversary of the storm, and we will be stopping at affected areas and talking to coastal experts along the way. We leave Raleigh-Durham Monday February 25th and plan to reach NYC by the next Friday, the 1st of March.   

Here’s the press release for our trip. Please spread it around this here World Wide Web….

News Release:

           In 2009 writer David Gessner and coastal geologist and Duke Emeritus Professor Orrin Pilkey travelled to New York City to pose a simple question: what would happen if a hurricane hit New York? They toured the city, with Pilkey pointing out how Battery Park would serve as a kind of sluiceway, inviting the waters of the Hudson toward Ground Zero, and how the city’s grided streets would serve the same function of tidal inlets on barrier islands, ushering the storm surge through the city, turning roads into rivers and subway stairs into waterfalls.   

The episode became a chapter in Gessner’s book, The Tarball Chronicles, which came out a year before Sandy hit. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book “brilliant,” and The Atlanta Journal Constitution said it was “a full strength antidote to the Kryptonite of corporate greed and human ignorance.” Now Gessner and Pilkey are planning a return trip to New York City, travelling up the East Coast from North Carolina and studying the damage from the storm. While the Weather Channel might concern itself with the short term action of the storm, Pilkey has always tackled the long term. He is particularly critical of those who re-build in exactly the same spots, helping themselves to federal relief money so they can be ready to be wiped out by the next storm.   

            “What’s remarkable so far is how storms barely slow down coastal development,” Orrin said recently.  “I was down in Florida after hurricane Donna hit in 1960 and people said, ‘Well I guess this is the end of the Keys.’  Of course it was really just the beginning.  They started building even bigger places. When the North Carolina coast started being developed heavily we coastal scientists used to say ‘What we need is a big storm.’ We figured that people would see what a storm did and heed its warning.  But then hurricane Hugo hit and we learned that people start building again as soon as the wind dies down.  Hurricanes have actually become giant urban renewal projects.  The buildings come back bigger than before.  But of course the site they are building on is even more dangerous because the shoreline has retreated landward and the dunes have been damaged.  But still they re-build.  It’s really a form of societal madness.  I can’t put it any more strongly.”

            During their trip, Gessner and Pilkey will check in with how that societal madness is proceeding. By stopping at key spots in the Outer Banks and Jersey Shore they will also be able to touch on every profound issue for the future of the coast—from overdevelopment to the building of sea walls to sea level rise to the re-growth of marshes—while tying these to a particular storm named Sandy.

Orrin Pilkey, by the way, has never been shy with his opinions. “An idiot with a beard,” one politician from the Carolina coast called him. But some see him as a kind of coastal prophet, fighting against over-development. In that role his main message, the one he has brought back from the shore as if carved on sand tablets, is a simple one: retreat. Retreat may not be a particularly stirring motto, especially in times of war, but it is one that Pilkey puts forth ill fortissimo. He firmly believes that the answer is not re-building and not building more sea walls. What, then, is to be done?  The best strategies, he believes, are individual to each place, but generally involve some combination of working closely with nature and withdrawing from the shore. Undermining these answers is a very natural human desire to fight back and a slightly less pure desire for profit, and those who fight against him often sound like the mayor in Jaws, urging everyone to get back in the water.

Long before Sandy, Pilkey understood that the way we build on the coast, and the way we continue to re-build, is a disaster waiting to happen.  At the moment more than fifty percent of Americans now live on the country’s edges, a total of over 153 million people, and an increase of 33 million people since 1980. And those who live on the coast keep building larger and larger homes closer and closer to the sea just as the shoreline is eroding and the sea level rising, not to mention the fact that coastal storms, including most obviously Atlantic hurricanes, are becoming more violent. Long before others did, Orrin Pilkey saw this combination of forces as the recipe for disaster that it is. His view of the coastal ecosystem, and how humans interact with it, is terrifying in its implications. 


See more David Gessner on Sandy at


David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles. He has published essays in many magazines, including the New York Times Magazine, and won the John Burroughs Award for his Orion piece “Learning to Surf.” He taught Environmental Writing as a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, and is currently a Professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he founded the award-winning literary journal of place, Ecotone.

  1. Kimberly writes:

    I am a volunteer with an organization on Long Beach Island, NJ, Alliance for a Living Ocean. Their office and many others on the barrier island, were hit badly by the hurricane. They lost all of their supplies and educational materials for their programs. It would be great if you could stop off on Long Beach Island during your travels to NYC to speak with their Executive Director, Chris Huch, and their board about the impacts they saw during the hurricane and how they, as an environmental organization, are working with other groups on the island to “restore the shore.” You can contact Chris at

  2. Tommy writes:

    Wow, two super heroes in one car! It’s true, when we were kids no one built ON the beach, you used to have to walk to enjoy that ocean view. There was some innate sense that kept building behind the barrier dunes. Now we want to see the shore from our decks, without getting our shoes sandy (sandy – get it!?). “Want” is the wrong word, we demand it. It’s engineers, and calculated risk that’s allowed us to cross the threshold, from sense to folly. Some believe FEMA’s the problem. Pilkey is a BIONEER!!