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It all adds up: port development on the Great Barrier Reef

The Queensland and Australian government’s draft strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area has been released today. The strategic assessment was prompted by the 2012 UNESCO-IUCN…

Port developments shouldn’t be assessed individually. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

The Queensland and Australian government’s draft strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area has been released today.

The strategic assessment was prompted by the 2012 UNESCO-IUCN reactive monitoring mission. The mission highlighted the possibility of adding the Great Barrier Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger because the number and extent of port developments present a serious risk.

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has said the strategic assessment “is a model where you really begin to look at the deep, long-term cumulative impacts”.

Mr Hunt is right in saying that cumulative impact assessments across the entire Great Barrier Reef are the only way to understand the effects of past, present and future port and non-port impacts at the right scales of space and time.

The government’s assessment and approvals process is not the right vehicle by itself to evaluate the cumulative impact of each new development. That is because it operates at the scale of ports, not at the scale of the reef.

However, environmental impact statements (EISs) will continue to play a key role in the government’s decision making process regardless of the strategic assessment’s outcomes. And although these statements are meant to examine cumulative impacts at the scale of ports, they fail to systematically address all the potential damages.

What’s missing?

Indirect impacts from port developments, such as marine rubbish and increases in shipping traffic and CO2, are rarely considered in EISs. These statements also don’t consider how the impacts of ports combine with all the other past, present, and future port and non-port impacts, such as fishing, runoff, climate change and extreme weather such as cyclones.

The Queensland Coordinator General’s EIS guidelines state “direct, indirect and cumulative impacts must be fully examined and addressed.”

But there is no standard approach to examine cumulative impacts, and no guidance on what impacts should be addressed. This is a serious problem: proponents don’t know how to assess cumulative impacts, and governments don’t know how to judge their performance when they try.

Taking a stab at it

The approaches used by proponents to assess cumulative impacts are neither reliable nor repeatable. Rather, their statements of cumulative impact are often no more than conjecture. There is little attempt to systematically assess the relative magnitude of pressures, or the additive, synergistic and antagonistic interactions between multiple pressures.

Here is an example from the Townsville Marine Precinct Project EIS, approved in March 2010:

Impacts from future developments related to the [Townsville Marine Precinct Project] and of relevance to this cumulative impact assessment are not able to be quantified and, accordingly, it is appropriate to examine cumulative impacts across all developments from a qualitative perspective.

It is hard for proponents and environmental consultants to assess cumulative impacts because commercial motivations stop them sharing project information and baseline and monitoring data. This secrecy persists because there is no requirement for data associated with EISs to be publicly available.

Even when information is shared by proponents, the assessment of cumulative impacts remains weak.

The Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt and the Queensland Coordinator General’s Department have an opportunity to fix this problem without increasing the dreaded “green tape”.

A better way

If our Governments believe that the Great Barrier Reef is important, the bar must be raised. This means:

  • revising the terms of reference of EIS so proponents have to consider all direct and indirect pressures exerted by their projects.

  • developing independent and peer-reviewed guidelines for assessing cumulative impacts in EIS.

  • making project information and baseline and monitoring data associated with EIS publicly available.

Implementing these recommendations would come at minimal effort and cost to both government and proponents. There are precedents for the independent development of guidelines for cumulative impact assessment, and ports specifically. Requiring information to be publicly available is cost-effective for proponents as appropriate baseline and monitoring data takes many years (and dollars) to collect.

In the meantime, the Queensland Coordinator General’s Department should effectively administer their EIS guidelines and ensure proponents fully examine and address the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts exerted by their ports.

Given the reef’s iconic status and World Heritage listing, the assessment and approvals process of port developments should be transparent, open and scientifically robust. For the sake of the reef, there is need and scope for cumulative impact assessment in EIS to be vastly improved. No increase in “green tape”, just effective implementation of a model that our Federal Government believes is vital for the reef.

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39 Comments sorted by

  1. Sean Arundell

    Uncommon Common Sense

    Conflict of interest threatens Great Barrier Reef (?) with video - Australian Broadcasting Corporation - Broadcast: 29/10/2013 http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2013/s3879733.htm
    Re article quoting : "It is hard for proponents and environmental consultants to assess cumulative impacts because commercial motivations stop them sharing project information and baseline and monitoring data. This SECRECY persists because there is no requirement for DATA associated with EISs to be publicly available."
    'Secrecy' may also be viewed as Asymmetrical Information http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_asymmetry
    Joseph Stiglitz, george akerlof, and michael spence shared the 2001 Nobel Prize “for their analyses of markets with asymmetric information.” http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/01/10/josephStiglitz_nobel_2001.html

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  2. mike foley

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Glad to see The Conversation looking at the issue of environmental approvals. It is an under-reported area of concern.

    Detialing the potential damage to the environment from development is covered extensively, but the damage can't occur unless governments greenlinght the project.

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  3. John Whelan

    logged in via Facebook

    This is another perfect example where the anti-development forces are lining up against Australia taking advantage of its future mining prospects for the benefit of its people in jobs and mining rents for the State and Federal Governments. No different to Climate Change where anti-industry forces are also working hard to return us to the pre-industrial revolution days. And isn't it interesting where the hames Cook University again is seen as anti-development and where so many anti-developmnent authors are spawned. Tasmania is a great example of what can happen to the whole of Australia if too many of these people are given their heads. Its is little more than a basket case with ever-decreasing employment opportunities. Pity the children of Tasmanians who in the future will have to leave their traditional home to find work elsewhere. What a lovely future is being arranged for them.

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to John Whelan

      John,

      I am not anti mining or anti development but their is no reason other than greed for wanting to mine/develop everything in one generation.

      This is a real problem affecting the great barrier reef and our coastline health, not some conspiracy.

      I find the news of GBRMPA board members with mining connections disappointing given the obvious conflict of interest.

      We need to embrace growth in other sectors not rely on mining alone to remain sustainable.

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Agree......let's leave something the ground, if not for the coming generations, then for posterity.

      Aren't these bloody mining companies rich enough already.
      How much is too much.

      Let then invest in other technologies that will actually enhance the planet without ripping it out or digging it up.

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    3. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Yes Stephen,

      The attitude of some mining companies towards other stakeholders also needs review. While at the same time expanding their own operations they also greenwash conservation initiatives that ban or restrict other important stakeholders like farmers and fishers.

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    4. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      For Wade too
      " Agree......let's leave something the ground, if not for the coming generations, then for posterity. "
      " I am not anti mining or anti development but their is no reason other than greed for wanting to mine/develop everything in one generation. "
      Perhaps you both consider mining is a one generation or even a couple of them activity because of the so called recent resources boom.
      Sure it has likely been the biggest yet and why would it not as everything gets bigger with expanding…

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    5. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Greg North

      I can certainly see your points, mining provides us with so much we have taken for granted in our daily lives.

      But I like to think that humans are halfway smart and might make a start on "new" ways to create and manufacture daily used items.]

      We will always have mining in this country, so that's not in dispute.
      Unfortunately there are such things as currents along that 2000 k stretch of water, and accidents are bound to happen - they always do.

      As BHP left a trail of destruction with OK Tedi, and Shell and others destroyed much human and natural habitat in and around Nigeria,

      More and more and more mining means more pollution and destruction - do we really want that?

      Sure 3rd world countries are in for their share......the West can't play the environmental card with much conviction. But at some time too much will be too late.

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    6. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Greg North

      ".....plenty of room for ports and shipping to not have any real impact".
      Really Mr North, you should be ashamed of yourself. The northern half of the GBR, stretching to just south of PNG, is pretty much intact because there are no ports, little agriculture or mining and hardly any people.
      The southern half, from say, Cairns to Gladstone, has all the ports, all the heavy industry (Townsville has three metals refineries and exports heavy metals concentrates like zinc and lead), all the coastal…

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    7. Steve Hindle

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      There is no doubt that the GBR is under severe strain, but it is important not to exaggerate some causes at the expense of more serious problems.
      Greg is correct in that ports and shipping are not the major problems. They tend to get all the attention because they make a far more impressive photograph than dissolved nitrogen or warmer water. Yet it is the invisible problems of fertilizer run off and climate change that are the major culprits.
      The recently released report by the Environment Minister listed the major causes as: "Crown-of-thorns are responsible for 42 per cent of the coral damage. Storms account for 48 per cent of the degradation, while bleaching accounts for the remainder." The Crown-of-thorns outbreak is primarily due to fertilizer run off and the increase in storm damage and bleaching is probably due to the effects of climate change.

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    8. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      Steve, I don't wish to be pedantic but did the Environment Minister really say that? As I read that quote I see that 42% of "coral damage" is down to the Crown of Thorns starfish while storms account for 48% of "degradation". Does this mean that 90% of the 'problems' of the GBR are down to starfish and storms? I don't think so. Of all the 'issues' faced by the GBR, what do you think the percentage breakdown, by priority, should be?
      Each one of the GBR ports is currently undergoing assessment…

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    9. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Steve Hindle

      Hugh I disagree, coastal wetlands that act as important carbon sinks and filtration systems are under severe threat from ports and mines. Destroy these wetlands and see the gbr also suffer. Its all linked directly or indirectly.

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    10. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      Hugh, dale forgets the invasive species impacting the reef through ballast release from the thousands of coal and gas ships that pass through the area.

      They are even allowed to traverse sanctuary zones. Pity rec fishers are depicted as a threat but these ships are not? Oh, that's right, mining interests abound on the gbrmpa board if recent meedja is accurate!

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    11. Steve Hindle

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      Hugh the figures are from a report written by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville and the University of Wollongong
      http://www.aims.gov.au/latest-news/-/asset_publisher/MlU7/content/2-october-2012-the-great-barrier-reef-has-lost-half-of-its-coral-in-the-last-27-years
      I don't approve of the way the ports are being developed and they certainly have an impact on the reef system. However agricultural run off and climate change are causing far more serious problems.
      Here is a link to the reefplan prepared by an independent panel of scientists, the conclusions on page 31 put things into perspective.
      http://www.reefplan.qld.gov.au/about/scientific-consensus-statement/assets/scsu-chapter-1-marine-impacts.pdf

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    12. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      " Really Mr North, you should be ashamed of yourself. The northern half of the GBR, stretching to just south of PNG, is pretty much intact because there are no ports, little agriculture or mining and hardly any people. "
      Other than being ashamed Hugh, you are correct in that for the GBR, north of Cairns there is nothing to justify an industrial port and likely never will be for many a year if ever.
      And yes heading south, there are the issues of agriculture/sediment run off and sediment alone has likely been running off into the ocean since we started having rainfall and flooding in Australia if you want to guess when that started.
      You will find that where ports are and proposed, there is bugger all reef, places as far apart as the Whitsundays with fringing reefs and Lady Musgrave Island largely unaffected.

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    13. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Greg North

      "You will find that where ports are and proposed, there is bugger all reef".
      What are you talking about Greg? Every single port on the GBR coast, from Cairns to Gladstone, has or had coral reef within a kilometre or two - mostly with a name and a surveyed position marked on a map. Are you just armchairing away from some disneyland bloggers club, cruise ship schedule, sherry glass and cigar in hand? The proposed expansion site of the existing Abbot Point coal loader (to become the largest such…

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    14. craig sambell

      environment journalist (ret)

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      Well said Hugh.....you obviously know a bit about the Reef.
      I had 12 years years on the Reef form 87 to 2000 and observed the effects of impacts of both natural and man made.

      Whilst cyclones and crown of thorns have taken their toll, the most serious impacts were from land based developments such as agriculture, mining and urban expansion.

      The cumulative downstream effects resulting in deteriorating water quality from Mosman south.

      In flood, I have seen nutrient laden river outflow plumes stretch from Rockhampton to Cairns depositing sediments and fresh water over thousands of square kilometers of coral reef.

      Coral reefs can only take so much of this before they succumb.

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    15. Lynette Jennings

      logged in via email @iinet.net.au

      In reply to John Whelan

      John it seems to have escaped your notice that Tasmania is a democracy where the will of the majority ie those whom you describe as "too many of these people are given their heads", determine the persuasion of the Tasmanian Government and where the Government seems to have listened to the majority view and acted accordingly. That is democracy and fortunately its the basis of Australia's system of Government. Based on your comment - you seem to wish it was otherwise.

      It's interesting that Tasmania's…

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    16. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      Abbott Point is north of Bowen and the Whitsundays and yes there will need to be additional care re shipping for that terminal enlargement.
      Hay Point is south of Mackay and some 200 km. south of the Whitsundays and again where coal has been loaded for quite a number of years, there being shipping channels.
      Moving further south towards Rockhampton, Gladstone and beyond the reef really thins out and you'll have far greater than a kilometre or two clearance for shipping channels.
      Shipping alone is known to cause minimal if any damage to reefs in comparison to storms and agriculture run-off, natural flood run-offs having occurred ever since rainfall and flooding commenced in Australia.
      So most reefs have not just declined in the last 40 years but have been suffering nature's effects for hundreds of centuries.

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    17. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Greg North

      Greg, I'm amazed that you come back for more. You simply don't understand the stuff you write. You state that: "...most reefs have not just declined in the last 40 years but have been suffering nature's effects for hundreds of centuries." I guarantee that you cannot find a reef scientist in the world to back that statement. It is simply untrue. The GBR Marine Park Authority has reported on the decline in coral cover in the southern GBR over the past 40 years. Yet somehow you believe the opposite…

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    18. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Hugh McColl

      I live on the coast and have seen the effect of river floods myself Hugh and so I do not need to look at satellite images though they might just remind you that flooding and sediment movement is not something from just dredging.
      Where you get the ideas of hundreds of centuries of natures effects being the opposite to observations over just 40 years beats me.
      I do not say that decline has not been observed over 40 years as limited as such observations are as against what has been happening over hundreds of centuries.
      Storm and flood sediment damage is acknowledged even by scientists as being mostly responsible for decline of reefs.

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    19. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Greg North

      Greg, in the early twentieth century, around 1921 I think, one of the first ever international science-based surveys was taken along the GBR. The results are in the library. In the 1960s when the Crown of Thorns starfish first came into prominence, similar sorts of surveys were done over large parts of the GBR. The 'condition' of the Reef (region) was quite similar to how it had been found 40-50 years before. Since the 1970s with the establishment of James Cook University and the Australian Institute…

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  4. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I don’t believe the photo at the top of the article is a port in QLD.

    It is not Hay Point, Abbot Point or Gladstone Harbour, which seem to be the ports most often in the news.

    Regardless of that, there is an opportunity for members of the public to “have a say” in the Great Barrier Reef Strategic Assessment by filling in an online survey run by the Australian and QLD governments.

    http://www.reefhaveyoursay.com.au/

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    1. Jan Arens

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale,
      It is in fact a view over the Wiggins Island coal port development in Gladstone

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Jan Arens

      Yes, that is correct.

      It is a photo of the very early stages of the Wiggins Island port being built.

      However my observations are that ports are not necessarily a permanent environmental problem.

      The permanent environmental problem is the increased human population of the area that occurs with the port.

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    3. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Rubbish dale. Many of these developments have seen wetlands and seagrasseses never return to pre development era's.

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      I have seen ports that have become similar to artificial reefs, and in fact I often go snorkelling along the rock wall of a port where hard coral is now growing on the rocks, and the fish life is similar to a natural coral reef.

      However the ports often increase the local population of people, and also increase inland industry.

      I believe that does most of the damage.

      It becomes extremely difficult to decrease population “growth” or industry “growth”, no matter how much that impacts on the environment.

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  5. Roger Currie

    logged in via Facebook

    Seeney is looking at Bundaberg, significant interest( Clive and Gina ) in the Burrum and Tiaro coal measures , no GBR.

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    1. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Roger Currie

      " in the Burrum and Tiaro coal measures , no GBR. " Not on the land. One could swim from bundaberg to the Great Barrier Reef, or jump in a rubber dingy and the eastern coast current will have you on the GBR in less than 12 hours. No paddles required.
      I don't understand (well I do) why it is so many people think they know so much and yet may never even been there. The coast line, currents, weather systems, climate, population intensity in the region bundy north and so on are self evident.
      Harvey…

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    2. Roger Currie

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Sean Arundell

      Sean you may have misunderstood my comment , i am implying that the GBR boundary ceases at Baffle Creek , however we have GBR corals from Woongarra to River heads. By no GBR , i mean , no federal MNES for Seeney to worry about if he wants a port at Bundaberg.

      We have proposals to mine both the Burrum and Tiaro coal measures.

      www.rogercurrie.wordpress.org

      ps i have lived here since 1975.

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  6. Mountain Ship

    logged in via Facebook

    There are not many ways to influence the outcomes here, politicians will do what they have to do to create income because that's what we all want MORE MONEY in our pocket.

    However if they from your pocket to give to someone else you are left, less than impressed.
    The point is. If the coal development on the Great Barrier Reef destroys the localised nature habitat it is entirely possible to BLOCKADE THE REEF.

    There are only a handful of entrances to the GBR and they can be very easily blocked. NO COAL SHIPS IN, NO COAL SHIPS OUT.

    What the Government and the people do not yet realise yet is how easy it is to take control of the sea ways entering the GBR.

    If you want to bring the Governments to the table blockade the reef. They will be at the table tomorrow.

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  7. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    Where is the photo taken? It looks like ground zero, where everything has suffered bulldozing, and it appears there is substantial modification of the existing environment.

    If it is an estuary, then the soil types and vegetation generally have important, sometimes vital functions in the biological and hydrology processes which occur in the immediate region.

    It used to be that the precautionary principle applied when preparing environmental impact statements.

    The Abbott government's statements about removing green tape are not encouraging when it comes to damage which make occur through future port developments.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Lee Emmett

      Did not read too much did you Lee and then how many development sites, even a suburban housing estate have you been to!

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  8. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer

    I fear that Hugh McColl’s concerns about the GBR are pretty solidly founded. Even though it is a huge, partly segmented system, it is dying the death of a thousand cuts, mainly in the southern parts facing agricultural run-off and port activities. Forty years ago, I spent a few days snorkelling around the reefs of Magnetic Island, and was shattered to discover they were all dead. What obviously had been a vibrant, thriving eco-system, was now dull brown and covered with a fine, uniform layer…

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  9. Edward Cannella
    Edward Cannella is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Zoologist

    Just a few opinions.

    "Green Tape", in a political sense, is a furphy usually preceding a major downgrade in environmental assessment and oversight. Then there is obligatory sales pitch that the new system is so much better and is up to "Worlds's Best Standards" (another euphemism for the lowest achievable standards that has most of the wealthiest proponents are least likely to complain and lobby against the incumbent government).

    The likelihood of and independent peer-reviewed EIS process is…

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  10. Jeremy Tager

    Extispicist

    It is important in thinking about impact assessment to understand how fundamentally corrupt the current processes are. Even at a federal level, which is substantially better than impact assessment at a state level where conflicts of interest are rife, over 99% of all development applications are either approved or deemed not worth considering. In 13 years, only 12 proposals have been rejected. And it gets much worse. Impact assessments are paid for by developers and I have read dozens and never seen…

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  11. Sean Arundell

    Uncommon Common Sense

    It all adds up: Typhoon Haiyan: at least 10000 reportedly dead in Philippine province - The Guardian-2 minutes ago At least 10,000 people are thought to have died in the central Philippine province of Leyte after Typhoon Haiyan
    "The death toll from one of the strongest storms on record that ravaged the central Philippine city of Tacloban could reach 10,000 people, officials said Sunday after the extend of massive devastation became apparent and horrified residents spoke of storm surges as high as…

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