Forget property, now is the time to put your money in sandbags

Because of climate change, sea levels are set to rise.

That will threaten the lives and property of people living by the sea. Drought in one area will be offset by deluge in another area. That will cause rivers to burst their banks. As a result, sandbags are coming into their own

A FEW days ago, the FBI very publicly indicted two guys whose names are not familiar in this country. It’s unlikely you ever heard of either Ralph Cioffi or Mathew Tannin. Yet what these two men did affected and will continue to affect the financial comfort or discomfort of almost everybody in Ireland.

Not that Ireland was on their agenda at the time when, as Bear Stearns hedge fund managers, they talked up financial products that seriously needed talking down.

More than a year ago, when it was clear that the subprime lending structure, like a pyramid scheme, was about to collapse, taking with it the hopes and dreams of millions across the world, these two experienced guys continued to encourage investors to pour more money into their funds. They even claimed — untruthfully — to be putting their own money where their mouth was. The reality, according to the insider trader charges levelled against one of them — Cioffi — this week, is that, at around this time, he actually shifted $2 million of his own money OUT of the hedge fund he was pushing. Without letting on, of course. Because if other investors had known what he was at, it would have dented the confidence he was trying to build up in his hedge fund, promising people that the subprime lending it was promoting would not lead to a big disaster.

A big disaster is precisely what it led to, with Bear Stearns sold off at a bargain basement price while investors lost billions and ordinary citizens in countries like Ireland, which had nothing to do with the disaster, were financially side-swiped by it.

The unfortunates throughout this country who are now paying a €300,000 mortgage on a house worth much less than that will not have their problems eased if Cioffi goes to prison.

If that happens, and if those unfortunates hear about it, they may bitterly conclude that America seems to have the handle on punishing bad bankers, whereas in this country bankers who encourage amateur investors into unwise — or, in the case of offshore accounts — illegal action never seem to end up in Mountjoy.

All of this results from the tendency of highly educated investors to put the money belonging to other people into promising positives rather than certain negatives. The line of thinking behind the subprime mortgage meltdown was that people always need homes to live in, therefore it doesn’t matter if they’re getting money too easily to buy them. That’s a promising prospect.

Now, if anybody wants to invest in a certain negative, the way to go is sandbags. Because of climate change, sea levels are set to rise. That will threaten the lives and property of people living by the sea. Drought in one area will be offset by deluge in another area. That will cause rivers to burst their banks.

As a result, sandbags, a 200-year-old solution to such problems, are coming into their own. QED. Put your money in sandbags. (Or the higher-tech modern substitutes.)

Ten years ago, if someone mentioned sandbags, the mental picture evoked was of lads in the trenches during the two world wars, their guns poking over the top of piled sandbags. They were used in that context because sandbags are a cheap equivalent to concrete blocks.

They’re sufficiently massive to absorb small arms fire, and, once it rains, the sand consolidates so that it does not get displaced by the concussion of an explosion. They’re cheap.

In wartime, all they require is sand, human energy and a good supply of sacks. They won’t cope with a direct hit, but, piled high and densely, they will provide the boys in the trenches with some protection against shrapnel.

The first time I saw them deployed nearer home, I couldn’t figure out what they were or why they were blocking up gaps in a low wall near the sea where I live. Then it became clear that at the winter high tides, those gaps were allowing half the Irish Sea to thunder across the road to shops and houses built in a slight declivity close by.

With every subsequent year since, sandbags have become more and more evident as an aspect of the seafront garden. More sandbags, piled higher.

NOW sandbags have their disadvantages. Particularly for pigs. When the rivers in Iowa threatened, in the past two weeks, to burst their banks, the citizens pulled on their gum boots and joined sandbagging teams.

Those teams started with the filling of the bags, continued with the passing of 50 pound bags from person to person down a long chain, ending with the tight packing of the protective wall at the edge of the river. One man turned the tedium into an odd occasion for people-watching.

“Passing sandbags is a personal thing,” he wrote in an essay about the experience. “You’re face to face with the person passing you the bag, as well as the person to whom you pass it. The line may be 300 feet long. But it’s not long for you. It’s intimate, a three-person event. You take. You turn. You give. You get to know people. Not through conversation, but by the way they hand you the bag — the way they work.”

In some places, the ferocity of the river overcame even the sandbag protective barrier generated by such simple teamwork. That happened in one hog-farming area, sweeping hundreds of pigs into the river. Now, pigs being pigs and by their nature a) rendered buoyant by subcutaneous fat, and b) clever, they swam for their lives, and when they reached an area where the flow wasn’t quite so fast, tried to land. And got shot down. Literally.

Those poor brave pigs, the minute they put their tired hooves onto semi-dry land and tried to climb up the sandbags, were fired upon by militia, the reason being that their sharp-toed feet would cut the plastic and let the sand out.

The limitations of sandbags have spurred a new competitiveness among inventors. (Pig preservation is not a key motivating factor, but might be an unintended outcome.)

Products like the Rapid Deployment Flood Wall (RDFW for short) are being heavily marketed in the aftermath of the worst floods America’s mid-west has experienced in fifteen years.

The RDFW is a hard plastic yoke you store, flattened, so it takes up minimal space. Once a flood threatens, however, you drag it out, set it in position, and open it like one of those boxes supermarkets use to help customers transport four bottles of wine. Once the self-contained compartments are opened, they can be filled with sand, thereafter presenting solid resistance to turbulent rising waters. When the waters retreat, the RDFW can be emptied, folded and stowed away for later re-use.

IDA, Enterprise Ireland and investment managers, please take note. Never mind all that high tech stuff. Sandbags are the way to go.


Dr Sarah Miller is the CEO of Dublin’s Rediscovery Centre, the national centre for the Circular Economy in Ireland. She has a degree in Biotechnology and a PHD in Environmental Science in Waste Conversion Technologies.‘We have to give people positive messages’

When I was pregnant with Joan, I knew she was a girl. We didn’t find out the gender of the baby, but I just knew. Or else, I so badly wanted a girl, I convinced myself that is exactly what we were having.Mum's the Word: I have a confession: I never wanted sons. I wanted daughters

What is it about the teenage years that are so problematic for families? Why does the teenage soul rage against the machine of the adult world?Learning Points: It’s not about the phone, it’s about you and your teen

Judy Collins is 80, and still touring. As she gets ready to return to Ireland, she tells Ellie O’Byrne about the songs that have mattered most in her incredible 60-year career.The songs that matter most to Judy Collins from her 60-year career

More From The Irish Examiner