Two Years' Time: The Nature of Hurricane Sandy

Radar image of Superstorm Sandy approaching the Northeast, October 2012.  CREDIT: NASA
© Radar image of Superstorm Sandy approaching the Northeast, October 2012. CREDIT: NASA

Building communities that can stand up to the next climate-related disaster is going to take a deep, long-term commitment of will, resources and intelligence.

By Bill Ulfelder, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy in New York

On October 29, 2012 the Northeast took a pounding when Superstorm Sandy came ashore – flooding our communities, putting thousands of homes and businesses in the dark, causing $40 billion in damage and killing scores of people in less than 24 hours. Sandy was a blow to millions. Two years later there are important things to appreciate about what Sandy changed, and what has not changed.

So, what effects has Sandy had in the two years since?

First, we should look at the progress in terms of appreciating the reality of climate change. In New York City you no longer hear a debate about whether climate change is real or not. As Governor Cuomo said, " There is no more time for debate. This is our moment to act." It took Sandy's punch in the face to change the conversation from "Is this real?" to "What should we do?" New Yorkers appreciate our sea levels and temperatures are rising, flooding and storm surge are going to happen again. Just last month more than 300,000 people took to the City's streets for the People’s Climate March to raise awareness and call our leaders to act on climate.
© Damaged homes in New York after Hurricane Sandy, 2012 CREDIT: Bridget Besaw
Second, we are now talking about the important role that nature and natural defenses play in helping adapt in a climate-changing world. Man-made infrastructure used to be the default for most discussions about protecting at-risk communities. Now the public and decision makers better appreciate the importance and relevance of natural defenses like dunes, wetlands, mussel beds, parks, forests and oyster reefs. Science has shown that they can help to keep us safe from future disasters by absorbing floodwaters, reducing wave energy and helping defend against storm surges, with the added benefits of increasing wildlife habitat, absorbing carbon pollution that is the cause of climate change, and making our city more aesthetically pleasing and livable.

Third, New York, as is so often the case in our history, is emerging as a global leader for acting on climate change, carbon pollution and how to adapt. Governor Cuomo recently signed the Community Risk and Resiliency Act into law, which demands that the state consider climate threats like sea level rise, storm surges and extreme weather events when planning state funded and permitted projects. Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to reduce New York’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 by improving city-owned facilities and private buildings. This makes New York the largest city in the world to commit to this goal—charting a long-term path for investments in renewable energy and a low-carbon economy. And smart investments are being made -- buying back homes in vulnerable, low-lying areas prone to flooding like Oakwood Beach on Staten Island where wetlands will replace homes to provide greater protection against climate change; and the Governor's recent announcement to commit $50 million towards natural defenses in Howard Beach, Queens after the City asked The Nature Conservancy to study how built and natural defenses could better protect that vulnerable neighborhood from future storms.
© Natural defenses, such as wetlands, could help better-protect coastal cities. CREDIT: Jonathan Grassi
The fourth major takeaway on Sandy's two-year anniversary is that we are not ready for the next storm. As much progress as has been made, we are still nearly as vulnerable as we were in 2012. If another superstorm headed our way I would expect more people would likely evacuate flood zones, saving lives, but the devastating impacts to homes and businesses would be nearly as significant today as they were in 2012. We must continue to recognize our vulnerability to extreme weather events and appreciate that there is much, much more to be done. It is essential to keep exploring ways to create safer, more resilient and sustainable communities – and nature and natural defenses are key to that future. More people need to move out of harm's way, we must invest in healthy coastlines and natural defenses, and we must learn to live with a wetter world where storms can come and go. Natural defenses are often less expensive, provide flexibility for future choices as we learn more with the passage of time and provide significant co-benefits like clean air and water and recreational opportunities for residents and tourists alike.

We need to accelerate these investments, as it is not a matter of if, but when the next major storm or heat wave will hit. Building communities and a city that can stand up to that next climate-related disaster is going to take a deep, long-term commitment of will, resources and intelligence. It is going to take time to get to where we need to be, and we cannot let the urgency dissipate. That is clearer than ever as we mark two years since weathering the storm.

Tags: Global Climate Change | Green Building | Natural Disasters | New York City | resilience

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