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Lessons Learned from Hurricane Sandy

  • Adam Phillips

The ruins of an oceanfront home destroyed by Superstorm Sandy is scattered next to an existing home in Mantoloking N.J., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013.

The ruins of an oceanfront home destroyed by Superstorm Sandy is scattered next to an existing home in Mantoloking N.J., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013.

October 29, 2012 Hurricane Sandy slammed into coastal areas of the northeastern U.S., leaving thousands homeless and causing more than $65 billion in damage. Rebuilding efforts continue today. Experts suggest what might be done to minimize cost of future extreme weather events due to climate change.

Most scientists agree that global warming is causing the glaciers to melt, which in turn is causing sea levels to rise. That makes coastal areas like New York City vulnerable.

For years, Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, warned that New York’s infrastructure and subway system could be catastrophically flooded during extreme weather.

Because of flood preparation maps he had prepared, much of New York City’s subway system remained dry during Sandy. However, climate change continues to accelerate. Jacob says a barrier system can help in the near-to-mid term.

“The best known is in the Netherlands. Normally those storm surge barriers are open. But when a storm comes, you close them so the storm surge cannot enter into the city. But as sea level rise continues, you have to eventually close those barriers permanently," said Jacob.

Another strategy is to accommodate the rush of water by allowing seawater to course through roadways.

“For instance, in downtown Manhattan we'd have to give up the use of below ground and at ground levels of buildings and will have to live from the second and third floor on and do business. That means both the infrastructure - electricity, water and sewage, communications - need to be waterproofed so they can live and work under these water conditions," said Jacob.

Jacob says one also could connect buildings via above-ground walkways called “highlines.” But in his opinion, the best long term option, at least for Manhattan, is to retreat permanently from the island’s coastal areas to higher ground.

But Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, doesn't think mass migration is necessary.

He criticizes the federal government. For months, partisan squabbling in Congress prevented federal aid money from being disbursed to homeowners whose dwellings were damaged or destroyed.

“Part of the basic function of government is to protect people, and part of what government has to do now is to get in the reconstruction business and do it quickly," said Cohen.

At the same time, Cohen says, humanity must find alternatives to burning fossil fuels that create global warming and the rise in sea levels.

“It’s not only climate change. It’s ecological damage. It’s the cost of it all. And we have to figure out a way to build a collective response to this so nobody goes broke trying to fix it and everybody helps each other," he said.

New Yorkers are examining other strategies for dealing with climate change, including Rebuild by Design, an initiative that combines community input with disciplines like architecture and urban design to protect New Yorkers from future climate events, while beautifying the city.
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