What Hurricane Sandy Means (to Me)

, Senior analyst, Climate & Energy | November 2, 2012, 2:24 pm EDT
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Superstorm Sandy is over and we on the dazed East Coast are left to clean up. The waters are receding and, for those of us not directly hit, the memories will fade as the weeks go by. But in this window when we’re still discovering the incredible extent of its damage and our justified fears are fresh, I want to capture a few of the things Sandy offered up that I think are worth learning from this storm.

Hurricane Sandy has done unbelievable harm.

  • As of today, more than 160 people have died in the U.S., the Caribbean. and Canada. In New York we learn of the loss of a Little League star, a baby, friends walking the dog. The heartbreak is vast.
  • Our cities and towns are damaged and dark, some are devastated: a figure of $30-50 billion in economic losses is in the news, and nearly 4 million people are still without power.

Sandy is something we’ve never seen before, and makes us question what we know about how our world works and how safe we are in it.

  • Sandy was bigger, in some ways stronger, and well outside our experience.
  • I trust that millions like me, following the unfolding storm, experienced surreal moments when a true understanding of the approaching danger – e.g., its growing storm surge – crystallized and pushed aside old ideas about what can and cannot happen to us.

There is neither a bright line connecting this storm to our changing climate, nor the absence of a connection.

Sea level rise provided Sandy with extra ocean water with which to harm our coasts.

  • Rising sea levels, driven by warming oceans and melting land-based ice, gave Sandy more water to drive onto our shores and further inland.
  • Global sea level is rising and at an accelerating rate. And, unfortunately for the Northeast U.S., sea levels are rising even faster along this coast than the global average.

Sandy tested our “fitness” as a society for the 21st century and in important ways we failed.

  • Our cities and towns, our infrastructure, whole sectors of our economy were built by generations past for their climate. We don’t live in that climate anymore.

    Aerial view of the New Jersey Coast on October 30, 2012 (Credit: Sgt. Mark C. Olsen)

  • This past summer most of the country took a test on coping with extreme heat and drought, which many regions and sectors – from energy to agriculture – failed. Before that Irene gave the Northeast a test on preparedness for extreme precipitation and flooding, and an October snowstorm tested the resilience of the region’s electricity grid. How many tests have U.S. regions taken in just the last two years’ worth of extreme weather? How many have we passed? And what does that portend for a future where the tests only get harder?
  • Sandy, our latest test, asked whether major cities and heavily populated coasts were prepared for a big storm on top of today’s elevated sea level. Our answer is no.
  • Sandy’s tidal timing was terrible (overlapping with a full moon and the associated extra-high high tides, and lingering through several tide cycles) but the odds of facing these kind of tides during a storm strike are not. The Northeast U.S. is a populous region heavily concentrated along the coast. We need to be able to handle storms on any given day – especially as rising seas make tides higher still.
  • Sandy drove hard against our infrastructure and critical pieces gave way. Key leaders, like New York’s Governor Cuomo, have been outspoken in recent days about the need to acknowledge this weakness, saying things like “the infrastructure in place along the East Coast cannot withstand the changing climate.”

We’ve got to get ready.

  • Our clean up and recovery should segue into preparedness and building resilience to the next storm. Adaptation is now a critical part of our successful future.
  • We have little to lose and lots to gain by heeding the warning from Sandy and other extreme events. We better equip our communities and critical infrastructure to withstand and rebound from strikes like this. And we break our fossil fuel habit for a clean, independent energy future. Yes, this requires investment. But by contrast, how many crippling impacts are we willing to live through and pay for over time?

NJ Natl Guard Soldiers assist displaced Hoboken, NJ residents on Oct. 31. (Credit: U.S. Army Spc. Joseph Davis)

We’ve got to be honest with each other about what we’re seeing and what it means.

  • This storm reminds us of the essential value of science – not least the science behind what we’re seeing – and demands that we reject efforts to sow doubt about the reality and risk of climate change.
  • It reminds us that the eradication of climate from political discourse in the U.S. has done the whole world a disservice and lost us precious time. Hats off to Mayor Bloomberg for challenging us to see Sandy through the climate lens and be serious problem solvers.
  • It reminds us how much we care about others, about strangers, and how deeply we want to keep one another safe.
  • And it reminds us that there’s a lot riding on us. As David Roberts tweeted during the storm “the Prime Directive in the 21st century is: Be a good ancestor.” Our choices each day shape the future. Whether we’re shaping a future that people we love can cope with is a question that hangs in the air.

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  • James Singmaster, III, Ph. D.

    On NRDC.s Switchboard blog posting by its leader F. Beinecke concerning Sandy(Nov. 2), I have now posted several comments in response to another blog commentor, and i state here briefly the key point for UCS to consider as well. We have to make the sun our sole energy source to get our biosphere cleaned and viable before our organic waste messes bury or burn or poison our descendants off earth. The first step is using the sun directly by getting it to split water to give hydrogen, the clean fuel, using a catalyst (several have been in science reports over past 8 years including one cited in The New Yorker, May 14, 2012 “The Artificial Leaf” by D. Owen concerning work by D. Nocera at MIT. Further direct getting of the energy from the sun is by windmills, solar panels and solar mirror concentrator. Indirect getting of sun’s energy can be done via tree farming to get wood to pyrolyze for that process will expel about 50% of the carbon as a fuel mix and the other 50% becomes charcoal. This charcoal may have a key use to smelt iron ore avoiding messy softcoal mining as well as curbing mercury pollution as burning of soft coal is major mercury pollution route. A reestablishing of Roosevelt’s old CCC program could develop many thousands of new jobs initially in planting new trees along with cleaning much dead forest in Pacific Northwest. The cleaned out trees can be pyrolyzed now if factories for it were setup. The third way again indirectly is to apply pyrolysis to our biowastes including separated sewage solids and much of what goes to useless composting. Yes USELESS as dumped biowastes don’t sit forever but get biodegraded to reemit trapped CO2 and energy to worsen CC/GW needlessly. The pyrolysis process on our biowastes would destroy germs, toxics and drugs cutting huge costs presently encumbered by government rules requiring forever monitoring of dump sites.
    I urge UCS experts to think about this 3 phase plan to make the sun our sole energy source for a sustainable future for our descendants.. J. Singmaster, III, Ret. Environmental Chemist. Ph.D. UCDavis, 75

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      James, Thanks for weighing in and for sharing these interesting ideas. Not being an energy expert, the specifics you lay out are a bit beyond me, but I can certainly get behind the general call-to-action of breaking our fossil fuel reliance and turning to solar and other renewable energy sources. It’s a message worth sharing far and wide — glad you’re sharing it.

  • John Malone

    In the knowledge of how severe this storm was, and that as we speak some agencies are reporting a second storm developing and heading the same way, we MUST force the NRC to adopt a far more proactive role in applying higher safety standards and backup plans for nuclear power stations.

    New Daily is reporting that a nuclear power station went onto alert –

    Any alert is not acceptable risk, it is preemptive of potential disaster and saying the political standard comment of the day, “We must learn lessons from this…” – is not good enough. Hurricane Sandy is the future, and it may only be a sample of more severe storms to come.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      John, thanks for your comments. Our electricity system has certainly shown us, with this storm and during the summer heat wave and drought, that it isn’t resilient enough to the kinds of extreme events we can expect more of. I read this summer in a friends’ blog that the chairwoman of the NRC has instructed her staff to look into “potential climate change impacts that are coming down the road”. A careful assessment on their part would need to include options for making coastal nuclear facilities as safe and secure as possible in the face of major storms — and we should make sure assessment leads to implementation.

  • Thank you. Very well said. As much as I understand political wafflings (due to mob mentality) re: public safety — it IS time to prepare these vulnerable areas for no-nonsense public preparation of what to do for where they live. Hawaii and NW states have tsunami drills and California ‘s prone to earthquakes. Please continue sharing your experience(s) so that we CAN learn to help others while doing no further harm/maintaining safety for all concerned.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Sherry, thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful response. Agreed, we have a lot of work to do, and the fact that there’s more attention and energy focused toward that work today than there has been in years is reason for real optimism. We only wish it hadn’t taken a disaster and all the suffering it brings.