Hurricane Sandy: An Unfolding Human and Economic Crisis

, Policy Director and Lead Economist, Climate & Energy | November 9, 2012, 11:54 am EDT
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Hurricane Sandy has put climate change firmly on our country’s radar screen. What’s clear is that we are not at all adequately prepared for the risks of extreme weather, especially in a warming world. And our ill-preparedness is devastatingly costly. Can we learn from this and do better?

Losses from Sandy

Lost lives and a lost sense of security can never be reduced to dollars and cents. Nor can we put a price on the lost sense of place so many people feel — for example, those who live near and have enjoyed summers on the New Jersey Shore. But the costs we can count — the destroyed and damaged homes and infrastructure, the loss of valuable possessions — even those are unprecedented.

Insurance industry and other expert estimates put the economic costs of Sandy at $30-50 billion for the East Coast of the U.S. If that high estimate bears out, then Sandy will be the second most expensive storm in the U.S. after Katrina.

And this cost estimate does not include the huge blow that Sandy dealt to Caribbean nations, including Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba. (65 people lost their lives in Haiti and 70 percent of its crops have been destroyed.) Nor does it include the loss of lives or the costs of human pain and suffering. It also does not include costs covered by FEMA, which after Katrina was $2 to $2.5 for every dollar of losses covered by private insurance.

Our vulnerable coasts

Aerial photo of Mantoloking, New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS

More than anything, Sandy exposed how vulnerable we are along the East Coast of the U.S. According to the latest census data, 52 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties (excluding Alaska). 37.3 million people (12 percent of the nation’s population) live in the coastal areas of states stretching from North Carolina to Texas — the areas most threatened by Atlantic hurricanes. We have built our homes, communities, and major economic centers — including the nerve center of our free market economy, Wall Street — in the path of coastal storms, storm surges, and floods.

In 2007, the value of insured property in coastal counties in East coast and Gulf states was approximately $8.9 trillion, with coastal counties in New York and Florida ranking the highest at approximately $2.4 trillion each. Furthermore, as part of the National Flood Insurance Program, taxpayers are currently responsible for $527 billion of insured assets in the coastal floodplain of the U.S.

Sandy’s blow to critical infrastructure

An initial survey of damage in New York City from Hurricane Sandy highlights the vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure like mass transit (subways), power systems, roads, trains, airports, tunnels, and wastewater treatment plants. The closure of the nation’s largest subway system and some of its busiest airports translates into millions of dollars of economic loss.

New York City skyline with extensive blackout after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: David Shankbone

According to the New York Times, “Five of New York’s 14 wastewater treatment plants are in the lowest-lying areas of the city, within the mandatory evacuation zone. When the plants get filled to capacity or flooded, sewage and stormwater mix and bypass the plant, flowing directly into New York’s waterways — and now, into flooded streets and buildings.” Apart from the damage and clean-up costs, this creates conditions that threaten public health.

New Jersey Natural Gas (NJNG) was forced to completely shut off natural gas infrastructure that serves hurricane-damaged parts of the coastal barrier islands and Long Beach Island, because of leaks in the pipelines and subsequent salt water intrusion. This has disrupted service to approximately 28,000 customers and in Seaside Heights, NJ, officials estimate it could take 6-8 months to fix the system completely. With the weather turning colder, NJNG has made a request to FEMA for up to 5,100 electric space heaters and recommended residents move to local Red Cross shelters in the meantime.

Making our country’s vital infrastructure more climate resilient

Our failure, thus far, to limit global warming emissions means that we are already locked into significant climate risks like rising sea levels. We urgently need to take steps to prepare for these risks — including common-sense measures like investing in making our country’s vital infrastructure more resilient.

A 2009 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, gave much of America’s infrastructure a dismal grade of ‘D’. Unfortunately, ASCE gave even worse ratings to infrastructure that is especially critical and/or vulnerable under a changing climate, such as levees, dams, wastewater treatment, and drinking water management.

Seawalls and magical thinking

The tragedy of Sandy has forced us to face new realities and start a conversation that has been long overdue. It has been heartening to see so much news coverage on the need to better prepare for extreme weather events. Some have pointed to gates or walls — which could, in some cases, provide a short- to medium-term coastal defense. But they come at a high cost (well over $10 billion for New York City alone to build protective barriers) and take years to build. And they can adversely affect natural defenses like barrier islands and wetlands.

I fear some of these proposals are also a result of magical thinking: A hope that seawalls and floodgates will deliver us completely from these risks.  And a sense that we can simply adapt our way out of this problem.

Umm… no.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can build an impregnable fortress against incoming climate threats. Sea level rise estimates along the East Coast are very, very sobering and show that the seas are rising much faster here than the global average. In fact, according to a recent paper by USGS scientists, sea level rise on the East coast could be 8 to 11 inches more than the global average sea level rise of up to 3.3 feet by 2100.

Smart climate choices

The extent of projected sea level rise means we will eventually have to make some hard decisions about whether it may make more sense to relocate people and places further inland, rather than trying to fight a losing battle to keep the water out. We have to invest in preparedness and public health measures that will help people cope with the aftermath of megastorms like Sandy and other extreme weather.

Globally, the situation is even more dire: Residents of many low-lying island nations and populous coastal areas in places like India and Bangladesh face a real prospect of becoming climate refugees by mid-century.

We have to also simultaneously invest in solutions that will dramatically lower our global warming emissions. As Scott Mandia has demonstrated using sea level rise estimates from Climate Central, every inch of sea level rise we can prevent matters since even small increases in sea level have an outsize effect on the destructiveness of storm surges.

And we have to make robust investments in the science and the tools (e.g. satellites, weather, and climate data) that will help give us advance warning of the risks we face. NOAA, our chief source of this information, is right now also providing critical data to help recovery and damage assessment efforts related to Sandy.

The true test of our resolve in the face of climate change

Spc. Anthony Monte along with soldiers from the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, New Jersey Army National Guard, mobilized for Hurricane Sandy to provide assistance to displaced residents at an emergency shelter at the Werblin Recreation Center, Piscataway Township, N.J., Oct. 29, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen)

We’re still in the emergency phase of responding to Sandy. People without homes may need to be relocated in the face of cold weather. Restoration of power and cleanup operations are still ongoing. People are still contacting their insurers and FEMA in the hope that their claims will be honored in a timely way.

But what comes next will be the true test of our country’s willingness to face up to the challenge of climate change. Will we continue to deny the science? Or accept magic bullet solutions? Or will we marshal our resources to develop comprehensive climate action plans that bolster the long-term resilience of our communities and our economy?

We, and our children, urgently need a response to climate change that is rooted in science and reality.

Feature image: Courtesy of The National Guard

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