Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

The 29th of October marks the 5-year anniversary of when Hurricane Sandy first made landfall on the mid-Atlantic coast of the U.S. It comes at a time when Americans are reeling from the unprecedented hurricane season that devastated communities in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Lives were lost, homes destroyed, schools and hospitals among other essential services were interrupted, and energy, transportation and water systems and other infrastructure were fractured. Associated health challenges can be life threatening and have lingering mental health impacts. The ability of homeowners to handle the economic damages is in question given the level of destruction to homes and low take-up rate of flood insurance.  Many homeowners impacted by these hurricanes are falling behind on their mortgages.

Hurricane Harvey may have exposed to flooding more than 160 of EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory sites, 7 Superfund sites, and 30 facilities registered with EPA’s Risk Management Program.

The 2017 hurricane season recovery challenges will sound familiar to those communities who are remembering the devastation Hurricane Sandy wrought.  At that time, multiple weather systems collided and hit one of the most populated places in the mid-Atlantic region.  While the Obama Administration declared Federal disasters in 12 states and the District of Columbia, New Jersey and New York felt the brunt of destruction. Communities lost 159 lives, had 650,000 homes damaged or destroyed and thousands of businesses were forced to close.

The climate change fingerprint on Hurricane Sandy

Before Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Brigantine, NJ, it formed over the Caribbean where it developed into a Category 1 hurricane on October 23, 2012 followed by landfall the subsequent days near Kingston, Jamaica and then the southeastern part of Cuba and Haiti as a Category 2 hurricane. Experts spoke to the climate connection, here, here, and here, and since then we have gained even more ground on the climate change fingerprint on Hurricane Sandy.

Scientists estimate that without climate change driven sea level rise, the footprint of Sandy would have been at least 10% less than observed in New York City, equivalent to $2 billion dollars of damages and an additional 11.4% people affected and 11.6% more housing units flooded.

Just this week, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published new science (reported on here) that finds flooding in New York City due to tropical cyclones will be more frequent and the flood heights will be higher because of rising sea levels. Using a worst-case scenario for sea level rise which combines the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change high-emissions scenario along with newer research on accelerated melting of Antarctic ice sheets, they find that sea level rise in New York City could reach from 3 to 8 feet by 2100 and “500-year” flood events could happen every five years.

UCS’s own analysis When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities looks at the entire coastline of the lower 48 states and identifies communities that will experience flooding so extensive and disruptive that it will require either expensive investments to fortify against rising seas or residents and businesses to prepare to abandon areas they call home.  We found that the extent of flooding associated with the storm surge event from Hurricane Sandy in 2100 under a high emissions scenario, would happen every other week. We also found that hundreds of communities could avoid this type of chronic inundation if we keep future warming below 2°C.  In New York curtailing future warming and sea level rise could spare two New York communities from chronic inundation by 2060 and three to 13 communities by the end of the century—including four boroughs of New York City.

Community recovery

Five years later what does recovery look like?  NJ Resources Project released The Long Road Home, a report that compiles stories by Sandy survivors, facts on the recovery process based on surveying 500 survivors, and local, state and federal recommendations.  It’s a sober reminder of the long road ahead the communities impacted by Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria face when it comes to recovery.

In a step in the right direction, this week NJ Governor Christie announced an additional $75 million for their Blue Acres buyout program for flooded homes to help move people to less risky areas. Buyouts are widely recognized as an essential flood risk resilience tool, but research postSandy has found that improvements can and need to  be made to ensure people truly are better off after the buyout. Additional research indicates we still have a lot to learn on how to do buyouts well, and hopefully the proposal the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is reportedly considering will take these recommendations into account.

Community mobilization

Communities hit by Sandy know these realities all too well and they’re mobilizing and calling for action. A few examples include:

  • In NYC communities are mobilizing around #Sandy5 and will march in NYC on October 28 to demand action by their elected officials.
  • In New Jersey:
    • NJ Future convened the Shore of the Future symposium to underscore the need for a regional approach to coastal resilience as well as state actions the new governor can take in the face of climate change
    • Floodplain managers are convening for their 13th annual conference around changes under the Trump Administration to federal agencies and policies as well as the change that will come with the upcoming election of their new governor.

These efforts are a call to action at all levels government, but particularly the federal government. So what’s this Administration doing?

As warnings on climate change risks soar, the Trump administration’s actions place the nation in peril

The Sandy anniversary comes at a time when we not only could not imagine the 2017 hurricane season,  but we also could not have imagined the vast degree of President Trump’s roll backs on climate change policy including pulling the U.S out of the Paris Accord and repealing the Clean Power Plan.

In the first six months of this administration, UCS tracked the vast efforts to sideline science including stacking heads of federal agencies with climate deniers and appointing conflicted individuals to scientific leadership positions. One can argue that the Department of Defense is the last department where federal employees can speak to climate change.

Last month the watchdog for the federal government, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their “high risk” report calling on the need for government-wide action is needed to reduce fiscal exposure to climate change by better managing climate change risks.  This week, GAO released a report on the economic costs of climate change and finds that without climate change in check, costs could be as high as $35 billion per year by mid-century while Zillow’s recent analysis finds that nearly 2 million U.S. homes could be underwater in 80 years if oceans rise 6 feet or higher by 2100.    GAO “high risk” 2017 report includes broad strategic recommendations as well as specific actions to:

  • Protect federal property and resources by federal agencies’ consistently implementing the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (as well as other measures);
  • Under the federal flood and crop insurance programs, build climate resilience into the requirements for federal crop and flood insurance programs;
    • President Trump: released a piecemeal reform proposal to reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program.
  • Provide technical assistance to federal, state, local, and private-sector decision makers
    • President Trump: signed an executive order  revoking executive orders that helped prepare the nation for climate change; encourage private investment in reducing pollution; and ensure our national security plans consider climate change impacts.
  • Under disaster aid, adequately budget and forecast procedures to account for the costs of disasters.

Here’s what an effective national disaster response looks like

In recognition of the size and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy, in just over a month, President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. Led by Sec. of HUD, Secretary Donovan, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force brought together 23 federal agencies and local and state leaders from NY, NJ, CT MD, RI, and the Shinnecock Indian Nation. At the foundation of the task force report was the use of better science and technology to inform decisions in rebuilding efforts and recovery efforts. The task force recommendations included:

  • Promote resilient rebuilding based on current and future risk and through innovative ideas
  • Ensure a regionally coordinated, resilient approach to infrastructure investment
  • Providing affordable housing and protecting homeowners
  • Supporting small businesses and revitalizing local economies
  • Addressing insurance challenges, understanding and accessibility
  • Building local governments’ capacity to plan for long-term rebuilding and preparation for future disasters

Why is this approach a model response for federally declared disasters?  It’s a model that recognized a national response must bring the “whole of government” and communities together, including those who have been historically marginalized. At the core was the understanding that we must plan for the future based on the latest climate science and future conditions. The Task Force also fostered creative, comprehensive, innovative strategies to increase community resilience bringing in all sectors and types of infrastructure. The Task Force also understood that keeping small businesses’ lights on and building the capacity of local governments to plan for long-term rebuilding were both vital to sustaining local economies.

Congressional actions needed

This week the Senate approved $36.5 billion in disaster assistance which comes after a $15 billion disaster assistance package after Harvey and includes $18.7 billion to build up the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main Disaster Relief Fund, $16 billion to the National Flood Insurance Program as well as $1.2 billion for nutrition assistance and wildfire funding.

In contrast, after Sandy, in December of 2012, the administration submitted a $60.4 billion request for supplemental funding for disaster assistance and recovery.  In 2013 Congress approved Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 or the “Sandy relief bill” at $50.5 billion (as well as an additional $9.7 billion in new borrowing authority to NFIP).

As total cost estimates of damages are still coming in, we know the Congressional disaster relief packages to date are just a drop in the bucket. Towns, cities, and states cannot be left on their own to face the costs of increasing their communities’ resilience in the face of climate change.  After the battering one-two-three punch of Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria and on the 5-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Congress must come together on bipartisan actions in the near-term to:

  • Defend science by protecting federal agency budgets;
  • Pass legislation to reinstate the flood risk management standard to ensure federally funded infrastructure is “flood-ready”;
  • Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program to ensure risk based flood insurance rates as well as affordability of flood insurance, science informed flood maps that reflect risk and future conditions including climate change driven sea level rise, consumer protections, and robust pre-disaster mitigation measures that invest in innovative strategies to reduce risk through buy-out programs and nature-based solutions; and
  • Authorize the Department of Defense to invest in understanding and mitigating the risks climate change pose to our national security and our military installations and surrounding communities.

Will Congress take bipartisan action to pass these policies?

The jury is out but the sad reality is that it still won’t be sufficient to address the water that will come. In fact, as we make the case here, we must have a comprehensive strategy to:

  • phase out policies that encourage risky coastal activities;
  • bolster existing policies and funding;
  • and put forth bolder, comprehensive solutions to help communities retreat from risky areas.