Last year, I watched in horror as Superstorm Sandy approached the East Coast. Having lived through the category 5 Hurricane Andrew in South Florida, I knew firsthand the devastation that a massive hurricane can unleash. I knew the fear that so many were experiencing and felt the pain that the storm would leave in its wake. Just as we had once returned to find only vague remnants of our homes, I knew they too would face the same shock that we had lived.
Sadly, Superstorm Sandy lived up to its name. At least 150 people died in the U.S. but the toll on millions of others goes beyond. The storm's winds combined with incoming tides to flood low-lying areas of Manhattan including subways and tunnels. Millions were without power for days, hospitals were evacuated, and the famed boardwalks along New Jersey's coastline were destroyed along with hundreds of businesses and countless numbers of homes.
The National Climatic Data Center estimates the cost of damage caused by Sandy at $65 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina on the list of costliest disasters ever to hit the United States. And while some can and are rebuilding, others stand no chance of rebuilding since their land was washed out to sea.
In the wake of Sandy, we are forced to acknowledge the new reality that our climate is changing. Climate disruption is already changing precipitation patterns, causing sea levels to rise, and increasing the possibility of weather extremes, which means that extreme weather events are likely to be more frequent or severe than they were in the past. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put it well: "Anyone who says that there's not a dramatic change in weather patterns I think is denying reality," Cuomo said. "We have a 100-year flood every two years now."
Higher sea levels have also increased the risk of flooding. Sea levels from Boston to Norfolk, Virginia are rising four times as fast as the global average, making the region vulnerable to flooding and dangerous storm surges. A September report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found flooding was made worse by rising sea levels brought on by climate change and predicted that similar flooding could occur in Lower Manhattan and Sandy Hook in New Jersey every 20-50 years.
The people who survived Superstorm Sandy have reminded us that we are resilient, but why risk life and limb simply because we refuse to take action to limit the carbon pollution that is the main reason our climate is changing? We can cut carbon pollution by using energy more efficiently, cleaning up our power plants and increasing our use of renewable energy.
Climate change threatens us all. For low-income and minority communities, the impacts of climate change are even more serious. Millions of Latinos live in areas that fail to meet air quality standards and Latino and African-American communities are often subjected to industrial pollution first hand, living next to coal-fired power plants. When it comes to extreme weather events driven by climate change including heat waves, powerful storms, drought, and wildfires, these communities often are on the front lines.
Emergency response and evacuation efforts during Sandy proved challenging for communities with limited English proficiency, and post-Sandy recovery resources were often hard to come by for uninsured, undocumented and disenfranchised communities. After the storm, doctors in the Voces Verdes network who work with these communities reported a surge in asthma attacks among patients, as well as other respiratory illnesses which can be especially serious for those with asthma or other chronic respiratory illnesses. For families already struggling to get by these challenges can be devastating.
Sandy presented us with an opportunity to gauge our ability to protect our communities and exposed far too many holes. We must compel our leaders to act by taking action to fight climate change and build needed infrastructure to better protect communities recognizing that a one-size fits all approach may not always work for the most vulnerable.
NRDC has released a list of the top 10 ways our government leaders can take action to make us safer in the post-Sandy world by rebuilding intelligently, ensuring future development recognizes the need to naturally reduce flood risk, protecting critical infrastructure like power plants, water treatment plants, hospitals, and transportation systems, all while we work to address the root causes of climate change. We must start there, by solving the root cause. We owe it to those who have already suffered so much and have a duty to protect future generations from a similar fate.