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Sandy's Lessons

Posted: 10/28/2013 10:21 am

About a year ago, many people in the Northeast were busy checking the Weather Channel's web site and trying to guess the likely path of Hurricane Sandy. This week, many of us are looking back trying to assess the experience of the past year and analyzing what went right and what went wrong.

First, the good news: While too many people died, we would have lost many more lives were it not for our first responders and the fact that our community came together and helped each other during a time of great need. Cops, firefighters and emergency workers brought people to safety. Doctors and nurses cared tirelessly for the sick and injured. Neighbors saved neighbors from the impact of the raging storm.

After the storm, families and friends, governments, businesses and nonprofits came together and provided food, clothing and shelter to anyone who needed it. I saw National Guard troops carrying boxes of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) to senior centers and showing people how to use them. I saw teenagers on bikes distributing bottles of water door to door. I saw people from all over the region and all over the country clearing debris from the shore and from the street. I saw the bar on my corner in Long Beach handing out free food to anyone who stopped by. MTA workers struggled night and day, without rest, to keep water out of the subways. They moved the trains to higher ground and worked without rest to quickly restore service to the City and region after the storm.

I watched Governor Chris Christie walking arm in arm with President Barack Obama in the heat of a Presidential campaign, remembering that their first job was public service, not politics. It was all unforgettable and magnificent in its own way. It seemed that this was the real America, a truly great country acting great. One key lesson learned: this is a place capable of enormous generosity and humanity.

Now for the bad news: When the waters receded and the clean-up began, the politicians, profiteers and bureaucrats crawled out of their caves and resumed business as usual. Months of delays in funding the New York and New Jersey's reconstruction resulted. If you had the cash to rebuild your home and didn't have to wait for insurance money to come through, you could quickly rebuild. The wealthier parts of our region were largely rebuilt before summer began. The working and middle class shore communities of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, New Jersey and Long Island are still rebuilding. It took a year for the boardwalk in Long Beach, Long Island to be rebuilt and the boardwalk in Rockaway will not be back for years. Many homeowners who suffered damaged during the storm did not receive funds for repair or reconstruction until late spring. Many families have still not returned to their homes. Some never will.

It remains obvious that we need to develop a new national tax to create a trust fund exclusively devoted to community reconstruction after natural or human-made disasters. Funding must be provided to everyone meeting specific, predetermined, criteria. We need to end the degrading and disgusting spectacle of Congress struggling to pass a new funding bill after every disaster. The fundamental, irreducible function of a sovereign government is to ensure the security of its people. That is why we have governments. If we are attacked, government's job is to organize us to protect ourselves. If our homes and communities are destroyed, government's job is to ensure that we have paid into a fund that can be drawn on to pay for reconstruction. With climate change, increased urbanization and increased population, we are going to see more frequent, intense, and destructive storms. This is a new situation that requires a new funding stream - a new tax - to handle it.

One lesson of Sandy that has clearly been absorbed by this region's people and leadership is that while Sandy may have been our first superstorm, it won't be our last. This past June, Mayor Bloomberg and his PlaNYC team released a $20 billion long-term plan to ensure a stronger and more resilient New York. This is "a comprehensive plan that contains actionable recommendations both for rebuilding the communities impacted by Sandy and increasing the resilience of infrastructure and buildings citywide." Kia Gregory and Marc Santora observed in the New York Times when the report was released that it was:

"...a far-reaching plan... to protect New York City from the threat of rising sea levels and powerful storm surges by building an extensive network of flood walls, levees and bulkheads along its 520 miles of coast... The plan would initially cost about $20 billion, and eventually far more. The city would spend the money on fortifying infrastructure like the power grid, renovating buildings to withstand hurricanes and defending the shore... The proposals, in all, would change the look and fabric of the city, though not until well after the mayor leaves office at the end of the year.... The report details 250 recommendations, including the installation of flood walls and other measures to protect some of the areas that were hit worst by the hurricane in October."

In addition to New York City's plan, shore communities in New York and New Jersey have been changing their building codes, reinforcing shore defenses, and considering a wide variety of measures to protect themselves from future storms and floods. The region is designing and planning beach dunes, engineered barriers and green infrastructure, all which will absorb water and/or storm energy.

The key lesson learned is that the next time we are hit we need to be better prepared. We need to make sure our power lines do not take months to rebuild. Our gas stations must have back-up generators to make sure they can continue to pump fuel when electric power is down. Our entire fuel and energy system must be stronger and be rebuilt with better back-up systems. We need to learn how to close our underwater tunnels and make them water tight during floods. Our back-up generators and utility rooms need to be moved out of the basement. We need to expect and absorb storm surges.

Like most of the world's cities, New York is built by the water. We have invested most of our resources in our dwellings, businesses, infrastructure and public spaces. Not only must we stay here because it is our home and we have an emotional attachment to this place, but we also must stay here because most of us have invested everything we own here and have no where else to go. It doesn't matter if we are stronger than the storm or smarter than the storm; we are stuck with the storm. We are simply trapped in this ring and we have no choice but to learn how to take a punch.

Sandy was a transformative event that changed our view of how the world works. We now have a mental model of what can happen when our shoreline defenses are overwhelmed. The next time we are tracking a storm on the Weather Channel, we'll know what we need to do if the eye of the storm is aimed at us. Moreover, we know that the reason this is happening is because our planet is getting warmer and the probability of more intense and frequent storms is growing. In the long run, the key lessons from Superstorm Sandy are that we must face the reality of climate change and adapt to it.

 

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