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Three Lessons From Superstorm Sandy

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For those still suffering the immediate effects of Superstorm Sandy -- and facing the onset of winter -- talk of rebuilding is an abstraction, and the task at hand remains the swift restoration of basic services and assistance for those in need. It will take many years and billions of dollars to fully recover and rebuild. But if any good can be said to have come from Sandy's passing, it is that the storm has re-invigorated the national discourse about climate change, hazard planning, and disaster response.

A serious disadvantage faced by communities preparing for catastrophic floods is that human memories are short. When years go by without a big flood, we get complacent and assume that it's not going to happen again. Seeing valuable open space when we look down and clear skies when we look up, we build new homes and businesses in the very flood-prone areas where the old ones were destroyed. Feeling the added expense more than the potential danger, we let our flood insurance policies lapse. We prioritize funding for the next ribbon cutting ceremony and let boring - but cost effective - hazard mitigation investments slip down the priority list. But , in the wake of the unprecedented destruction wrought by Sandy, this time may be different.
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As they viewed the devastation that Sandy had wrought on their constituents, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signaled that the debate over whether to take climate change into account in disaster preparedness was over, at least for them. After touring the stricken region of his state, Governor Cuomo declared, "Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable... It is not prudent to sit here... and say it's not going to happen again." 

After any flood subsides, our natural reaction is to want to rebuild as fast as possible. Everyone wants to help communities get back on their feet and rebuild quickly. But in a world where disastrous weather events that are supposed to occur only every 100 years now seem to happen biennially, it's just as important to make sure that communities are rebuilt better and smarter, so they will be safer and more resilient in the face of the next superstorm.

How do we do that? First, we make certain we're rebuilding in the right places. Floodplains, wetlands, and barrier islands often receive the brunt of the impact from storms and floods because that's exactly how these natural defenses are supposed to work. They provide buffers that can protect lives and property from the impacts of floods and storm surge, often more effectively and much more economically than artificial barriers like levees and seawalls. When we alter and build on barrier islands and floodplains, we compromise these natural defenses and put lives, homes and businesses in harm's way. Wherever possible, flood-damaged communities should consider how they can preserve these natural defenses to provide dependable flood protection. To be sure, preserving or forgoing reconstruction on barrier islands and floodplains are not easy choices to make, as they are often among the most attractive places for community development. But the mounting estimates of reconstruction and recovery costs after Sandy provide a powerful argument for carefully considering whether the greatest value of such places is in vulnerable development on coasts or floodplains or in improved flood protection for inland and upland communities.

Second, we must ensure that we are rebuilding in the right way. Individuals should take advantage of state and federal programs for buyouts and relocation to build their new homes on higher and safer ground. Communities must develop and enforce zoning and building codes that ensure new structures are sited and constructed to be flood-resilient. Roads, culverts, water treatment facilities and other infrastructure should be rebuilt using modern designs that allow them to better weather future storms. Federal and state programs should provide financial and regulatory incentives for rebuilding in the right places and in the right way and that go well beyond the existing minimum flood insurance requirements.

Finally, we need to rebuild with a better understanding of what we're up against. As the cover of Bloomberg BusinessWeek proclaimed over a picture of a New York street flooded by Sandy, "It's Global Warming, Stupid!" A consensus is emerging that the intensity of the storm, its occurrence so far north of the country's historic hurricane zone, and the higher sea levels that exacerbated the resulting storm surge are the results of climate change. Those in charge of reconstruction in the wake of Sandy, and officials across the country, need to better incorporate climate science and modeling into flood risk management and preparedness. On the New York/New Jersey coast and across the nation, we must plan, build and rebuild as if another superstorm is on its way because, more likely than not in these days of changing climate, it is.

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