11/06/2012 06:57 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

What Sandy Is Teaching New York City That 9/11 Didn't

This post was originally published on The Grid,'s blog about energy, natural resources and sustainability.

Eleven years, one month, three weeks and five days ago I stood on West Street in southern Manhattan and watched many hundreds of people murdered, as a gray avalanche of concrete, glass and steel poured forth from a disintegrating tower to the street below. The 9/11 attacks changed everything, for all time, and we all felt it instantaneously.

Superstorm Sandy delivers a message first heard on Sept. 11, 2001: New York, as a proxy for the United States, is unprepared for anticipated 21st century threats.

The storm is different. Sandy elicits no moral shock of war, no blinding national insult, "no unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury," as a columnist put it in Time magazine after 9/11. Instead we're up against something much more elusive, an enemy we're much more poorly equipped to deal with than sleeper terrorist cells: the Earth.

"No one seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site," wrote Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert in a provocatively titled 2006 Los Angeles Times op-ed. "Why? Because it won't involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium."

"Storms are more severe. Flooding is more severe. When you look at the design of the city, you really have to take these things into account," says GE's John McDonald

We can describe the enemy's strategy. We know that the industrial emissions of heat-trapping gases are warming the Earth's atmosphere and changing climates. We know that heat melts ice, that heat makes water expand and evaporate, and that tropical cyclones like warm water and moist air. We know that we are facing the strange, strange possibility that the intersection of rivers, the mountain valleys, the islands off the coast of America, where humans have built sophisticated settlements over the past 10,000 years, might not be the best place for some of them toward the latter part of this century.

We know, from Munich Re's new study, Severe Weather in North America, that the number of natural catastrophes per year has been rising everywhere since 1980, but nowhere as steeply as in North America. "This increase is entirely attributable to weather events," the report states. More people have been moving into storm-prone areas, and extreme weather is becoming more so. The world's largest reinsurer calls for "an alliance between homeowners, businesses, scientists and researchers, state/municipal and federal governments and the insurance industry to prevent and mitigate the results of extraordinary events."

Such an alliance has its work cut out for it. It's one thing to erect a new 100-story steel and glass obelisk to show terrorists we're not afraid to live and work in the sky. It's quite another to build urban systems adaptable to any of a number of projected futures. Restoring New York and New Jersey is an exercise in climate change adaptation, a largely theoretical policy topic until recently. Sandy puts adaptation at the center of global attention, and demands an answer to the tough question, what should governments, businesses and citizens want to adapt to?

Cities can adapt to the present, by updating infrastructure destroyed by the storm. But what about 2050, when the city projects its mean sea level could be a foot higher? What about 2100, when New York's average sea level might be a meter higher than today? A paper published in Nature Climate Change in February models future storm surge flooding in New York City, projecting about a one-meter sea level rise and more frequent surges. The combination "may cause the present New York City 100-year surge flooding to occur every 3-20 years and 500-year flooding to occur 25-240 years by the end of the century." Using more gut than quantitative modeling, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week, "We have 100-year floods every two years now."

While New York and New Jersey rebuild, what might regional alliances decide in heat-scarred Texas, in baked Alaska, in vanishing Louisiana, in the northbound farm belt, and many other places facing deep uncertainty about the future?

Post Sandy, planners are in a tough spot, trying to bring the city back to speed as soon as possible, and to avoid locking in decisions that might have costly implications later.

"If you have to rebuild, instead of rebuilding what was there, how can you improve upon it?" asked John McDonald, director of technical strategy and policy development for General Electric's digital energy program. "The extremes we're experiencing are more extreme than what we've experienced before," he noted in the same phone interview, on Friday. "Storms are more severe. Flooding is more severe. When you look at the design of the city, you really have to take these things into account."

Officials currently oversee infrastructure necessarily assembled as a patchwork over time. Standards have improved and will continue to; McDonald mentioned IEC 61850, for example, which calls for better automation of power grid substations. "Smart city" technology that works well in small pilot project might not perform as well when deployed at New York scale. The sooner we can learn lessons like that the better off New York and many other places will be.

Political and business leaders have analytical tools, such as cost-benefit analysis, that help them make informed decisions. These methods -- cost-benefit analysis in particular -- are drawing increasing attention because they insufficiently account for the scale and variety of potential changes this century. So policy professionals are developing new approaches to help leaders make decisions. The World Bank in September published a paper, titled "Investment Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty: Application to Climate Change" (hat tip to David Roberts at It compares traditional cost-benefit analysis with other methods, including an "alliance"-like approach called Climate Informed Decision Analysis.

This method encourages participants to build climate change projections into a three-stage process. First, depending on the kind of infrastructure they're looking to build, participants map out their priorities and tolerance for different kinds of risks. Those priorities are then analyzed against relevant projections, to see how sensitive they might be to climate change. Finally, they generate a suite of "plausible futures" with help of computer modeling or live experts. Such an approach was used successfully, according to the World Bank authors, in a 2007 U.S.-Canadian agreement on Great Lakes Basin stewardship, which was reached "on the premise that we are limited in our ability to anticipate the future and therefore any recommended plan must perform well on a very broad range of possible futures."

The paper argues for supplementing our practice of optimizing decisions toward a single purpose within a single future, with one that assumes business and government decisions will need to be adaptable - but just how we can't say with certainty yet. "A robust decision process implies the selection of a project or plan which meets its intended goals - e.g., increase access to safe water, reduce floods, upgrade slums, or many others - across a variety of plausible futures," the authors write.

Successful 21st century cities need to build well-managed communities on top of adaptable infrastructure. Since 2009, GE's McDonald has also been chairman of the National Institute of Standards and Technology body that is responsible for U.S. advanced power grid, or "smart grid," standards. In March, the group signed a memorandum of understanding with the Japan Smart Community Alliance, an organization representing more than 740 companies that are working to rebuild cities destroyed by the March 2011 tsunami. "They're further along in the concept of the smart community," McDonald said.

Flood protection, subways, tunnels, bridges, aqueducts, electricity grids, food distribution, law enforcement, health and communications and the other infrastructure and human systems now need to be built not only to serve the needs of the present, but to anticipate and avoid the least tolerable risks we can surmise about the future.

When attacked by terrorists, you can determine who did it, and, with great effort and expense in lives and money, kill their leader in the night. Geophysical systems are different. The sea's attacks come much, much slower. And the forces at its disposal are much more powerful than any human actors. As Hunt Janin and Scott Mandia put it in their new primer, Rising Sea Levels: An Introduction to Cause and Impact: "The technical concepts and terms can be stated very briefly but the most important thing for us to recognize here is that, once set in motion, sea level rise cannot possibly be stopped."


Storm Shows America as One Nation, Underinsured

One Man's Quest to Make the Sun as Big as Granite Countertops