Ecocentric

A Year After Sandy, Living Dangerously by the Sea

Sea-level rise amplified the devastating coastal flooding caused by Superstorm Sandy. Climate change and population growth will raise the risk — unless we act soon

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Mario Tama / Getty Images

Homes built near a bridge sit destroyed due to Superstorm Sandy in Mantoloking, New Jersey October 31, 2012.

Earlier this month I stood outside the Babbio Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., looking out over the Hudson River toward Manhattan. When Hurricane Sandy struck the New York area on Oct. 29 of last year, the storm pushed the river over its banks, and the narrow streets of the New Jersey city filled with water like a bathtub. Standing next to me that day were Alan Blumberg and Tom Herrington, ocean engineers at Stevens. Before Sandy hit, Blumberg and Herrington had predicted the massive extent of the flooding that would result from the storm and the damage that would be done to Hoboken, which at its border along the Hudson sits just 4 or 5 ft. above the river — even less at high tide, which happens to be when Sandy made landfall.

Today the scientists and their colleagues at Stevens are trying to improve those coastal-flooding models to better predict the precise flow of floodwater for the next storm, in an effort to aid future evacuation plans. But Blumberg and Herrington are painfully aware that, thanks to climate change and rising sea levels, coastal cities like Hoboken and New York will be in even greater peril when the next Sandy hits. “Many of the bulkheads and seawalls here are only about 3 ft. above the water,” says Herrington. “If you raise the sea level and the bulkheads stay the same, you have more and more flooding for your infrastructure. Everything we’ve built is too low.”

Here’s a fact about Sandy that might surprise you: when the storm made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, it wasn’t actually a hurricane. Its wind speed had fallen below the 74 m.p.h. sustained velocity that’s needed to change a tropical storm into a hurricane. Instead Sandy was officially a “post-tropical cyclone.” And while the storm certainly dropped a lot of water on the belt of heavily affected states between South Carolina and New York — 7 in. or more in many places — it wasn’t the precipitation alone that led to the devastating floods that followed in its wake, causing more than $68 billion in damages. What made Sandy devastating was its size, covering more than 1,000 miles, the coastal storm surges it caused, and the way the force of the cyclone — which took an unusual path almost directly at the East Coast — pushed the sea and rivers up and over onto land, spilling out into streets and inundating nearby infrastructure. At the Battery at the southern end of Manhattan, storm surges of 9 ft. above normal were recorded. All told, Sandy broke 16 records for the highest storm tide ever. Just about everything that followed — the flooded homes and hospitals, the blackout that denied power to half of Manhattan, the transportation mess — could be traced back to those surges.

And that’s what makes the threat of another Sandy so grave. The storm was the inevitable consequence of piling more and more people along coasts that are threatened by rising seas.

(PHOTOS: Before and After Sandy, a Year of Recovery)

Scientists disagree on exactly how climate change will affect future tropical storms. (See this year’s hurricane season, which has featured virtually no storms after dire forecasts in the spring.) But here’s something we know for sure: 123 million Americans, more than a third of the entire country, live in coastal counties, a number that increased by 39% from 1970 to 2010. About 3.7 million Americans live within just a few feet of the sea at high tide, putting them at even more extreme risk for coastal flooding. And the ocean they live next to is rising. In New York, seawaters have risen by about 16 in. since 1778, according to research by Tufts University geologist Andrew Kemp, while global sea levels have risen by a little over 7 in. on average over the past century. That translates to more devastating flooding. “For every inch foot of sea-level rise, you have an additional 300 ft. of reach inland for floods,” says Leonard Berry, director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University.

That rise has already had an effect on storms. A recent study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that existing sea-level rise had already doubled the annual probability of a Sandy-level flood in the New York region since 1950, and areas outside the city, including the New Jersey shoreline, face an even higher risk. “Today’s coastal infrastructure … is steadily losing ground due to relative sea-level rise,” said William Sweet, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a co-author of the study. As temperatures continue to rise thanks largely to man-made carbon emissions, so will sea level. In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that sea level could rise 20 to 38 in. by the end of the century if nothing is done to slow the pace of carbon emissions. Absent better coastal protection, higher seas make even relatively weak storms a danger — and turn big storms like Sandy into catastrophes. “It’s like you’re trying to dunk a basketball, and someone just raised the court by a few feet,” says Blumberg. “That’s how sea-level rise works.”

The costs will add up, especially if we keep adding people and property to those threatened coasts. A recent study in Nature Climate Change predicted that average global flood losses could rise from approximately $6 billion per year in 2005 to $60 billion to $63 billion per year by 2050, thanks to the multiplying effects of population and economic growth as well as climate-change-driven sea-level rise. “There’s been just remarkable development along the coast,” says Scott Knowles, a professor at Drexel University and author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America. “It’s not that the storms are necessarily worse in any objective way. It’s that we have put more people and property in harm’s way.”

(MORE: As Tropical Storm Karen Dissipates, the Debate Grows Over a Quiet Hurricane Season)

The easiest way to reduce the danger from future storms is to reverse that shift to the sea, and move people and property away from the coast. That’s happening in some places. New York City’s $648 million Build It Back program will support homeowners of flooded properties who don’t want to rebuild, and instead want to move, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has a separate plan to buy out property in hard-hit Staten Island and return it to nature. But so-called coastal retreat is likely to remain a last-resort choice, though the rising cost of flood insurance could change the calculation for some. We’re not moving New York City or New Orleans, and threat of floods doesn’t seem to be enough to overcome the temptations of living by the water, even after Sandy showed how destructive that water can be. “Let me be clear,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in Sandy’s aftermath. “We are not going to abandon the waterfront. We are not going to leave the Rockaways or Coney Island or Staten Island’s South Shore.”

So if we’re going to keep living in harm’s way, we have to do our best to reduce the harm. That means prioritizing resilience, which has replaced adaptation as the term of choice for city planners. Resilience means understanding that disasters like storms and floods will happen — there’s no adapting them away — and what we need to do is build homes, communities, cities and countries that can take the punch of a Sandy without hitting the canvas for the count. It means being creative about the challenges we’ll face, knowing that they’ll evolve in the future. “Cities have a tendency to prepare for the thing they got hit by in the past,” says Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans. “We have to be ready for anything that might come our way, and be flexible about what we’ll need to respond.”

New York City, which absorbed some of the worst of Sandy’s wrath, has taken that challenge seriously. Bloomberg proposed a $20 billion plan earlier this year meant to toughen the city against floods and storm surges. Much of that money would go to build flood walls, levees and bulkheads — though nothing as extensive as the massive seawalls that protect Dutch cities like Rotterdam, which would likely be too expensive and too disruptive for New York. But funds would also go to softer defenses like sand dunes, as well as reinforcing the city’s power grid, which was shown to be vulnerable to storms after Sandy. “If we’re going to rebuild, we should build back new and better,” says Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and a co-chair of NYS 2100, a New York State panel tasked with providing recommendations for Sandy recovery. “If we spend more on prevention, we can avoid the billions we need to spend on recovery.”

That’s the goal, anyway. But the truth is that there’s no guarantee that Bloomberg’s ambitious vision for a more resilient New York will ever become a reality. The billionaire mayor will be leaving office soon, and the money that plan requires — while much of it would come from federal funds — could hold back his successor. And what’s scary is that New York is far from the only coastal city to face such threats. Low-lying Miami has more than $416 billion in assets at risk to storm-related flooding and sea-level rise, the largest amount in the world. As Jeff Goodell described in an excellent piece for Rolling Stone earlier this year, Miami as it is now may be doomed. “Superstorm Sandy is a measure of the way things will happen,” says Berry, of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies.

A year after Sandy, the risk from coastal living just keeps rising, while we struggle to keep pace. And we’ll pay the price — one way or another.

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17 comments
Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

the cost of flood insurance needs to be raised significantly and we need to spend far more on prevention

skeezy99
skeezy99

For crying out loud! Even a second grader could think this through! People need to MOVE BACK from the abyss. You can build defenses until hell freezes over, but Mother Nature and the ocean will always be more powerful. Time has changed many things, and we know the weather is one.

I live in the West and where the mountains were covered with ten, twelve, or twenty feet of snow in decades past, now there is barely any snow and winter is no longer a season filled with cold and snow. The woods used to be well hydrated: now you can dig down several feet and not find evidence of moisture. Forest fires run rampant.

Where will New Jersey residents move? Higher ground is the only answer. Spend all the billions of dollars no one has on moving farther away from the danger. And grow up. Wishing for what was isn't productive.

deowll
deowll

Katrina pushed 30 ft of water ashore. Compared to that Sandy was barely a show. The fact that sea level has been raising slowly for the last few hundred yrs isn't the problem. 50 yrs ago they knew those sand bars and near sea level locations were going under water and they did. They will again. Get over it. The people have to be told the truth. If you want to live you will get out of the way. If you don't the odds are good they won't even find a body to bury. Since the entire coast can be hit by a Cat 5 ever allowing people to build there was neither reasonable nor prudent.

Sparrow55
Sparrow55

People need to be cautious because anything built by man can be destroyed by Mother Nature. 

Russel Honore 

Is there any place in this country that is not at potential risk from some form of devastating natural phenomenon?  If people are made to move from any area that is subject to hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, blizzards, wildfires, torrential rains, droughts, hail storms, or whatever, where are they going to go that is 100% safe?  


thebax
thebax

When too many people build on the coasts along comes a big wave and that's how God culls the herd!!!Just keep hitting up the Government and our insurance companies to rebuild on the waterfront!! All the land from the shores to 10 miles inland should be National Parks with cheap structures that can be easily replaced every time a storm blows through.

mememine69
mememine69

30 years of science agreeing on nothing beyond "could be a crisis" and never saying or agreeing it WILL be a crisis isn't good enough for us deniers but good enough for you fear mongers. History is watching this needless panic.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

What I'd like to see is new regulations for building in flood zones.  Why is it we don't REQUIRE at least new houses to be built on stilts (or garage platforms) so the main rooms of the house/building are above the expected flood lines?  And similarly, that any large-scale renovations require such changes as well?

I live in coastal Florida.  My home is well inland and out of any flood zone, but many places are not.  Yet many homes and businesses within only a block or two of the water are built right at ground level.  And every time we get any storm surge, they get swamped.  This is just stupid, and it's largely been done because people had insurance on their houses.  Now, I'm not enough of a jerk to tell them to tear down their decades-old houses and rebuild on stilts/platforms, but how about a simple rule: your insurance only has to bail you out ONCE for major flood damage.  After that, you're expected to take that money and rebuild to new, more rational codes.

We need to be practical about this.  Climate change is happening, whether we like it or not.  But there are a lot of things we can do to turn it from something locally devastating into something only locally annoying instead.  We've just got to design the rules to motivate people to act in an intelligent, forward-looking manner when they build or rebuild.

BenVincent
BenVincent

New York was hit by a storm more powerful than Sandy in 1821. It was hit again by the Long Island Express in 1938. Sea levels have been rising since the last ice age.

Why didn't the people and politicians do anything for the last 190 years to prepare for storms in the future? Some zoning laws and building regulations could have been developed to protect life and property. Yet they ignored history.


0Sundance
0Sundance

Why are lower wage earners asked too subsidize the 1% of wealthy Americans that stupidly choose to live on the oceans?  The ancestors of modern day Holland started building sea walls in the 12th century. We have known for a long time that sea level was 10 feet to 15 feet higher during the Eemian interglacial.  Yet wealthy but arrogant coastal dwellers pretend that poor people driving to work every day is the reason the oceans are rising and the cause on every storm. It is a scam to get poor people to subsidize the rich 1% for their irresponsibility.

If you want to live on the ocean and expose yourself to threats of life and property that have been repeated throughout history and is nothing new, that is your right. But what is not a right is for arrogant wealthy people, corrupt politicians, corrupt lawyers and corrupt environmentalists to force others to pay for the arrogance and stupidity of the wealthy shore dwellers.

robt55
robt55

In this country people have been "living by the Sea" for centuries.  Sea levels have been rising for just as long.   Storms have impacted our coasts for just as long.   Glad a storm with major damages finally happened in NY/NJ because, to the self absorbed, pseudo-intellectual elitist who live there, only NOW can coastal flooding/damage as a result of storm surge be deemed an important issue.   Guess you omnipotent types never heard of that little storm named Katrina.

DougCheriBledsoe
DougCheriBledsoe

Re-building and living in a flood plain is stupid. It can and will happen again. Build at your own expense. Please do not put your dirty little hands out and ask the Feds for my tax money to fund your beach house. 

eagle11772
eagle11772

@skeezy99 Excellent point !  People who choose to live on the seashore, and near rivers, are taking a chance.  I was born and raised on Long Island, and recently moved to the desert here in southern Arizona  (not much water in the desert).  I had enough of hurricanes, nor'easters, and blizzards in New York.  I've lost sympathy for people foolish enough to insist on living in flood-prone areas, and in the paths of other storms and natural disasters.  NEWS BULLETIN:  Water runs downhill and seeks the lowest level.

eagle11772
eagle11772

@0Sundance You have an excellent point.  The middle class and the poor subsidize the homes of the rich who build on the seashore, and other flood-prone areas, because the rich give large sums of money to politicians to write the laws that enable this.

PracticalLibFem
PracticalLibFem

@DougCheriBledsoe  

Amen!  I can't agree more. Flood insurance premiums need to be sky high to discourage coastal dwellers from building on flood plains.  Hit 'em where it hurts...in the pocketbook and maybe they will "catch the drift" and move inland!

eagle11772
eagle11772

@PracticalLibFem @DougCheriBledsoe Another good point !  Instead of flood insurance being subsidized by the middle class and poor people, so that rich people can build their multi-million dollar homes on the seashore, the free market should be allowed tot work, so that flood insurance reflects the true costs and risks of building a house in a disaster-prone area.