Superstorm Sandy’s Impacts and Implications for the Northeast

Since being pummeled by what climatologists are calling a one in multi-century event, the New York-New Jersey area has been the site of many programs analyzing Superstorm Sandy’s causes, effects and policy implications. Central to the presentations and discussions has been the question of Sandy’s significance for the future.  If what we now consider a rarity becomes more frequent in the future, what should state and local governments do to protect lives, infrastructure, and their economic health from extreme weather events?

The issue takes on heightened importance for our region with Sandy following on the heels of last year’s severe tropical storms Irene and Lee and historic October snowstorm, themselves responsible for billions of dollars of damage across the Mid-Atlantic and New England states.

Together with these losses, 2011 saw record-breaking tornadoes, floods, droughts, heat waves and forest fires in other parts of the U.S. that produced 14 events, each of which caused damage in excess of $1 billion. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) determined that the cumulative cost of the 14 disasters was approximately $60.6 billion.  But NOAA’s figure already has been surpassed by the $79 billion price tag put on Sandy by Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey. Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut estimated a minimum of $660 million of damages in his state, and requested a further $3.2 billion in federal funding to improve storm readiness for the future through measures such as relocating power lines underground and constructing seawalls. Currently available figures do not even include the damage that Sandy caused along the coasts of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia.

Sandy’s Status as a Superstorm

Sandy was one of the largest storms ever recorded, with winds extending over an area of about 1,000 miles from its center when it arrived in the Northeast, said experts at recent New York City events addressing the superstorm. [1] It made landfall at a time when the water level from high tide was pumped up by the gravitational pull of a full moon, and hit an area of the coast where the topography formed a kind of funnel that channeled the storm surge onto the land, they said. In addition, Sandy’s impact was amplified by its intersection with two other weather fronts – an early winter storm from the west and a frigid air mass from Canada.

Sandy also coincided with abnormally high sea-surface temperatures for late October, leading to an intensification of the storm’s energy and an increase in the amount of water vapor that it held, said several speakers at the programs, which were sponsored by Columbia University and the New York City Bar Association. Its surge was further amplified by a sea-level rise of about one foot since 1900 in the Northeast, a change partly caused by the land’s subsidence but equally the result of warming global temperatures that make the volume of ocean waters expand, said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a research scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies and co-chair of New York City’s panel on climate change.

Even more noteworthy was Sandy’s track, which experts characterize as a one-in-700 year event, said Allan Frei, chair of the department of geography at Hunter College, during a conference  at the New York City Bar Association. When the storm reached the Mid-Atlantic states, instead of taking a normal path north and eastward it swerved sharply to the west because of an anomaly in the jet stream, he said.

While data collected from sources such as old weather records and tree-ring patterns demonstrate that the New York City area has been experiencing warmer temperatures, periods of heavier rainfall and rising sea levels for some time, the westward trajectory of Sandy, which intensified the damaging impact of its winds, appears to be virtually unprecedented, said Frei, who is also the deputy director of the Institute for Sustainable Cities at the City University of New York.

Frei, Rosenzweig and Columbia University research scientist Radley Horton, who spoke on WNYC Radio, addressed the possibility that the unusual jet-stream circulation pattern affecting Sandy might be attributable to climate change, in particular to the warmer temperatures associated with recent record-breaking reductions in Arctic sea ice.  It is the so-called polar jet stream, originating at Arctic latitudes, that influences our weather. Given Sandy’s singular path, it is not yet possible to predict whether such jet-stream anomalies will continue to shift weather patterns, the three experts said. But they agreed that if that were to happen, we could expect more severe winds in future tropical storms.

Frei and Rosenzweig said that the components of Sandy’s impact resulting from higher temperatures and sea levels can be attributed to climate change with a great deal of confidence, but acknowledged the difficulty of attributing any particular storm’s characteristics to these documented patterns. Frei likened the problem to that of deciding whether a particular homerun might have resulted from a baseball player’s use of steroids.

“You can’t say with certainty that any one homerun was caused by drugs, but you can say with far more confidence that the overall increase in homerun hitting since players began using steroids does reflect their impact,” he said.

Preparing for Future Severe Weather

Given what is known about Sandy’s characteristics, along with the repeated occurrence of more severe weather events in the U.S. and elsewhere, speakers at all five events agreed that it is critical for policy makers to consider how best to prepare for a future in which extreme meteorological conditions are likely to become more common.

In fact, prior to the superstorm, accurate predictions had already been made about the expected impacts of severe weather events on our region’s infrastructure. For example, despite Sandy’s unusual features, the locations of flooding that occurred in New York City’s subway and other transportation tunnels had been clearly foreseen by authors of a 2011 New York State report, The ClimAID Integrated Assessment for Effective Climate Change Adaptation.

According to Dr. Irwin Redlener of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, “given our state of knowledge and resources, especially after Katrina, we should have been more resilient by now.”

But presenters at the events agreed that becoming resilient is not a matter of a single solution. It requires a “spectrum” or a “suite” of solutions, many of which will present big challenges to engineers, planners, researchers and policy-makers, said Rosenzweig.  Rebuilding from Sandy must start that process with decision-making that takes into account the increased risks we face from new weather patterns, she said.

Not only will multiple solutions be necessary, but appropriate solutions will inevitably shift over time as conditions change, said George Deodatis, a professor of civil engineering at Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, at the World Leader’s Forum. In New York City, for example, most of the subway flooding caused by Sandy could have been avoided by means of relatively easy, short-term solutions — installing flood gates at the most vulnerable stations and sealing the most vulnerable ventilation grates, he said.

Other short-term solutions mentioned at the programs include aggressive maintenance work — already undertaken by some utilities — to prune or remove trees that put power lines at risk and relocation of vital building systems and machinery above flood-prone floors. But as time goes on, more elaborate and expensive approaches will be necessary to protect against sea-level rises of two to four feet that the speakers agree are probable by 2080.

Useful engineering solutions for that medium-term period could include elevating critical infrastructure such as highways and railroads, so that they would not flood and could themselves act as levees to safeguard surface roads and buildings, said Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and co-author of New York’s ClimAID report. Jacob said that despite the expense of carrying out projects such as these, FEMA research on storm impacts shows that for every one dollar invested, we save four dollars in losses not incurred.

A priority over the next ten to 20 years would be to move power and telephone lines underground for protection against damage from hurricane-force winds, said Deodatis.  Yet, appealing as this solution may seem, it is not without its own set of problems, said Carlos Torres, the vice president for emergency management at ConEd, one of New York’s major utilities.  In addition to being quite costly, underground lines are more vulnerable to the flooding and heat waves likely to occur more frequently as time goes on, he said, and they result in greater challenges for utilities to locate problems along with higher price tags for repairs.

Another much-discussed and expensive option involves the construction of from two to four barriers to prevent storm surges from coming in from New York City’s harbor.  At the ACUNS-TECONY seminar, Jacob called himself a “barrier skeptic” because the height of such gates would need to be increased over time as sea levels rose, to a point where they would no longer be feasible from an engineering perspective. In addition, the storm barriers would offer only very partial protection.  For an estimated minimum cost of $20 billion dollars, they would protect Manhattan and parts of Queens and the Bronx, but not many areas with the worst damage from Sandy – Staten Island, the Rockaways, Long Island and the New Jersey shore, said Deodatis.

The only real long-term solution to adaptation is horizontal movement of repeatedly devastated communities to new areas, Deodatis said. But, with very few exceptions, there are no examples of communities that have chosen not to rebuild because of frequent flooding, said Victor Flatt, law professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and director of the university’s Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation and Resources.

Flatt told listeners to the American Bar Association’s teleconference on Sandy that it would be necessary for a series of community charettes, or collaborative planning and design sessions, to take place prior to a disaster for a decision of this magnitude to be considered.[2]

Officials in the Northeast are responding to Sandy proactively at present – for example, Governors Cuomo and Christie have made a joint request for federal help not only to repair storm-devastated infrastructure and homes but also to rebuild for greater resiliency against future storms.  But as panelists noted at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, the big question is how to keep up momentum in the months ahead.

“We speak about events like Sandy as wake-up calls, but they often end up being more like snooze-alarms,” said Redlener. He went on to note that unlike many other issues, “there’s no built-in constituency with votes and money for adapting to our changing climate.”

Thus, education of the public by government leaders is a big part of what’s necessary, said Benjamin Orlove, an anthropologist at Columbia’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.

Orlove and colleagues carried out telephone surveys of residents in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey in the days before Sandy. The researchers learned that people were confused about evacuation, and underestimated the risks of flooding and prolonged power failures.  Even if they lived in evacuation zones, half of those contacted were unaware of that fact and those that knew had no evacuation plan to follow if they wanted to leave, Orlove said. In addition, less than one-third of the residents they spoke with had flood insurance, he said.

Still, panelists affirmed that New York City did many things well – by planning transportation closures, keeping people off the streets, blocking off some at-risk subway entrances with temporary plywood barriers and sandbags, and over the longer term, investing in ongoing research and policy recommendations to increase resiliency over time.

But they also agreed that panels and research are not enough. A critical action is for government leaders to use their bully pulpits and prevent the snooze alarm from being hit this time as well.

By Eleanor Saunders

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Selected New York City Events Addressing Sandy

Columbia University Center for Climate Change Law together with the ACUNS-TECONY Seminar Series. What is the State of the Art in Preparing for Extreme Weather Events?, November 14, 2012

WNYC Radio. Climate Science and Sandy, November 15, 2012

American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources. Environmental Law and Hurricane Sandy (Teleconference), November 15, 2012

Columbia University World Leaders’ Forum. After Sandy: Climate and Our Coastal Future, November 19, 2012

New York City Bar Association. After the Flood 2: Climate Change Adaptation and the Region’s Energy and Land Use Challenges, November 20, 2012


[1] For a list of the events reviewed here, see below.

[2] A useful discussion of ways to encourage adherence to flood-resilient building codes, incentivize buy-outs of repeatedly damaged property in flood zones and motivate local communities to adopt zoning and development plans that promote resilience is available in a 2012 post-Irene report to Gov. Peter Shumlin from The Governors’ Institute on Community Design.

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