One month after Superstorm Sandy hit the northeastern United States, causing tens of billions of dollars in damages to property and infrastructure and claiming the lives of more than 100 people, leading urban planners, academics and government scientists worry that the event will dim into memory and the havoc and devastation it created will be overshadowed by society's attempt to return to normal.
Furthermore, they say, ignoring questions about how to reduce the region's vulnerability to rising sea levels and more frequent, intense storms will ensure that in the decades to come, the region will continue to experience massive infrastructure collapse and possibly more fatalities.
"What can we do to take advantage of this horrible disaster, in which people lost their lives, millions of damages were done?" said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "How can we have this be something more than just another disaster? How can it have a legacy that does justice to the people that lost their lives? How can we have the next Sandy be something for which we are better prepared?"
Lubchenco provided the opening remarks at a New York City event focused on the potential engineering, ecological and public policy responses to the rising sea levels and more frequent, intense storms brought about by climate change.
William Solecki, director of the City University of New York's Institute for Sustainable Cities and co-chairman of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, said history offers a number of lessons about adapting to disaster.
Since the early 19th century, he said, New York has adapted to ecological changes, including ones brought about by poorly planned urban infrastructure and human decisions about the use of resources.
"One thing that is interesting about Sandy is that it's set in this context of climate change," he said.
"The city, as with any city, has faced numerous other crises and has overcome them through forward-thinking, largely transformative sets of policies, oftentimes on the back of a large infrastructure revision of what the city could be," Solecki said.
Disasters have created opportunities
The Great Fire of 1835 led to the city's identifying a stable source of water that could be used to fight future fires, he said. Lack of open space yielded expansive efforts to construct public parks. Air and water quality concerns brought about environmental protections.
"Every disaster presents an opportunity and a legacy," he said. "There are legacy effects of all these decisions we make today. They are not free of opportunity costs."
"Everything is still on the table," Solecki said of the range of policy options.
Those options, though, present policymakers with almost existential dilemmas over choosing the appropriate scale of adaptation strategies, particularly in an era of government belt-tightening and public reticence about the reach of government into society.
Chief among these policy options is the question of whether to construct multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects like storm barriers or to implement smaller, more decentralized adaptation measures like porous street surfaces that can absorb heavy rainfall or repairing natural wetlands that could buffer the coasts from sea level rise or storm surges.
Jeroen Aerts of VU University Amsterdam, an adviser to New York City on climate change adaptation and flood risk management, told the audience about the lessons learned in the Netherlands, which in the 1950s experienced massive flooding that killed more than 1,000 people.
"This can be either trauma to society or it can be a tipping point in the way you think about threats," he said.
Aerts outlined the Dutch government's response -- the Delta Works project -- which includes a variety of engineering techniques, ranging from massive sea barriers across Rotterdam's commercial port to coastal levees and the ecological restoration of coastal and inland estuaries.
The cost of the surge barriers alone in Holland was as much as €30 billion in 2008 values, Aerts said.
The stiff price of doing nothing
He estimated the cost of building a series of barriers around New York City at between $13 billion and $22 billion, in addition to annual operational costs, which could run between $70 million and $130 million a year.
The overlapping jurisdictions of local, state, regional and federal governments that ensure a tangle of regulatory hurdles make construction of large storm barriers more complicated in the New York City region than in the Netherlands, he said.
"Permits are an issue, and who is responsible for operational costs," Aerts said.
More generally, he said, New York City needs to develop a culture of flood risk management where rather than dozens of specialists, there might be thousands.
Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said the 100-year flooding event of today will occur roughly every 50 years in the 2020s, every nine to 20.5 years in the 2050s and every 1.1 to 3.4 years by the 2080s.
"Storm surge barriers are good for the purpose of keeping out storms, but they don't keep out sea level rise," Jacob said.
The city is projected to face sea level rise of 5 to 6 feet by century's end, a level comparable to the surge brought about by Superstorm Sandy, which occurred during a high tide.
So even on a nice, sunny day at the end of the century, the city may see water levels comparable to those that occurred during Sandy. Manhole covers will need to be replaced, subway entrances made less prone to flooding, and drainage grates elevated. Thousands of small improvements, he said, will need to be undertaken, regardless of building storm barriers around the city such as the Netherlands has done.
A key challenge that has gone overlooked by city planners, Jacob said, is the growth in population in many of the low-lying areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn that are vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surges.
"We have to change our demography, our urban planning, our social engineering," he said.