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The Lesson of Hurricane Sandy: Pay Now, Not Later

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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New Jersey boardwalk after Sandy.

One year ago, on October 29, superstorm Sandy swamped New York City and New Jersey. Although authorities did a terrific job of evacuating people, they were helpless against Sandy’s record-high storm surge. Today the city and its neighboring state are still trying to recover, and the struggles raise a stark lesson that coastal communities all along the U.S. East Coast and Gulf Coast must take to heart: spending money, even lots of money, to protect against storms is far cheaper than fixing damage and rebuilding afterward.

Most of us have learned this lesson the hard way at some point, summed up in the tag line of an old commercial about the wisdom of getting a regular, inexpensive oil change for your car instead of delaying and creating a bigger, more expensive engine problem: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” In 2007 New York released PlaNYC, a blueprint for making the city sustainable for decades, including adaptation to climate change. Work on a few of the recommendations began, but many went unfunded. In 2009 a group of scientist convened by the city, the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), published a report saying the city should plan for up to two feet of sea level rise by 2100 as well as significant storm surges. Again, little work followed.

The panel reconvened after Sandy hit, updated its analyses with the painfully real data from Sandy, and in May 2013 published detailed projections of higher sea level rise and higher storm surges. In response, the city’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency unveiled a 430-page document, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” which prescribed 250 projects to hold back the sea, at a total cost of $19.5 billion. Some of those projects are funded and underway, but many are still being debated.

The sad truth is that it took a terrible hurricane to jump start adaptation work that the city had been advised for years to undertake. Residents and politicians failed to heed scientific warnings and grumbled that protection measures would cost too much. Yet after Sandy’s floodwaters receded and the true extent of damage was revealed, Congress appropriated $60 billion in aid to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

That huge amount reflects the penalty of “pay me later.” Various experts have said that that much money could have paid for all the work recommended in PlanNYC or in the NPCC report. It could even pay for two of the most controversial but effective recommendations that scientists made to me in my own article on how best to protect the region: a large flood barrier across New York Bay to protect New York City and northern New Jersey against storm surges, and buying out properties along the lowest-lying stretches of coastline—yes, a retreat from the shore.

Yet in his long speech on June 11 unveiling the resiliency plan, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said the barrier “is just not practical or financially feasible.” And he said, “We cannot and will not abandon our waterfront.”

The Outer Harbor Gateway, as it’s know, was designed by the Halcrow Group and is projected to cost $7 billion—a lot less than the $20 billion in estimated damages in New York City alone, and about one-tenth of the federal aid money. And despite the mayor’s statement, New York and New Jersey are in fact using a small amount of the aid money to indeed buy out a few select low-lying properties.

The recovery is also costing companies a handsome sum. Consolidated Edison, the big city utility, has spent hundreds of millions of its own dollars to repair and improve the electric grid and to harden the lower Manhattan substation that collapsed and caused the enormous blackout that occurred after Sandy crashed ashore. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) also expects to spend several billion dollars to clean out and fully repair the subway system, which was widely flooded—work that will take until 2016. The ongoing cost of the storm goes beyond these kinds of repairs, too. The subway system is still not running efficiently; the so-called R and G lines that link Manhattan and the adjacent borough of Brooklyn are still very limited. The situation delays thousands of workers day after day, costing them time and costing their employers productivity.

In New Jersey, 26,000 residents are still out of their homes, suffering significant, ongoing anguish on top of the financial losses.

Instead of paying so much to fix damage, acting on resiliency plans would cost less money, avoid the ongoing inefficiency, create jobs in the form of new projects and spare many people more months and months of grief. Other cities around the world such as London, Rotterdam and St. Petersburg, Russia, have built enormous barriers and bought up tracts of low-lying land. It’s time New York and New Jersey took those steps as well.

Some of the cities on the East Coast seem to be learning the lesson. A handful have adopted an adaptation plan (such as Virginia Beach), others are developing a plan (Miami) and still others are starting projects even without a plan (Philadelphia). The Center for American Progress has released a report and an interactive map of the progress underway.

One year after Sandy, it’s time to heed the resiliency report, find the money, build the political will and expand work. Include the big strokes, such as a new complex called Seaport City that would be built on top of raised ground to protect the lower east side of Manhattan. “Why can’t coastal protection also be a beautiful esplanade?” Bloomberg asked rhetorically in his speech. “Why can’t coastal protection also be a new neighborhood?” It can.

We will find out soon if the region’s political leaders will champion the big lesson of Sandy. New Jersey governor Chris Christie is running for re-election on Nov. 5. Across the bay, New Yorkers will elect a new mayor that day; Bloomberg’s extended term is up. The two leading candidates, Republican Joe Lhota (who resigned as chairman of the MTA to run for the office) and Democrat Bill de Blasio both said at a very recent debate that they will pursue the resiliency plan. Once they are in office, we’ll see if they follow through.

Photo by Mark Fischetti

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sisko 8:48 am 10/28/2013

    Building and maintaining a robust infrastructure is the best defense against the harms of adverse weather. It is the only sure method to reduce damage.

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  2. 2. sault 11:14 am 10/28/2013

    Superstorm Sandy is a great cautionary tale about the challenges we face with climate change. Working to mitigate the damage BEFORE disaster strikes is much cheaper than cleaning up and rebuilding AFTER a disaster. By the time the disaster is upon us, it is too late to try to shore things up and minimize the damage. And as the cost of flood protection vs cleanup shows, thinking that the “wait and see” approach to climate change is the cheaper option is a fool’s choice.

    We know that the effects of climate change will be profound and mostly negative. The science is settled no matter how much the people who have a vested financial interest in keeping the atmosphere open as their free dumping ground would like us to believe. So we need to reduce our CO2 emissions before more climate-related disasters like Hurricane Sandy hit us with increasing intensity and frequency. Besdies, there’s a lot of other nasty things that get released when we burn fossil fuels, like mercury, soot, ash and acid rain-precursors, that we’ll save a lot MORE money not dealing with the damage that all this pollution causes.

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  3. 3. tuned 12:01 pm 10/28/2013

    They never did that for the South Florida area.
    It has been crushed by killer storms for generations.
    Smells like inequality.

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  4. 4. Sisko 1:03 pm 10/28/2013

    It is most certainly foolish to think that spending limited resources on actions to reduce CO2 emissions will reduce the harms that come from bad weather. There is no means to determine IF such actions would EVER have a beneficial impact.

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  5. 5. sault 2:05 pm 10/28/2013


    You need to read up on the literal MOUNTAIN of scientific evidence that shows you are wrong:

    Just go ahead and pick ANY of the over 2 MILLION scientific papers in that link and TRY to find one that agrees with your premise. Seriously, what don’t you understand, that CO2 traps heat or that human activity has increased its concentration by 40% with no signs of slowing down?

    Your claims amount to a wilfull disregard of the evidence and have no place in a scientific discussion.

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  6. 6. Sisko 4:25 pm 10/28/2013


    You providing a link to a search of “climate change” is not evidence of CO2 mitigation activities being effective or more effective than investing in building and maintaining robust infrastructure.

    Please try to find a single paper that shows a high confidence that very marginally lower CO2 concentrations will have a positive effect on the weather. If CO2 is at 450 ppm vs. 453 in a few decades would it matter? Spending a bunch of money on mitigation activities and then not having money left to spend on infrastructure would definitely have a negative impact.

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  7. 7. sault 5:08 pm 10/28/2013


    You are moving the goalposts and making unrealistic assumptions. If we don’t cut CO2 emissions, the concentration in the atmosphere isn’t magically going to stop at 453 ppm, it’s going to continue to increase to much higher levels, disrupting the climate even more and making it much harder to plan let alone BUILD the sort of infrastructure that could withstand that level of disruption.

    Seriously answer this question. If we don’t mitigate CO2 emissions, then what sort of infrastructure are you asking for and what set of conditions will you design it to?

    Advocating for unrestricted emissions growth causes more and more uncertainty as far as climate conditions are concerned, making the act of planning any sort of infrastructure to guard against disruptions a nearly impossible task, does it not? Unless you still believe that CO2 does not trap heat, something that goes against over a CENTURY of established science…and reality basically, loading more and more CO2 into the atmosphere will cause greater sea level rise and climate disruption.

    And don’t you think treating the CAUSE of a problem is cheaper and easier than treating its SYMPTOMS? Why would you prefer the more expensive and risky option, especially since there’s plenty of savings that could also be had from reducing all the OTHER pollution that comes out of fossil fuel combustion? All the health problems and premature deaths that are caused by all those tons of mercury, soot, ash and sulfur that comes out of JUST coal power somkestacks sure cost a pretty penny, so worring about having money “left” to spend on adaptation when all this lost potential is left on the table is very short-sighted.

    To sum things up, if we could at least get the planet working towards a certain CO2 concentration goal, planning the infrastructure improvements necessary to adapt to the new climate conditions expected for that peak concentration (and subsequent slow decline) would be a whole lot easier than trying to adapt to who-knows-what concentration we would see with unrestrained emissions. In addition, not having to suffer all the negative external costs of pollution would go a long way in freeing up the capital necessary to enact mitigation AND adaptation measures, especially since the adaptation would be so much cheaper than in a world with unchecked CO2 and other pollution emissions growth.

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  8. 8. Sisko 6:12 pm 10/28/2013


    I do not claim that CO2 levels will stop rising at 453 ppm or even 600 ppm. It is an issue of how quickly those numbers are realized and what happens as a result. You wrongly have claimed “great and immediate harms”, which obviously isn’t happening and as a result you case is loosing steam.

    The fact that you claim that potential climate change “making it much harder to plan let alone BUILD the sort of infrastructure that could withstand that level of disruption” shows you do not understand climate science or the construction of infrastructure.

    A changing climate is still a gradual long term process. The trends of weather and population still present extremely valuable information regarding the types of flood control systems, water retention facilities, sewage treatment, waste reclamation facilities that need to be constructed to both protect the people in a specific location from harm but to allow them to not live in fear. Remember, infrastructure is built at a local and regional level. The climate is predictable reasonably well for the next 100 years at that level and societies choose to build or not build the infrastructure necessary to protect them from adverse weather. Infrastructure is rebuilt over time.

    Sault, the truth is that all the CO2 mitigation activities in the world will not prevent bad weather. It is also the truth that you do not know that the weather will be worse or better for people with higher levels of atmospheric CO2. Now you can cite several peer reviewed scientific papers that concluded that there would be more, and more severe storms as a result of higher CO2 levels. But since we both know that ALL of those papers were founded on the outputs of General Circulation Models (GCMs) that have been proven to not have sufficient accuracy to reach the conclusions written in those papers- then we can dismiss those paper as unsupportable conclusions. They could not be approved today. Try to find such a paper being approved in 2014.

    Doing long term things to reduce CO2 emissions- that makes sense. Doing short term things that will only have a relatively small impact on the long term numbers, but are expensive in the short term- doesn’t make sense.

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  9. 9. sault 6:41 pm 10/28/2013


    I have NEVER claimed that climate change will cause “great and immediate harms”! I have merely stated that climate change impacts will be profound and mostly negative, with increasing uncertainty coming in tandem with increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s just like higher blood pressure / cholesterol: while we can’t say with any certainty that any EXACT number will give you a heart attack or a stroke, we know very well that higher numbers are worse and that the odds for bad things happening increase in tandem with somebody’s risk factors. Sorry for the confusion if I haven’t explained things this clearly in the past.

    In addition, you are extremely mistaken that the climate is “predictable reasonably well for the next 100 years” while also advocating for unchecked emissions growth. And you didn’t answer the question I asked you in this regard, so I’ll ask it again in another way: How do you plan infrastructure building for decades into the future if you have no idea what the CO2 concentration will be over the course of the lifetime of said infrastructure? Likewise, if you just extrapolate Business-as-Usual scenarios of emissions growth, do you realize that dealing with the impacts of 3C, 5C or even more climate change for over 1000 years into the future will be tremendously expensive and unfairly burden future generations with these costs even though they received hardly any of the benefits of the energy production that caused the climate change they will suffer through? Do you not realize how unfair that deal will be for them?

    What’s wrong with reducing the risks of climate change all those years into the future by cleaning up our act now? Why do we let polluters dump all their garbage into the environment with abandon and expect everyone else, along with many future generations, to deal with the consequences instead? Why do you think this is even remotely fair?

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  10. 10. Noone 6:59 pm 10/28/2013

    “spending money, even lots of money, to protect against storms is far cheaper than fixing damage and rebuilding afterward”


    “spending lots of money, to protect against rare storms, is far cheaper than fixing damage and rebuilding afterward.”


    “spending even hundreds of billions of dollars, to protect against predictable rare storms is far cheaper than fixing damage and rebuilding afterward.”


    “spending even trillions of dollars, to protect against unpredictable-yet-increasingly-common-with-global-warming-rare-storms is far cheaper than fixing damage and rebuilding afterward.”


    “taxing evil pollutors (and nearly as evil fossil fuel users) and spending those trillions of dollars, to protect against unpredictable-yet-increasingly-common-with-global-warming-rare-storms will cost nothing really because the evil private sector will be paying for it.”

    …And yet, there has been calamity insurance in the evil PRIVATE sector for hundreds of evil years…


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  11. 11. jhn1 9:03 pm 10/28/2013

    Noone, you missed the one really important part.
    Local money out of local budgets now, vs. Federal (free) money later.

    So, step one starts at …
    Tax more or do without somethings locally to pay for local infrastructure hardening now, or wait and get lots of FREE Federal dollars and huge opportunity for graft in fixing lots of destroyed infrastructure later.

    My uncle had a Florida masonry business during Hurricane Andrew. Some of the Tampa area competitors went down to both work steadily and help get the area back on its feet. At about 2 weeks after Andrew, out-of-area Florida contractors could not get building permits. At about 3 weeks out-of-area subs were getting every job red-tagged (one got a hidden camera crew from CBS to document what was faulted was not actually done wrong or against published code, but CBS was warned off broadcasting the bit due to security issues of all the other CBS crews in the area).”Outsiders” left, and prices skyrocketed. And local government PTBs made out really really well (this happened to N.O. after Katrina as well). The second day after Hurricane Andrew when it was recalled that Homestead was on the base closing list, Uncle’s partner said the money should not rebuild at first, but close the base down first and relocate the base’s people (and families) and see if what was left undestroyed was enough for the remaining population. Insurance money could have provided starting money for those who no longer needed to be there without the base operating.

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  12. 12. sault 9:11 pm 10/28/2013

    Only in your paranoid mind, Noone. We’re ALREADY paying 100′s of BILLION$$$ in damages due to fossil fuel pollution, so this ISN’T a hypothetical situation. But I guess if you support the ability of people to create a giant mess without shouldering any of the responsibility, then I guess your moral compass is broken. Maybe you should get it checked…

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  13. 13. bigfoot1939 8:13 am 10/29/2013

    The answer is easy and hard. Why should I, a central America taxpayer, be paying to rebuild someone’s home or business when they CHOOSE to live in a disaster prone area. The answer is I should no be paying.

    The government must stop paying to rebuild everyone.

    If it is free you can never satisfy the demand.

    If you CHOOSE to live in a flood plain, on the coast, or on a hill on the west coast that floods annually you should get your own private insurance, I should not have to pay.

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  14. 14. Sisko 9:29 am 10/29/2013

    Infrastructure planning and construction is driven far more by potential changes in population levels than by the impacts of climate change. Infrastructure is generally planned to last for between 30 and about 100 years. Occasionally, very large projects like dams are planned to last longer, but those are exceptions.

    It is not particularly difficult to look at the historic weather trends and plan infrastructure around potential reasonable worst case scenarios for flooding, dry periods, etc. It is probably more difficult to plan for future population levels.

    Sault- You believe (again your religious like faith) that additional atmospheric CO2 will bring substantially more severe weather and other harms. There is no reliable data to support your belief. Why don’t you reference more “peer reviewed” papers that used GCM’s to forecast that your beliefs are possible. I think we have covered that adequately.

    You believe that CO2 will cause significant increases in temperature. The basic physics do not support this belief. The support is based upon theories that additional forcings will substantially increase the basic forcing caused by CO2. It is a theory. The observed conditions are showing us that the theory is flawed. Pull you head out of the sand and look at the observed conditions vs. what the models predicted. Reexamine your beliefs and adjust to reality. Climate changes will occur, but they will be over the long term and can be adjusted to if people plan.

    BTW- long term, bio engineered fuels are likely to replace fossil fuels in the coming decades and it is probable that using these will result in even more CO2 being released. It is just reality and humanity will adjust.

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  15. 15. Noone 12:07 pm 10/29/2013

    ” Only in your paranoid mind, Noone. We’re ALREADY paying 100′s of BILLION$$$ in damages due to fossil fuel pollution, so this ISN’T a hypothetical situation. But I guess if you support the ability of people to create a giant mess without shouldering any of the responsibility, then I guess your moral compass is broken. Maybe you should get it checked…

    Only in a “Holy Albert, Full of Hate, Save Us from Ourselves!” moral cline, pointing downward, does taking trillions of dollars from the private sector and handing it to government to excrete away make more sense than requiring people to purchase calamity insurance that covers 80% of damages in exchange for being eligible to receive disaster relief funds.

    You are so udderly clueless to the fact that EISs and EIRs for private (and public) projects identify ONGOING impacts that society must accept in exchange for similarly identified ONGOING BENEFITS of the project that it no longer would serve any purpose to take you back to the teat and font of truth.

    Again, your moral compass is precisely in line with that of the Father of Lies and progressive hive, pointing down.


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  16. 16. sault 4:01 pm 10/29/2013


    So when tornados and storms rip through “central America” (I assume you mean Nebraska or something…), do you think the government shouldn’t help the people recover as well? What about help to farmers when drought and extreme temperatures cause crop failures?

    Just go through this thought experiment with me for a sec…

    Say the government doesn’t help to rebuild places. And so the economic activity those places generate doesn’t happen, and then the tax revenue dries up, and now the government actually loses money by trying to be stingy. And then the crime rate skyrockets because there’s no jobs and then we have to pay to lock a lot of people up in jail. All this happens while people are struggling to recover from a disaster on their own, btw. Not a smart idea and it’s pretty heartless if you ask me.

    Now, building a matchstick house right on the edge of the water is a bad idea, but hurricanes threaten the Gulf Coast and the eastern 1/3 of our country. Do you want to resign all this territory to be on its own in case of a disaster? Do we want to lose the economic activity of the entire state of Florida just because we don’t feel like rebuilding it after disasters?

    Look, we take care of each other in this country. Lots of people would like to think that we’re on our own, but from the very beginning of our history, we have shown compassion and consideration for people in need. While you can always find exceptions, we have built upon this history to determine that “benevolent neglect” is anything but benevolent. Thinking otherwise is needlessly cruel and actually counterproductive.

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  17. 17. sault 4:11 pm 10/29/2013


    You don’t seem to be intelligent enough to understand what I’m saying, so I’ll phrase it differently. What’s so wrong about spending billions in pollution control measures in order to save hundreds of billions in healthcare costs, reduced productivity and premature death? Only in the eyes of polluting industries and their lobbyists / paid shills does continuing with the dirty status quo make any sort of sense. If you don’t believe me, look at the compliance costs of the clean air act or the phaseout of leaded gasoline compared to the benefits these environmental policies generated. The benefits are AT LEAST a factor of 10 and sometimes a factor of 100 larger than the complaince costs, so history is on my side.

    And if you think the EISs and EIRs of coal plants built in the 60′s and 70′s are ANYWHERE NEAR accurate and encompassing when it comes to the negative effects of pollution that we have discovered in the intervening years, I have some oceanfront property in Nebraska to sell you! Sorry, but polluter lobbyists got these dirty, old coal plants “grandfathered” out of the Clean Air Act and we’ve been paying billion$$$ in unnecessary damages every year since.

    Seriously, how can you even think you have sound moral judgement when you place corporate profits above peoples’ health and well being?

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  18. 18. Noone 5:08 pm 10/29/2013

    Dream on, Wally, you don’t seem to be intelligent enough to understand what I’m saying, so I’ll phrase it differently. What’s so wrong about NOT spending $ trillions in pollution control measures in order to save FICTIONAL hundreds of billions in healthcare costs, reduced productivity and premature deaths?

    Only in the dreamy eyes of self-haters who claim they love a perfect future (see Stalin’s 1935 speech to the shock workers about how Life is Becoming More Joyous!) does ending the current economy based on a surplus of middle class income to spend on goods and services make any sort of sense.

    If you don’t believe me, look at the RADICALLY UNDERSTATED compliance costs of the clean air act or the phaseout of leaded gasoline compared to the EVEN MORE FICTIVE benefits these environmental policies generated.

    The FICTIVE benefits are based on the premise that older folks living an additional 10 years on dialysis somehow constitutes a BENEFIT rather than a COST.

    In terms of “complaince costs” (did you really mean complaint costs?), the history of proven success for government ending any private sector indeed is on your side. See Stalin and Mao.

    The EISs and EIRs of coal plants built in the 60′s (sorry, there was no such law at the time) and 70′s may not be ANYWHERE NEAR accurate and encompassing when it comes to the negative effects of pollution that we have discovered in the intervening years.

    That is of course irrelevant unless you, in your quite legendary “fairness”, are willing to BUY OUT the investors in that free enterprise.

    And I’m sure I can find some land polluted by dioxins that YOUR government has certified as clean you can live on, giving full faith and credit to that same government you would hand the private sector over to.

    Evil polluter lobbyists got these evil dirty, old evil coal plants “grandfathered” out of the Clean Air Act AS A DECISION OF OUR SOCIETY, and we’ve been paying billion$$$ in damages MADE NECESSARY BY SUCH DECISIONS OF SOCIETY every year since.

    Seriously, how can you even think you have sound moral judgement when you place REGULATIONS above people having ANY spendable income after paying for increased costs of energy DESIGNED to END their upholding of our economy?


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