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The Lesson of Hurricane Sandy: Pay Now, Not Later

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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

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

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