Before the Next Storm

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s important to make changes in our infrastructure to reduce damage in future disasters.

Hurricane Sandy has brought home the responsibility that we share to make our region more resilient in the face of severe weather and more responsive to the threats posed by climate change. What is certain is that we will need new policies, and new investments, to reduce our susceptibility to environmental disasters. Sandy led to the death of more than 70 people in the region and caused more than $50 billion in damage and economic losses. The storm also disrupted the daily lives and commutes of nearly all of the region’s 23 million residents. Whether or not these events are the result of human-caused global warming, it is clear that we need to do much more to lessen their toll. Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath have awakened us to an uncomfortable reality: The country’s most populated area and its largest economic engine sits on a vulnerable coastline. Yet there are many measures that would help ease the impact of storm surges. One approach would be to erect tidal gates and barriers to prevent storm surges from reaching the region’s core. Although these systems are expensive and pose significant engineering and ecological questions, they can, and do prevent serious flood damage.

Where I live in Stamford, Connecticut, a hurricane barrier built 50 years ago has protected the city from flooding during every serious storm since then, including during Hurricane Sandy. Similar barriers have performed well in Providence, Rhode Island; New Bedford, Massachusetts; as well as in Rotterdam and along the Thames in London.

Other measures also must be considered. In less densely populated flood-prone areas, it might be more cost-effective and less damaging to our estuaries and natural resources to focus on the restoration of barrier dunes and wetlands systems and the elevation of homes and other structures. Localities should take a hard look at local land-use policies that encourage building in areas known to be at risk. Structures that aren’t built to modern flood standards can be encouraged to retrofit, and zoning codes can be updated to allow for needed changes to residential and commercial buildings. In some cases state or local governments can offer to buy vulnerable properties, leaving the land to flood during storms without risk to lives or homes. For more, here is our RPA Newsletter.

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Robert D. Yaro is president of the Regional Plan Association, the nation’s oldest independent metropolitan policy, research, and advocacy group. RPA promotes the livability, vitality, and sustainability of the New York metropolitan region. This blog post is related to a post by Alex Marshall, Water Out or Water In?, a piece written about New York’s waterfront issues prior to Hurricane Sandy.

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