Sandy Anniversary is a Reminder of the Need for Better Protections

A year after Hurricane Sandy, more work remains to be done to help families and communities fully recover. But another pressing need, not only for those who were in Sandy’s wake but for all of us, is to learn from the storm’s devastating impacts and reduce the risk of future damage and loss of life.

Hurricane Sandy’s estimated $65 billion in damages make it the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history, surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina.

Building resilience to the impacts of major coastal storms like Sandy—and to other types of extreme weather that are becoming more intense and frequent as a result of climate change—will require a commitment to better protect infrastructure and implement  policies to help get people out of harm’s way. Both efforts should take into account how future sea level rise can amplify storm surges, potentially making future impacts greater than what we’ve experienced in the past.

A $20 billion plan proposed by the outgoing Bloomberg administration to safeguard New York City against future storms is one of the most ambitious efforts by any U.S. city to prepare for the expected impacts of climate change. It proposes changes to building codes and outlines steps to increase shoreline protection and harden critical service infrastructure. One example of progress: The Con Edison 14th street substation, which failed spectacularly the night Sandy struck, has been reinforced with 18 foot concrete walls. But the future of the plan, including some large infrastructure projects, will depend on continued funding and political will.

For owners of Sandy-damaged homes, questions of how and if to rebuild are surfacing. Some owners are raising their homes above flooding levels. Others are choosing to relocate. On Staten Island, the state has begun demolishing homes in one community where 99 percent of residents opted to participate in a state buyout program that will use the land as a natural flood buffer against future storms.

Elsewhere along the Atlantic coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is updating flood zone maps. Under a law Congress passed in 2012, these maps will be used to determine new, risk-based premiums for second homes and commercial properties under the National Flood Insurance Program. In many cases, these maps have not been updated in more than 30 years and do not reflect the true danger, resulting in a program that’s $24 billion in debt.

Some members of Congress are seeking to limit increases in flood insurance premiums. We can’t ignore the plight of families facing hefty insurance increases, but we also can’t ignore the increasing costs and risks associated with coastal property in an era of rising seas.

The need to prepare for future coastal flooding was reflected in the Interior Department’s announcement last week of $162 million for 45 storm-protection projects from North Carolina to New England.

Building resilience to extreme weather and climate change will not be cheap or easy, but storms like Sandy demonstrate that the costs of inaction are higher.