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.