Before the Next Storm

RPA's staff and board all have been shocked and saddened by the loss of life and devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy.

The storm also 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, Conn., 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, R.I., New Bedford, Mass., 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.

To protect key infrastructure, the region also should consider enclosing transit stations,
road and rail tunnels and utility plants in ways that seal out water. We also should explore ways to develop a more distributed energy network, so that power can be maintained to most areas even when the central distribution system, or branches on the power network, suffer damage. It also will be critical to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that are harming our environment and scientists say are increasing the frequency of severe weather.

Some of the necessary research and planning to protect our cities and communities has been carried out in recent years, as policy makers have been made more aware of the risks we face. But implementation has been inconsistent and involved mostly small steps.

But in Sandy's wake, a new political will has emerged. In the last week, the region's three governors and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have said publicly that we need to prioritize storm protection and resiliency.

In the coming weeks and months, RPA will work with policy makers and civic leaders to help identify the best strategies to protect our region. While the work required might seem daunting, the cost of preventative measures is far smaller than the toll suffered by the region when core infrastructure is battered and rendered unusable, homes are damaged and destroyed, millions of residents are unable to get to work or school, and lives are lost. It is imperative that we use this opportunity to move forward with changes in our region.