A sea change
It is time for radical changes
While many government leaders and property owners want to restore communities to their pre-storm setting, others believe that the devastation, as tragic as it was, presents an opportunity to solve land-use issues that require radical change in the use of flood-prone areas.
"For many, Hurricane Sandy was something that was expected for a long time," says Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. "We were not prepared for the storm. A lot of good work fell by the wayside."
Tittel says he fears that governments will succumb to public pressure and turn as soon as possible to "simplistic" solutions, such as seawalls, rather than exploring more complicated but more effective ideas.
"It's a mistake to go back to the way it was," he says. Just trying to hold back the ocean will be ineffective, he believes, because homes and businesses will just be damaged and destroyed in the inevitable next storm. "It's not only a waste of taxpayer money but it puts people in harm's way."
Tittel argues that communities should correct the mistakes of the past and reduce what he considers "lenient" building regulations near the coastline. "We should turn some of those low-lying areas that got flooded so badly, and keep getting flooded, back into marshes and wetlands," he says.
Mitchell says his work focuses on how people have reacted to the intensity of the storm, rather than trying to devise solutions. Based on his interviews with emergency managers, he says there is a growing understanding that climate change must now be taken into account in planning for future disasters.
He says that Hurricane Irene, which struck the area in 2011, raised the awareness of the possibility of storm damage and actually saved lives because residents heeded warnings to evacuate, but that human cost continues to be devastating nonetheless. Yet, months after the storm, he has found that there remain many people who are "living a precarious existence," still housed in shelters or temporary structures. The toll underscores the need for taking action.
"How we recover from this event will be different from all the previous," he says. "We have a tendency to look for the big disaster to make changes in public policy and how people think. We are redefining the risk upwards. We hope that this time the lessons will stick."
Redlener points to continuing communications failures as an example of failing to learn from a tragedy. One of the lessons learned from the September 11, 2001, terrorism attack, for example, was that communications gaps between police and fire responders led to the deaths of firefighters. "Yet, here we are 11 years later and we're barely to the point of implementing that particular lesson," he says.
From a public health point of view, he says, one of the major faults in the response to Hurricane Sandy was that many frail and elderly residents in New York City were in significant danger and isolated following the storm.
"Time after time, we do not seem to learn from issues," he says. "We don't learn that one size does not fit all, that we need special planning for the particularly vulnerable."