A sea change
A comprehensive approach is needed
Part of the issue, Redlener says, is the need to find the best use of limited resources to gain the maximum benefit from preventive measures, by developing more integrated systems and good backups to cope with emergencies. "We need to respond to the lessons," he says.
David Groves, a senior policy researcher for the Rand Corporation, has focused on developing a master plan to respond to the issues raised by Hurricane Katrina. He argues that one lesson the Northeast should take from Katrina is that a comprehensive approach to resolving its issues is essential.
"There is often a rush to act," he says. "In the heat of the moment people want to do something. But it's better to develop a master plan, to understand the trade-offs, which takes time to figure out."
Groves says that the Rand study uses models that show how different solutions bring different results. "It's important to evaluate the risks in coastal zones," he says. "Officials have to decide how much risk they're willing to live with and the estimated impact on the environmental systems of different solutions."
Others are using Sandy as an example of the effects of climate change on communities, anticipating that other events will occur and trying to understand the vulnerabilities that these events uncover in hopes they can minimize damage.
Tammy Zborel, the sustainability program director at the National League of Cities in Washington, is leading an effort to help cities establish solutions for issues related to sustainability. She is meeting with other leaders in the public sector sustainability area to develop a strategy for the long term.
"Sandy revived the national conversation and accelerated it," she says. "It made us look again at the practical steps we are already taking and to make future investments in the future."
She says that many leaders are already planning for contingencies related to changing weather patterns and other natural disasters. "It's a high priority for cities," she says. "The lessons from 2012 are a lens to show cities what can happen with extreme storms, pest infestation and issues that are happening in areas across the county. They need to be prepared."
Vicki Bennett, director of the Office of Sustainability in Salt Lake City, Utah, says her community continues to update its goals to adapt to the changing landscape and develop programs to reduce the impact from a warming climate.
While Sandy's damage does not reach her community, there is potential for local disasters that must be considered, she says. "We are getting stronger storms and larger winds," she says. "We are looking at where the risks are."
In addition, the city sits in an earthquake prone area, where she says the next event is 300 years overdue by the geological clock. "We have to undertake emergency planning," she says. "We have built an emergency operations center that will withstand an earthquake. Nothing will knock it down."
Whether the disaster is a hurricane coming off the ocean, an earthquake or a forest fire, preparation must be made according to the circumstances of the given community and the specific event, Redlener says.
"Each has its own unique story," he says. "Still, there are general principles that must be followed. Medical care and food must be available. The equipment supply chain must be reliable. Gasoline must be available to the disabled area."
Government leaders can look at the last event and learn from the past, but nothing is accomplished if solutions are not put in place, Redlener says. "Perhaps we will heed the lessons next time."
Robert Barkin is a Bethesda, Md.- based freelance writer.