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Superstorm Sandy Speaks to Preparedness for Climate Disruption

Flooding from Hurricane Sandy at station on Metro-North Railroad’s Hudson Line. Photo credit: MTA Metro-North Railroad / Randall Fleischer.

As floodwaters rose in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park, surged down Long Island’s Montauk Highway, and turned Atlantic City, New Jersey into a saltwater lake, Hurricane Sandy appeared to be a preview of the apocalypse.

But for a historic, record-breaking storm, Sandy’s toll of death and human loss has thankfully been modest.

To be sure, any loss of life and homes is tragic.  As I write, the storm’s U.S. death toll stands at 29, and nearly 8 million households are without power.  The post-storm cleanup and rebuilding will tax many already-stressed families and towns.  But given the superstorm’s power and size, the human losses so far appear comparatively low.

And the main reason for this silver lining is preparedness.

Weather forecasters used the best available satellite data and prediction models to forecast with incredible accuracy what was coming.  Government officials at all levels – from the U.S. President to governors to mayors – took these warnings seriously, and acted upon them.

People in evacuation zones were ordered to leave, and, for the most part, they left.  Those sheltering in place were told to stay indoors, leaving roads clear for rescue missions, and, for the most part, they did.  Millions of people in Sandy’s path filled bathtubs with water, readied their battery supply, and stocked pantries with canned goods.

Preparedness paid off.

Yet the disparity between our preparedness for Sandy and for the perfect storms coming in the years ahead due to global climate disruption is striking – and dangerous.

The preponderance of the world’s climate scientists, just like Sandy’s weather forecasters, have warned that our warming world will deliver knock-out punches of a whole new magnitude – from devastating floods, long-lasting droughts, rising seas and storm surges. Record-breaking events could happen in many places simultaneously, threatening food and water shortages and massive loss of life in many parts of the world.

The Big Dry in Australia, the monsoonal flooding of Pakistan, the record-breaking wildfires in the American Southwest, the crop-killing heat wave in Russia, the persistent drought across the U.S. heartland, and now Superstorm Sandy – to name just a few recent events– are simply a preview of disasters to come.

Instead of sparring over whether human-induced climate disruption is the cause of any particular flood or drought, we should be preparing for the more extreme weather that scientists warn is coming.

Preparedness for climate disruption is far more complex, to be sure.  It involves mitigating the harm by investing in energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, and climate-friendly transportation systems.  It involves building durable food systems and smarter water management.  And it involves strategically rebuilding our ecological infrastructure – including wetlands, floodplains and watersheds – so as to enlist nature’s help in mitigating both droughts and floods.

The lessons from Sandy couldn’t be clearer.  Invest in good monitoring and forecasting, so we know what’s coming.  Demand leaders who listen to the scientific intelligence, and act on it.  And as responsible citizens, work together to build secure, resilient communities.

So as we applaud our public officials for their sound responses to Sandy, let’s ask them to show similar leadership in preparing our communities for climate disruption.

For if there’s one thing the poker-playing gamblers in Atlantic City learned as Sandy’s storm surge swamped the city streets, it’s that clear-eyed leadership, preparedness and action pay off in spades.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

Comments

  1. Steryia Dustin
    America
    November 4, 2012, 1:23 am

    hpy halloween to evryone!!!

  2. Mili Mehta
    India
    November 4, 2012, 1:20 am

    Super Storm Sandy……………THE MOST COSTLIEST …SCARIEST…AND DEVASTATING STORM EVER HAD……..!!!

  3. Rob
    November 1, 2012, 9:17 am

    I don’t want to diminish the impact on the people in the area, but I hate how this author further contributes to the hysteria about climate change. Let’s keep in mind that it’s now called “Climate Change”, not “Global Warming” anymore. Latest data suggests the earth has not warmed up in the past 16 years. “Climate Change” is a tautology, climate is constantly changing. Honestly I would be more worried about the next ice age versus weathering more storms. Storms pass, ice ages last years and have serious impact on crops. Author, please stop feeding the hysteria!

    • Sandra Postel
      November 1, 2012, 10:28 am

      There is full scientific agreement that the Earth has warmed (based on scientific measurements, not guesswork or ideology) and will continue to warm in the coming decades.

  4. Karl Hickel
    October 31, 2012, 6:22 pm

    Encase all power transformer stations in concrete or steel buildings and bury utility lines.

  5. Ressa
    california
    October 31, 2012, 1:19 pm

    I hope the best for those people. Im so glad im on the westcoast though, i feel safe…….lol but not for long. Plus this storm reminds me of “The Day After Tommarow”!!! Pretty scary. Anyways it’s Oct 31st people so Happy Halloween!! ^_^

  6. Ian Welch
    Palm Beach, Florida
    October 31, 2012, 12:45 pm

    Throughout history we can identify moments that occur that can only be attributed to a paradigm shift in public opinion. They generally precede government policy. These moments are generally brief but are the harbinger of huge changes in culture and eventually policy.
    We are in the midst of a monumental shift in the perception of nutrition and the global benefits that can come from this change. At the core of the change is people want to live well; but they also want to leave something behind for subsequent generations.
    “We cannot escape by forging on, resolutely and regardless, driven by the unmitigated inertia of our outworn habits, until we have forced ourselves over the brink in the ‘giant step for mankind’ nobody needs. When you have reached the edge of an abyss, the only progressive move you can make is to step backward…” (Alwyn Rees, Author). An unknown author then added instead of stepping backwards; “Turn around and step forward”.
    There exists an inflection point where the chart turns. It is the point, as a nation, when we face the abyss and turn away… and take a step forward; a step towards our personal well being and the health of the earth. “This is not a return to the past, but a step toward a different future”. (Brower, Sierra Club)
    The solution is to promote a society that is not dependent on animal protein. This is the moment where two parallel causes can unite. By moving to a Plant Based diet we can step away from the abyss. By eliminating our need for animal protein we are drastically reducing our carbon footprint. It takes a considerable amount of energy to raise animals for nutrition. The turn and step forward is our new approach towards your own well being, a life that is well lived and nutritionally sound.
    In one simple act we can embrace two life changing causes. One cause for you, one cause for everyone.

    Full essay here: http://wholefed.org/2012/08/14/plant-based-diet-good-for-you-good-for-the-planet/

    Ian Welch

  7. Sana Raza
    Pakistan
    October 31, 2012, 7:33 am

    Is this strom releates to the Doomsday