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.”