Does Knowledge + Disaster = Needed Actions?

Right now, the the window of opportunity is open in NY and NJ to orchestrate the recovery from H. Sandy.  The body of knowledge is substantial about risks, vulnerabilities, potential flood control measures, and alternative development patterns. The disaster has occurred, with the expectation of an estimated 50B worth of damage. So, are we at the tipping point for public policy attention and action?

In a remarkable 12 page article, titled Hurricane Sandy Damage Amplified by Breakneck Development of Coast, 4 knowledgable authors cite about 12 recent studies/reports that describe the risks and vulnerabilities of the region that have just been exposed by H. Sandy.  Once again, scientists and other researchers have known for years, even decades, about some of the problems now known by most of the public. H. Sandy exposed the known weaknesses, and added a few new ones. 

I urge you to read the full article. A few excerpts are included here:

Authorities in New York and New Jersey simply allowed heavy development of at-risk coastal areas to continue largely unabated in recent decades, even as the potential for a massive storm surge in the region became increasingly clear.

In the end, a pell-mell, decades-long rush to throw up housing and businesses along fragile and vulnerable coastlines trumped commonsense concerns about the wisdom of placing hundreds of thousands of closely huddled people in the path of potential cataclysms.

Developers built up parts of the Jersey Shore and the Rockaways, a low-lying peninsula in Queens, N.Y., in similar fashion in recent years, with little effort by local or state officials to mitigate the risk posed by hurricanes, experts said. Real estate developers represent a powerful force in state politics, particularly in New Jersey and New York, where executives and political action committees have been major donors to governors and local officeholders.

This coastal growth took place even as public and private sector leaders in both New York and New Jersey began expressing growing concern over the potential for climate change to intensify storms and accelerate already rising sea levels. New York City officials in particular were well aware of the ways in which climate change would make the potentially destructive effects of a major hurricane worse, scientists said.

“It’s just horrendous that there’s been all this research and all this analysis and so little action,” said Suzanne Mattei, former chief of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s New York City regional office. “It’s a shame that we seem never to take the kind of action we need to until something really awful happens.”

Policymakers in New Jersey had their own warnings that a severe storm surge posed a major risk to the state’s densely populated coastline. In a series of reports over the past decade, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection warned in stark terms that increased risk of hurricanes from climate change, coupled with a continued population expansion along New Jersey’s coast, had set the stage for an enormously expensive disaster.

For decades, critics pushed for greater scrutiny of new development by state and local officials along the New Jersey coastline. Yet new construction continued unabated, as state law requires only lenient reviews of smaller developments in coastal areas.

“There’s plenty of information out there about the risk on the Jersey Shore,” said Ken Mitchell, a professor of geography at Rutgers University who has studied hurricane risks in New Jersey and throughout the world. “But it doesn’t seem to have reached deep enough in the public policy system to do anything to handle the magnitude of this storm.”

A more clear-eyed view of the interplay of haphazard development and natural forces would also help, analysts say.Research by Princeton University in 2005 –- seven years before Sandy arrived — found that New Jersey’s rapid population growth in coastal counties was setting the scene for monumental environmental damage and property loss. The report argued that much of the hazards were man-made, and predictable.

“In New Jersey, and the U.S. at large, there remains a significant lack of public understanding of the predictability of coastal hazards,” the report read. “Episodic flooding events due to storm surges are often perceived as ‘natural disasters,’ not failures in land use planning and building code requirements.”

Update on Nov.14th: The HS Wire reports on a 2009 study by the ASCE that warned of pending problems.

This entry was posted in Hurricane Sandy, Information Sources, Infrastructure, Policy Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

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