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How are US cities preparing for next superstorm Sandy?

Three years ago this week, superstorm Sandy battered New York and New Jersey.

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    The sun rises in Seaside Heights, N.J., Feb. 23, 2013, behind the Jet Star Roller Coaster which has been sitting in the ocean after part of the Casino Pier was destroyed during superstorm Sandy. The Jet Star is long gone from the ocean on the third anniversary of superstorm Sandy's landfall on the coasts of New York and New Jersey Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015. But some victims are still not back in homes that were pummeled by the storm.
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After superstorm Sandy flooded the first-floor office of The Wave newspaper in Rockaway, Queens, the staff moved into a narrow office upstairs to continue working. It took a month to publish its first post-Sandy issue, but the paper has survived significant damage. The staff still hasn’t been able to move back downstairs, though.

“We’re just getting ready to start some work on the first floor,” says Susan Locke, the newspaper’s publisher. “I can’t believe it’s been three years.”

For many people in New York and New Jersey, on Oct. 29, 2012, climate change was a distant problem, one for future generations. The storm changed that perception for many, studies show.

"Sandy definitely helped people realize that the effects of climate change are being felt now," says Denise Grab, a senior attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University.

The third anniversary of Sandy making landfall in New York and New Jersey this week offers citizens and experts alike a chance to reflect – on both how the region has rebuilt and how prepared the Eastern Seaboard is for a potential future of rising sea levels and more extreme storms. The National Surveys on Energy and Environment (NSEE) reported earlier this month that acceptance of global warming among Americans had reached its highest level since 2008. Whether Americans accept how much their coastal communities may have to change as a result is still an open question.

“This is not about preparing for the next Sandy. This is about preparing for new conditions across the board,” says Rachel Cleetus, a climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Sandy battered the region with hurricane-force winds, resulting in almost 60 deaths and tens of billions of dollars in damage (at more than $71 billion, it is the second-costliest Atlantic hurricane in US history, behind hurricane Katrina). While scientists caution that it would not be accurate to say that climate change caused the storm, it is believed it may have exacerbated its strength.

Three years on, the region has made great strides in both rebuilding and preparing. US climate policy, meanwhile, has made unprecedented strides in both addressing the root causes of climate change, namely carbon emissions, and adapting to the changes the country is already experiencing.

With a suite of climate policies ranging from vehicle fuel-economy standards to regulations on carbon emissions from the electricity sector, America has quietly become a climate change leader heading into a potentially landmark international climate conference in Paris next month.

“Hopes to address climate pollution from power plants existed long before Sandy, but I think [the storm] raised the profile of these issues and raised the importance of these issues,” says Ms. Grab.

Public perception of climate change appeared to change after Sandy. The NSEE, based at the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, compared surveys taken before and after Sandy and found that “the importance of hurricanes as a factor cited by individuals in their belief that global warming is happening rose significantly.”

Despite the progress, some experts have concerns that the response to date doesn't adequately address the underlying issue on the scale needed for the long term.

“We can list some wonderful things that have been done since Sandy, but I think it’s largely missing the bigger boat,” says Klaus Jacob, a senior researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We have to fundamentally rethink what it means to be a coastal city, and it depends on the geography of each city what then the possible solutions are.”

And some of the measures under way right now – including New York’s $19.5 billion Special Initiative on Rebuilding and Resiliency, which features tidal gates, beachfront bulwarks, and an upgrade to the city’s electrical grid so it can withstand major weather events – are not enough, he thinks.

“Most of the solutions are what I would label short or at best midterm solutions. By ‘short’ I mean years, and by ‘midterm’ I mean a few decades,” he adds.

“Almost nowhere do we have a good model of how to deal with this in the long run,” he says. “When we look at our grandchildren, who want to make a living in the year 2100, the solutions we are proposing right now will not help them.” 

Jacob notes that lower Manhattan is already dotted with reminders of its past – and perhaps its future – with Canal Street and Water Street snaking through what used to be called New Amsterdam.

“Most people think we should learn from the past,” he adds. “I wish we could at least do that, but with climate change and sea level rise, it's not enough to look at the past. We really have to look at the future.”

'People just want to live near the ocean'

The first, and perhaps easiest, thing cities can do today, he says, is stop building on the waterfront. So far, that hasn’t happened. Miami Beach, for example, is experiencing a “construction boom."

Miami argues that it is being “progressive and pragmatic” in its development, building in concert with new flood-control measures such as pumps that flush excess water off the streets and into Biscayne Bay. New York is developing in a similar fashion.

In Rockaway, Ms. Locke says that new homes and condos are being built on the beach, along with sand dunes and sea walls to protect the thin peninsula.

“People just want to live near the ocean, and if we can protect what we have, people will continue moving here,” she says.

It’s not just severe storms that are flooding coastal cities; it’s extra-strength high tides every few months.

Just this week, cities along the Southeast coastline were hit by “king tides” – a nonscientific term for severe nuisance flooding driven by lunar cycles.

Flooding in Charleston, S.C., earlier this week reached hurricane levels – and there was no hurricane. “Tidal flooding is now becoming so routine in many places along the Eastern Seaboard that I think it’s propelling the conversation about more extreme conditions as well,” says Ms. Cleetus.

The future of small coastal towns

Outside of urban areas, small coastal towns face an even more uncertain future. A bulk of the damage in New Jersey from Sandy affected such towns – many almost entirely dependent on the ocean for economic survival. Adapting these places to a future of rising seas may be an even greater challenge than in major cities.

These small towns may not be as well known as lower Manhattan and Miami Beach, but their residents may be just as unwilling to move, says Tricia Wachtendorf, associate director of the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center.

“These are communities entrenched in particular tourist activities or economic activities and they have bonds with each other, to where they live and where they grew up,” she says. “To just have people leave, that’s not a simple solution.”

Many residents of these areas have businesses tied to the coast or homes that have been in the family for generations. Three years on, some New Jersey residents are still determinedly waiting to move back into homes that were damaged by the storm.

“The imperative to consider future threats is significant, but the challenges to act alongside other community priorities should also not be understated,” Dr. Wachtendorf adds in a follow-up e-mail.

Locke embodies this dilemma. She lives right across the ocean – as most do in the narrow Rockaway Peninsula – and she witnessed Sandy's wrath firsthand.

“For me, it’s very scary, and I know that climate change is affecting us and I know how devastating it can be,” she says. But she’s still hopeful that “we’re going to continue to grow” in the future.

Climate change was never a “front and center” issue in Rockaway before Sandy, she says.

It is now, but that doesn’t mean people want to move.

“People are worried about [climate change] and think about it,” she says. “That’s why they want everything that has to be done to protect us – they want it done as quickly as possible.”

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