Heeding Lessons from Sandy: Planning Wisely for the Future with Smart Decisions Today

Written by Adam Whelchel on . Posted in Extreme weather

8506303672_5d349fe5ae_z Flickr Anthony Quintano NJ coaster in surf after SandyHere in Connecticut, Sandy is not the only hurricane anniversary worthy of marking in 2013.

A few weeks ago, on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, I led a group discussion with 200 people from Connecticut and Rhode Island to remember this catastrophe. The stories told that night have been passed from children to grandchildren and are as vivid today as that fateful day in September so long ago.

The historic Category 3 hurricane (also known as “The Long Island Express“), came ashore Sept. 21, 1938, damaging the homes of 93,000 families, immobilizing the capital cities of Hartford and Providence with 19 feet of flood waters, and scarring inland areas with an estimated 238 million trees downed or damaged.

While these memories of nature’s power are still very much alive, we seem to have forgotten lessons learned in our recovery that could have helped protect us against this generation’s stories of disasters – events with names like Irene and Sandy. The question before us now is whether we will forget once again, or take steps towards meaningful Coastal Resilience on this one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.

prd_032212 aftermath 1938 hurricane Mystic Seaport CT

Since 1938, the coastline from Washington D.C. to Boston has become the most urbanized landscape with the highest population concentrations in the United States (48 million residents or 15% of U.S. population). A recent study co-authored by The Nature Conservancy shows that at least 1.3 million people and billions in property value are located along the entire U.S. coastline – people and property at risk from coastal storm damage and sea level rise.

In recent years, the Northeast has experienced a staggering series of events including the hurricane-like rains of March 2010, Tropical Storm Irene and Lee (2011), Halloween Nor’easter (2011), and last season’s Winter Storm Nemo. These extreme storms,  interspersed with alarming heat waves and droughts, have provided a “stress test,” if you will, on centuries of previous planning decisions. These events remind us that there is ongoing need for creative, forward-looking planning and design to reduce our risk from the next major storm event.

To make sure we capture these lessons, The Nature Conservancy uses a participatory four step process to help communities become more resilient (we’ve worked with 20 Connecticut towns since 2007):

1) Assess local risks and strengths;

2) Identify choices;

3) Prioritize actions, and

4) Measure effectiveness.

Without these steps, there is a propensity for a series of reactive actions after natural disasters that will likely “fix” a singular issue (i.e., protect one house, intersection or culvert) but fail to address the larger community-wide issues (i.e., “at-risk” neighborhoods, transportation networks, business communications systems, open space/park systems).  The great tragedy of course is that the existing risk in a community is often a legacy of previous reactive responses that have handicapped decision flexibility and deferred costs until today.

8556238209_a8db970993_z Flickr USACE HQ damaged house Rockaways

As we work to convert lessons from Sandy into actions, there was welcome news this week that $162 million in federal grants will be awarded to 45 restoration and research projects intended to better protect and defend Atlantic Coast communities from the inevitable return of the extreme weather events we have witnessed. These projects will restore marshes, wetlands and beaches, rebuild shorelines, and drive research into how we can boost the resilience of our coasts to sustain the defenses provided by this natural infrastructure each and every day.

One example is our work as part of a $2.2 million region-wide initiative across the Sandy impacted area (Virginia to Maine) that will guide decisions about where to conduct coastal restoration, conservation and management. The goals are to sustain the ecological value, and storm defense services of tidal marshes in the face of storm impacts and ongoing sea level rise.

Another lesson of Sandy is that when we build – or rebuild – on top of dunes and wetlands, we are putting people in harm’s way, and further degrading the natural barriers that can help to defend us from wind-driven waves.

Undoubtedly, we will continue to hear about on-the-ground projects that advance more sustainable and resilient visions for communities along our nation’s coast. These approaches will continue to be driven, in part, by the recognition that better planning and design is required to accommodate immediate and longer-term changes and extreme weather.

Above all we must remain optimistic and realize that taking action to reduce risk in a strategic way will increase the flexibility of future decisions and more than likely avoid costs.  Future generations are counting on us to make those smart decisions today.

Adam Whelchel, PhD, is Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut.

Featured photo by: Flickr user Anthony Quintano (Roller coaster in Seaside, N.J. in the surf after Hurricane Sandy a year ago.) Used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo 2: © Mystic Seaport Museum (Flooding after the Great New England hurricane of 1938).

Photo 3 by: Flickr user USACE HQ (Damaged house on a beach in the Rockaways, N.J. after Hurricane Sandy). Used under a Creative Commons license.

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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