Sandy’s quick-fix legacy

One year later, the story of how to rebuild post-storm is still complicated

When Hurricane Sandy barreled through the East Coast last year, the next day’s news told the story of a city divided—between Upper Manhattanites, who waited out the storm drinking dark and stormies, and their neighbors to the south and east, who bore the full brunt of the storm surge, losing homes and lives.

A year later, in honor of the one-year anniversary of the hurricane, journalists are still telling a tale of two cities, but this time the breakdown is between the image of last year’s wreckage and the optimistic quest to rebuild. Even what’s become this year’s mandatory Sandy memorial story—the “Then and Now” photo gallery—takes the form of before and after. (Here’s a smattering from Slate, the Times Ledger, the New York Daily News
, ABC, and New York magazine.) When The Atlantic Wire surveyed front pages of local newspapers this week, they found the majority marked the anniversary with a picture of new construction. But beyond these feel-good stories of revitalization, there’s a larger, darker question mostly missing from the coverage. Namely: Are we rebuilding with the right protections? And, should we be rebuilding at all?

As NPR pointed out on Monday, repairs been “slow” and “uneven,” as communities rebuild—not necessarily with future risk in mind—but at the haphazard rate that money is dispersed. Even for the funding “winners,” nothing is sure. In New York City, Bloomberg has proposed a $20 billion resistance plan, profiled in this week’s Time magazine. Despite the hefty price tag, author Bryan Walsh writes, the protections are not nearly as ambitious as the floodwalls in Rotterdam or London. With Bloomberg leaving office, and taking his blank-check capabilities with him, “there’s no guarantee that Bloomberg’s ambitious vision for a more resilient New York will ever become a reality.”

And the new barricades and barriers can provide a false sense of security for areas that remain vulnerable to another super storm. In OnEarth environmental writer David Gessner comes at the issue by walking the Jersey shoreline with a coastal geologist, investigating the sand dunes that were once deemed an eyesore, and now viewed as necessity, for beachfront towns. Though the sand provides a barrier against inclement weather, “they’re not enough,” Gessner decrees. “The surges associated with any decently sized storm will be able to best any defense you might be able to construct, and then—once it has done so—leave communities more vulnerable.” Though sand dunes represent the most paltry of defenses, we’ve learned from other storms that even elaborate weather protections break. By relying on insulation, Gessner argues, we’re drawing our attention away from a bigger, less easily solved problem: “Too many people live on what are, essentially, frail and migrating scraps of sand.”

A slew of early coverage portrayed Sandy as a storm induced by global warming, but a year later the press has been more careful attributing the superstorm to climate change, and communicating the likelihood of another one. It’s true that it’s impossible—let’s say it together now—to attribute a single extreme weather event to global warming, but climate change does increase the likelihood of such events, as well as their severity. Despite the early coverage, a survey by Climate Central found that little of the climate awareness raised by Sandy stuck: Quickly after the superstorm, Google searches of “climate change awareness” and “disaster preparedness” began diminishing. The storm failed to harken substantive change, the researchers at Climate Central believe, in part because the science to explain Sandy is just starting to be released months after the storm—like this study, released in September, over nine months later.

The Climate Desk consortium has been pushing out a heroic quantity of articles breaking down what the slew of science on Sandy actually means for our future hurricane risk. Hurricanes are difficult weather events to predict and attribute since they are a combination of many different factors, but as Chris Mooney writes in Mother Jones, sea level rise easily ties Sandy’s devastation to climate change and ups the ante of future risk:

For every inch of sea level rise, an estimated 6,000 additional people were impacted by Sandy who wouldn’t have been otherwise. While numerous other factors, such as the tidal cycle, also affect the size of a given storm’s surge, global warming is now a measurable part of the total impact. And the more seas rise in the future, the worse the impact gets—and the more likely future Sandys become.

It’s true that breaking down the risk of extreme weather is a more complicated (and less SEO friendly) project than pushing out another makeover slideshow. But in order to be optimistic about the future, it’s important to fully understand the past—not just build a sand dune around it.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , , , , ,