Preparedness & Recovery

Sandy Refocuses Attention on Long-Term Recovery (Column)

It would be a shame to rebuild only to have the next storm cause Sandy-type damage to the same areas.

by / April 2, 2013

As New Jersey and other communities in the Northeast begin the rebuilding process after Hurricane Sandy, they face the question of how to rebuild.

It seems with more and larger natural disasters, the subject of long-term recovery has been getting more attention. Some say it’s long overdue. One of the questions facing the aforementioned communities is: Do you rebuild as before or take into consideration the effects of continued climate change and the continuing trend of more devastating natural disasters?

The answer from researchers is without a doubt, storms like Sandy and Irene could make landfall more often than previously projected. Irene, a Category 3 hurricane, generated storm surges that caused flooding to be considered a 100-year event. But researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University suggested recently that that type of surge could occur every three to 20 years as the climate changes.

They studied four climate models that generated 45,000 synthetic storms within the New York City area, under two different climates. The current climate condition represented the years 1981 through 2000, and the future climate reflected years 2081 through 2100.

The researchers simulated thousands of storms taking place under varied conditions and found that the 500-year floods that we’re used to could occur every 25 to 240 years if what they think about climate change is true.

In New York, a 100-year flood surge would produce a flood of about 2 meters. A 500-year flood surge would be a 3-meter high surge. The researchers found that with increasing greenhouse gas emissions, the 2-meter flood surge would occur every 20 years and the 3-meter surge every 25 to 240 years. Manhattan’s seawalls are 1.5 meters. The suggestion is to rebuild with higher seawalls in mind to prevent a major flood every 20 years.

Flood experts say the rebuilding effort offers an opportunity for better standards that will create more resilience for these communities. There will be pressure to rebuild quickly, but that should be resisted in favor of a smart plan that takes into consideration the dangers of future storms.

Along with calculating new flood surge levels, communities should consider elevating structures or otherwise flood-proofing or relocating them if they’re in areas deemed hazardous. In some cases, structures that have been repeatedly damaged shouldn’t be rebuilt but instead left to nature.

At the same time, it’s important to ensure that residents whose homes are damaged or destroyed don’t go through miles of red tape and bureaucracy like some did and are still doing after Katrina.

In the end, Sandy will have cost more than $50 billion, according to estimates. It would be a shame to rebuild only to have the next storm cause Sandy-type damage to the same areas.

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at