8 Nov 2012

Hurricane Sandy and choices for the future

I live in the Netherlands, where living below sea level for many years has driven the Dutch to take flooding and storm surges very seriously.*

It's therefore interesting to compare the damage from the storm to the early warnings that Americans had from the Dutch and scientists. Were the Americans right to have ignored those warnings? After all... "Hurricane Sandy was a fluke, right? A storm surged from 90-mile-per-hour winds of a hurricane colliding with a northeaster, perfectly timed with a maximum full-moon high tide. The statistical likelihood of this is once in every 500 to 1,000 years."

Huh. I guess the 2010 book on my table [pp 51-52 of Book II here] is about 497 years early:
Storm surges along the eastern seaboard of the US are associated with either late summer-autumn hurricanes or extra-tropical cyclones in the winter period, so called nor'easters... the height of the hurricane surge is amplified if it coincides with the astronomical high time and additionally occurs at the time of new and full moon... hurricanes have struck the coastal New York area six times in 1900-1990, resulting in severe coastal flooding, damage and destruction of beachfront property, severe beach erosion, downed power lines, power outages and disruption of normal transportation.
When I visited with Piet Dircke in Rotterdam (the center of Dutch vulnerability to floods) two years ago, we discussed the problem of flooding, and he gave me his book (free to download, by the way). He was also disappointed that New Yorkers were not interested in investing the time and money necessary for protecting their city from surges and floods. How was that possible when the CEO of New York was saying this?

Well, it's possible because they were trying to avoid relocating people and neighborhoods or paying $20-30 billion for a real (i.e., Dutch-quality) system for protecting the area that would [p. 59]:**
... stretch across from Sandy Hook, N.J. to Far Rockaway, Long Island... providing protection to the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, additional northern NJ communities, Jamaica Bay and JFK Airport.
Now it would probably have been impossible for New Yorkers and others in the region to build such a system in time for the (unexpected) arrival of Sandy, but was there any plan in the works? Not that I know of. That's unfortunate, as the storm caused $20 billion in damages to New York alone.***

So what will happen next? The Dutch would engage in a ruthless triage -- moving people away from vulnerable but poor areas while building up 1-in-10,000 year defenses for places that are too valuable to abandon (e.g., Rotterdam).

Will the People of Sandy engage in the same ruthless triage, or will they make the same mistake as we've seen with the rebuilding of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans? That political decision to rebuild is a costly and populist gesture that is likely to end when the returnees are flooded again in the future.

Although that mistake is possible, I am hoping the Bloomberg and others take the time to read this book (and all the other warnings and studies) and make the right decision to rebuild in safer places while leaving those who want to stay in unsafe places to pay for their own foolishness.

Bottom Line: Climate change means that the environment is not going to be reliable and business as usual is going to get more costly. We need to learn a few things from the Dutch: (1) Be realistic; (2) Plan seriously; and (3) Spend seriously. Anything less is not just going to be tragic, but criminally incompetent.

* You may want to read my posts on the Delta Works and Delta Commission, which addressed these dangers in the past and for the future, respectively. Read this post on why it's difficult for the Dutch to export their water "expertise" -- mostly because the rest of the world faces water shortage rather than water superabundance.

** They were paying more attention to redeveloping New York, since valuable real estate generates property taxes and flood barriers cost money. I just saw Urbanized (2011), which has an extensive narrative on The High Line and other cool projects but nothing about urban defenses.

*** As well as causing vast grief and inconvenience. People unable to use the flooded subways or tunnels took to bikes to avoid horrible traffic jams (as well as the need to buy gasoline, which was available for sex). It's a gratuitous tragedy that so many politicians have embraced "anti-gouging laws" that prevent prices from rising to balance supply and demand. Some gas stations stayed closed to avoid angry customers (or offer fuel for sex!); others stayed open but had cars waiting for hours to fill up. Read more on how these laws are counter-productive here and here.

H/Ts to MR, MS and MV


Jay said...

Our political system has clearly failed us.

I don't expect New Yorkers, or New Jersey residents to abandon water front property just because it will be flooded from time to time. Since the folly is susidized by federal disaster relief (and federal flood insurance) there is little reason to act prudently Moral hazard is introduced when predictable events are treated as acts of God.

The mayors of big cities are more interested in limiting the availiability of high fat and high sugar foods and beverages than in solving the collective action problem of common infrastructure.

My profession is bridge engineering. When designing for earthquake loads we use return intervals of thousands of years. For flooding, a 100 year storm is the typical design event. When I worked on US Corps of Engineers flood control projcts, they used a 300 year storm for design.

Given the life of infrastructure and the permanence of settlement patterns facilitated by infrastructure projects these design criteria are almost certain to be exceeded in several locations every year.

Anonymous said...

While the communitites should take the opportunity to rebuild intelligently and take into consideration the failure to manage growth and development intelligently, the fact remains that the wealthy interests with legal control over the property being discussed will not let that occur unless they are compensated for the "highest and best use" of the property. If there is any intrusion (real or perceived) on property rights that are held sacrosanct, litigation will ensue. Are you ready to pay landowners billions in highly skewed compensation for lands that should not be built upon when common sense would state that intelligent growth management would be the better alternative? Or do we simply screw the poorer areas and residents and subsidize the wealthy interests by utilizing taxpayer money to protect their million dollar homes with engineered solution, after subsidizing the insurance payments that they will use to rebuild their 6,000 square foot McMansions?

In the vein of "smaller government," I would propose allowing the propertied interests to rebuild if they like, but requiring them to rebuild any and all infrastructure, including roads, water, electricity, etc. No insurance would be allowed unless a specialty firm arose that would handle only that insurance and would not be linked to any other market or subsidized by the government. If the property owners want beach renourishment or protective measures, they have to pay to maintain construct and maintain them. Lastly, should engineering studies or models show that the design and construction of the rebuilding efforts would negatively impact adjacent communities (water quality, flooding, etc.) the property owners would be responsible for compensating those communities for any and all impacts (at the highest and best use standard).

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