Superstorm Sandy (Part I: Spinning Climate, Weather for Political Points)
In the wake of “Superstorm” Sandy, the political spin and distractions reached hurricane proportions. “It’s global warming, stupid,” declared Bloomberg BusinessWeek after monster winds and waves pounded New York and New Jersey. This storm should “compel all elected leaders to take immediate action” on climate change, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo added:
Anyone who says there’s no change in weather patterns is denying reality. The storms we’ve experienced in the last year or so are much more severe than before.
Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman echoed:
We’ve had two 100-year storms in 14 months in this state, with a couple of nor’easters thrown in between for good measure. The climate is changing, whether people want to talk about it or not.”
And just when you think politicians could not get any worse, there is Chuck Schumer (D-NY). In 2006, he complained:
Allstate is the poster child for terrible corporate citizenship. They won’t write new policies for fear of hurricanes, when the odds of a severe hurricane hitting New York City is one in every 500 years.”
As Sandy wreaked its havoc, Schumer went into spin mode. “We want NOAA to keep it classified as a tropical storm, to save homeowners in New York and Long Island thousands of dollars,” he said, given that “Hurricane” Sandy would trigger higher deductibles.
Another line of political posturing was the we-had-no-idea pretense to go along with blaming the hurricane’s landfall on something new, something manmade.
“The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level,” Governor Cuomo opined as Sandy’s waters receded. “As soon as you breach the sides of Manhattan, you have a whole infrastructure under the city that fills [with water]: the subway system, the foundation for buildings.” Also think traffic tunnels and electricity conduits, which is hardly news to anyone.
And most recently, President Obama spoke to the need for government policy to address climate change in the context of avoiding “the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”
History: Worth Learning From
Climate change? Unprecedented? A hurricane every 500 years? Insurance companies? Weather on steroids? No way to anticipate the destructive power of major storms? Please.
It’s perfectly understandable that politicians want to cover their backsides. But now it’s time to end the spin doctoring, blame-casting and accountability dodging, examine history and reality, and prepare better for the next time – as there certainly will be a next time.
Manhattan was pounded in 1667 and by the Great Storm of 1693. More behemoths followed in 1788, 1821, 1893, 1938, 1944, 1954, 1960, 1985 and 1992. Other “confluences of severe weather events” brought killer storms like the four-day Great Blizzard of 1888, which convinced New York City to build its subway. The 1893 storm all but eradicated Hog Island, and the 1938 “Long Island Express” hit LI as a category 3 hurricane, brought 18-foot storm surges and wind gusts up to 180 mph, and killed 60 New Yorkers.
Such winds today would rip windows from skyscrapers, launching a deadly blizzard of flying glass, masonry, chairs, desks and other debris, say experts. In fact, a blizzard of glass and debris struck Manhattan in 1912, when a sudden storm delivered an entire afternoon of 60 mph winds and five minutes of 96-110 mph fury! If such winds are accompanied by an event like Sandy, anyone seeking safety underground would drown as subway tunnels flood due to combined storm and tidal surges 20 to 30 feet above normal, the city’s 1995 hurricane transportation study warned.
Even Canada’s east coast has frequently been battered by hurricanes and other major storms. A 1775 hurricane killed 4,000 people in Newfoundland; an 1873 monster left 600 dead in Nova Scotia; others pummeled Canada’s Maritime Provinces in 1866, 1886, 1893, 1939, 1959, 1963 and 2003.
Public officials from Bloomberg to Christie and Cuomo claim that we are suddenly facing 100-year storms every few years, that this is unprecedented, and that it is due to climate change. This is nonsense. It’s unprecedented only if you ignore history: the storms just mentioned, the devastating nor’easters of 1912-1914, numerous other events that have hammered the region over the centuries.
Indeed, six of the seven major New England hurricanes over the 150-year period of detailed record-keeping made landfall between 1938 and 1962. Moreover, the methodology, data and computer models used to make these 100-year storm projections are highly flawed and misleading, noted a 2009 National Research Council report investigating the inaccuracy and unreliability of FEMA flood maps.
As to global warming and rising seas being the cause, average global temperatures have not changed in 16 years, even as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose to 391 ppm (0.0391%) today, and sea levels are rising no faster than in 1900. Even with Hurricane Sandy, November 2012 marked the quietest long-term hurricane period since the Civil War, with only one major hurricane strike on the US mainland in seven years.
The frequency and occasional intensity of these “super storms” is only part of the problem.
“Coastal storms that would present moderate hazards in other regions of the country could result in heavy loss of life and disastrous disruptions in communications and travel in the Metro New York area,” advised a 1998 tri-state government panel, reviewing a 1995 Corps of Engineers hurricane study. An extra-tropical storm can cause damage equivalent to a Category 1 to Category 3 hurricane in the New York City area, other disaster experts have cautioned.
Due to NYC’s unique topographical features and shallow coastal waters that promote higher surges, another Category 3 would likely be catastrophic. But rather than learning from Sandy (a “mere” Category 1 hurricane), to prepare for a future Category 3, elected officials are already trying to downplay the risk.
New York City packs far more people into a much smaller area than any other place in North America. Most of the area is barely above sea level, and thus likely to be inundated by seas, waves and surges during monster storms. Its dense population complicates evacuation ahead of any Category 3 or 4 storm. NYC is not only challenged by the bottlenecks created by its limited number of bridges and tunnels leading out of the City – but also by the fact that they must be shut down well in advance of such a storm.
Long Island has conceded that it must evacuate “in-place,” acknowledging that it cannot get its population off the island. Some estimates say NYC would need at least 40 hours to evacuate its 2.5 million at-risk citizens. However, current storm models and forecasting do not produce the information needed for a 40-hour evacuation; they are especially poor at predicting the time of landfall and tide surges. We need an honest discussion about how evacuation decisions will or will not be made in the face of uncertainty.
The response to Sandy offers scant evidence that a full-scale evacuation could be accomplished. Demonstrating that it is indeed possible should be a top priority on state and local government agendas.
To top it off, centuries of landfill, construction, buildings and concrete have filled in streams and marshes, dramatically narrowed other waterways – and covered low-lying areas and barrier islands with homes, businesses, skyscrapers, roads and parking lots. As a result, major storm surges roar up constricted passageways, higher, faster and with more power than in decades or centuries past.
Common Sense for Next Time
None of this is rocket science. Storm history, past impacts and potential impacts have been studied, modeled, reported and discussed many times – and then mostly ignored by politicians, city planners, developers and residents alike. Agendas continue to be advanced, blame deflected for development decisions, and future risks obfuscated and magnified regarding building and development projects that politicians and planners have designed, promoted and permitted.
“Slosh models” used to predict storm surge should be run with up-to-date reconstructions of the natural harbor, so that emergency preparedness teams can more properly compare past and present storms, understand the impacts of development, and develop informed mitigation planning.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org) and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power – Black Death. Patrick Moffitt is president of Moffitt Consulting LLC, an environmental services company.