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Friday, November 16, 2012

What a Difference a Storm Makes: Assessing Hurricane Sandy's Damage

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View looking west along the New Jersey shore. Storm waves and currents removed sand from the beach exposing erosion control structures, including rock walls, concrete walls, and groins that protrude seaward perpendicular to the beach. The yellow arrow in each image points to the same feature.

A series of aerial photographs of the Atlantic Coast taken before and after Hurricane Sandy show dramatic changes to hundreds of miles of shoreline, visibly changing the landscape, the U.S. Geological Survey said in releasing the images Nov. 9.

For example, on average, dunes at Fire Island National Seashore on Long Island eroded back 70 feet—an equivalent of 30 years of change, USGS said. It added that dunes lost as much as 10 feet of elevation.

USGS said aerial assessments of coastal change as a result of Sandy will continue, as will the use of light-detection and ranging technology to collect ground elevation data. The data will be used to improve predictive models of potential impacts from future severe storms.

Rebuilding Raises Questions

USGS assessments also likely will increase the debate over whether and how much rebuilding should be undertaken in the face of mounting evidence that more dangerous storms are likely to occur as a result of climate change.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said in a video conference that regardless of the political argument over what's causing climate change, it's a reality. And the first question after an extreme weather event such as Hurricane Sandy is "What should we rebuild, where, and how?" 

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) and state legislative leaders said rebuilding will be a bipartisan effort, and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) said in an interview with newsworks.org, "We want to hear from the professionals, zoning, planning. Where do you build? Where don't you build?"

Pre-Sandy Flooding Concerns

Even before Sandy, New York City officials were calling for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop and provide detailed flood projection maps to help urban areas prepare for the impacts of sea level rise on infrastructure and real estate properties. Existing maps document historical past storms and floods, and that historical baseline has shifted, the officials said. 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University also found that in New York City, climate change could result in a 100-year flood occurring every three to 20 years and a 500-year flood occurring every 25 to 240 years.

Spotlight on Insurance Industry

A change in flood maps would make a big difference in the way properties are insured. For example, homeowners with a federally backed mortgage must buy flood insurance if they live in an area subject to flooding at least once every 100 years.

Ceres, a nonprofit coalition of investor and environmental groups, called Sandy a "wake-up call." Just as the insurance industry in the past pushed for fire codes, sprinklers, and seat belts, it "must again use its influence to advocate for climate-friendly legislation and measures to improve community resilience," Ceres said. 

The reinsurance company Munich Re said the United States experienced 90 natural disasters in the first six months of 2012 that amounted to $14.6 billion in economic losses.

Ceres expects Sandy to cost the insurance industry, government, and taxpayers as much as $50 billion. 

Here's an interesting aside: According to the Insurance Information Institute, the industry is poised to make its highest profits since the financial crisis began in 2007. “I expect to set new records as we move through 2012,” Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, said six months ago. “The industry is financially strong. It can handle anything Mother Nature sends our way." How about today? The comment was made with events the size of Sandy (or even larger) in mind, Hartwig said Nov. 16. "The same can be said today."

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