Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Thoughts on Sandy: II. Unprecedented?

To me, one of the more disgusting aspects of Hurricane Sandy was the rush by some to call the storm “unprecedented,” and to blame it on global warming. Contributing to this is the media’s – and the politicians’ – lack of historical knowledge. Sandy wasn’t really unprecedented, as some claim. Look at the Long Island Express of 1938. More people died than in Sandy (720 vs 113), and the only reason that property damage costs weren’t higher was that not as much building had occurred. The path was roughly the same. The intensity of the 1938 storm was much higher. On average, the area gets a storm like this about every 79 years – in this specific case, it was 74 years – virtually the same as the average.

The only really unprecedented aspect of Sandy was its coupling with a crippling snowstorm and a nor’easter. And even that wasn’t completely unprecedented – the Long Island Express was also coupled with a nor’easter.

Those who were calling the storm unprecedented seemed to imply that it rivaled Katrina – not even close! More than 1,800 people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina, whereas Sandy has claimed the lives of 113. Katrina’s top wind speed at landfall was 125 mph; Sandy’s 90. Sandy’s storm surge of 13 feet was less than Katrina’s 14 ft, and its maximum rainfall of 12 inches was less than Katrina’s 15 inches. The property damage due to Katrina was $81 billion, that due to Sandy may well be less than $30 billion.

I hope there is some special Eighth Circle of Hell for those who blamed Sandy on global warming. The DAMAGE was unprecedented for this area, but that was because politicians (and the voters who elected them) allowed building to occur in dangerous locations – and may have encouraged it with unrealistic flood insurance premiums and federal assistance for doing the same again. Responsible climate scientists – even those who believe in global warming (as I do) – agree that there is no credible evidence that climate change had anything to do with the storm.

Some used the storm as a pretext to push their favorite carbon reduction scheme (e.g., more stringent regulatory limits, taxes). Some politicians used the idea of Sandy’s being unprecedented as an excuse: “We couldn’t foresee what would happen – it was unprecedented.” (NB – Mayor Bloomberg did both!). The sorry truth is that, as Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The very real suffering of those in New Jersey and New York was not due to a malignant fate but to their political leaders’ ignorance of history.

Let’s give this talk of global warming somehow being the “cause” of Sandy a rest and force our politicians to fix the real problems:
• Help form natural barriers to storms.
• Don’t encourage building in dangerous places.
• Base flood insurance premiums on risk and not political clout.
• Overthrow the Tyranny of the Old Normal, and make those who want to rebuild in dangerous areas build back better.

History teaches us that these will work. Let’s take this opportunity to truly give meaning to the victims’ suffering by building back better. If not, it is inevitable that 80 years from now our grandchildren will have to relearn this painful history.