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Building Resilient Coasts: Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

Dr. William Solecki
Hunter College; Director, Institute for Sustainable Cities, City University of New York

Hurricane Katrina remains the costliest storm in U.S. history, with a total bill of over $105 billion—almost equal to the combined recovery costs of hurricanes Andrew and Sandy. Yet, despite the catastrophic damage, the Gulf Coast states affected by Katrina failed to incorporate the effects of predicted sea level rise into their recovery and rebuilding efforts. This mistake is something that New York, a city with coastal assets second only to Miami, does not intend to make. City authorities sought to know what the likelihood of future weather events will be and whether storms may be as intense in the New York area. They also wanted to learn what rebuilding approaches other hurricane-ravaged cities implemented and how the city could improve upon them to enhance its hurricane readiness and resiliency.

William Solecki, Ph.D., of Hunter College and the director of the City University of New York’s Institute for Sustainable Cities, was the guest speaker at the Metcalf Institute public lecture on Wednesday, June 12, 2013, at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. Nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg developed two task forces to develop a plan for adapting critical infrastructure to predicted environmental effects of climate change. Solecki was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg to serve as co-chair of both the Climate Change Adaptation Task Force and the New York City (NYC) Panel on Climate Change.

The NYC Panel on Climate Change provided city officials and agencies with compiled climate science information for use in both planning future projects and bolstering existing infrastructure. This compilation included parameters such as projected long-term trends in air temperature and precipitation, but also, unlike the Gulf states in the wake of Katrina, incorporated sea level rise predictions. Solecki showed a series of images depicting which city zones would be impacted by flooding expected to occur at ten-, 100-, and 500-year intervals. By 2050, he noted, the chance of decadal flooding from major weather events in certain sections of New York will increase from 10 to 50 percent. In just 30 years, areas of NYC that are currently within the 100-year flood zone will be five times more likely to be flooded in a given year.

Hurricane Sandy decimated the greater New York area before any of the task force’s recommendations had been implemented. Although the storm exposed several vulnerabilities in the city’s infrastructure, Solecki pointed out that it has also provoked many improvement opportunities, such as rapid assessment protocols that will improve resiliency, new risk and hazard measures, better inter-agency cooperation. The storm also underscored the need to understand and assess the unknowns about climate change data, especially regarding readiness for and resilience to sea level rise impacts.

Lecture summary prepared by Al Nyack, Ph.D.

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