Given the way this year has gone so far, reflecting on 2012 might incite a sense of enviable nostalgia. Eight years ago, Americans were listening to upbeat Top 40 hits like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and PSY’s “Gangnam Style”, reading E.L. James’ bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey”, and voters were deciding between Mitt Romney and four more years of Barack Obama. But not everything about 2012 provokes such longing, particularly memories of Hurricane Sandy and the ensuring aftermath.
On the night of October 29th, 2012, the floods from Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City. At 9:24 pm, the tide at Battery Park peaked at nearly nine-and-a-half feet above normal levels. Dark and murky waters from New York Harbor charged through Lower Manhattan. Subway stairs turned into waterfalls, blocks of the city plunged into darkness, and parked cars began floating around aimlessly like zombies. After the storm passed, Sandy’s devastation had claimed the lives of 43 New Yorkers and caused nearly $20 billion in damage. The hurricane also led to a multi-day shutdown of both the subway and the New York Stock Exchange, two miseries that not even the COVID-19 pandemic has been able to accomplish. Sandy’s devastation could have been prevented: experts have warned that such a calamity was possible without proper flood defenses.
On the eve of the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, it’s sobering to learn that there is still no active plan to protect the New York Metro area from extreme storms. This isn’t because of a lack of resources either. More than $15 billion in federal money has been awarded to support flood protection in New York City. Much of this has been spent on installing miles of temporary flood barriers, elevating critical utilities and other infrastructure, and waterproofing the subway. Overall, much of the city looks the same—exposed and vulnerable to yet another powerful storm. You’re probably asking yourself, “Why hasn’t more been done?”
In January of this year, a proposal to protect a significant portion of the New York metropolitan area received national attention when President Trump publicly ridiculed the plan on Twitter. The $119 billion-dollar proposal called for a massive six-mile sea gate between Sandy Hook, New Jersey and Breezy Point, New York. It was one of several alternative plans put forward by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the New York Metropolitan area against future storms. Indeed, this particular plan may have been a bit fanciful, but the Corps’ other lesser known proposals were cheaper and more practical. These included infrastructure elements that are central to the success of the Delta Works system in the Netherlands, such as levees, storm surge barriers, and nature-based measures like artificial sand dunes. These more attractive options met their end this past February when the federal government abruptly suspended the Corps’ planning efforts for flood protection in the New York City metro area.
To make matters worse, sea-level rise is increasing the stakes for doing nothing about New York City’s flood problem. Research by Lloyd’s of London found that roughly 8 inches of sea-level rise over the past century led to a 30 percent increase in flood-related damages during Sandy. It’s not going to get any better. The New York City Panel on Climate Change projects that just 30 years from now, two-and-a-half feet of additional sea-level rise would increase the frequency of what are now 100-year flood events from once every 100 years to more than once every three decades.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is an obvious public health threat, it’s also a threat to efforts to reduce the physical harms from climate change. As memories of natural disasters fade, risk reduction efforts tend to fall off the government’s “to do” list. New policy problems take their place. The prioritization of the COVID-19 pandemic is an example of this phenomenon. But government officials and New Yorkers don’t have to wait until the aftermath of the next storm to once again discuss regional flood protection—and nor should they. Mother Nature doesn’t always pitch disasters one at a time. This year’s seemingly endless procession of hurricanes and forest fires were overlayed on a pandemic. These simultaneous disasters serve as an example of how multiple policy issues can compound and create a mess greater than the sum of their parts.
Despite all of this, there’s still reason to be hopeful. Flood protection is, to a large extent, a democratic process. Those living in the New York metropolitan area can pressure their representatives to resume the Corps’ efforts. Those pushing for action should write to New York’s elected officials and tell them you want flood protection planning to continue. Let’s not wait until the next storm comes.
About the film
In the short film below, I highlight the pros and cons of building one of the Army Corps’ proposals and motivate viewers to pressure their elected officials to put flood protection on the local government agenda. My filmmaking approach reflects a style that is unpolished and homemade. I incorporate straight cuts directly from the camera, stop-motion animation, whimsical hand-crafted props, voice-over narration, and aerial landscape and city footage shot from helicopters and drones. All footage has been shot by me, unless denoted otherwise. This video project was funded in part by the The Karl F. Schlaepfer '49 and Gloria G. Schlaepfer Fund.
D.J. Rasmussen is an engineer, climate scientist, and policy scholar. He studies coastal floods, sea-level rise, and strategies for managing their economic and social costs. His research has informed the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has been published in Science Magazine as well as other academic journals. He is completing his PhD in the Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) Program at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. A portfolio of his research can be viewed at https://www.djrasmussen.co.