Sandy’s Wake

Columbia scientists have long been sounding the climate-change alarm. Will we listen now?

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2012-13
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The Aftermath

The storm left some two hundred people dead, with at least forty-three deaths in New York City. In New York State, Sandy damaged or destroyed 305,000 homes and 265,000 businesses. Millions of people lost power. In Manhattan, outages caused misery for thousands of residents of public-housing high-rises. The subway flooded. A major hospital failed, prompting the heroic evacuation of hundreds of patients in seventy-mile-an-hour winds, while lab mice drowned and years of medical research was destroyed.

Columbia’s campuses escaped damage, and faculty and students mobilized for an aftermath filled with endless opportunities for assistance and study. The Mailman School of Public Health organized a relief effort in the Rockaways. Journalism students covered Sandy stories in print and video. And researchers at Lamont- Doherty, the Earth Institute, and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science continued to collaborate to produce climate-research data for decision makers, residents, farmers, businesspeople, and urban planners.

At the political level, Governor Andrew Cuomo (“Climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality”) and Mayor Michael Bloomberg made some of the strongest statements by any US official in acknowledging climate change as a fact. Bloomberg, in an editorial, called on elected leaders to take “immediate action.”

But what sort of action? At what cost? And where, and for whom, and on what?

Games of Risk

George Deodatis / South Street“Here is a critical issue of the highest importance,” says George Deodatis in his Mudd Hall office, three weeks after the storm. Deodatis speaks with a sonorous Greek accent and a measured cadence. “Hurricane Sandy: is this something that is really out of the ordinary, or something we should be expecting on a more regular basis?”

The question carries the deep echo of a riddle: we are in the dark caverns, the deep fog, of probability.

“If this is the event that happens once every thousand years, then probably the measures we have to take should be less drastic than if this were a hundred-year event,” says Deodatis, whose research areas include probabilistic mechanics, risk and reliability, and hazards analysis. “Design codes are based on the hundred-year or five-hundred-year event, not the seven-hundred-year or thousand-year event. The idea of a seven-hundred-year return” — a figure offered by some scientists — “is based on the climate having been pretty much stationary over the past two thousand years or so. However. In my opinion, and in others’ opinion, something is changing in the climate.”

His “something is changing” has a wistful note of wonder, of well-fed suspicion, like a scientist with a finger on his chin.

“This is now most probably not going to be the seven-hundred-year event,” Deodatis says, “but one we will be experiencing at much shorter intervals. And we have to do something about it.”

The Urgency of Now

Here’s what Deodatis sees as our options for defending New York City against future floods.

In the short term — measures that could be implemented within two years — we could build floodgates at entrances to tunnels and subway stations, cover ventilation grates, and build seawalls or dikes in front of vulnerable communities. “That would be a small investment,” Deodatis says, “and the least controversial.”

For the medium term — within two decades — we could raise infrastructure (“a raised highway will create a nice levee”) and construct barriers to New York harbor at three locations: the Verrazano- Narrows Bridge, the Arthur Kill between Staten Island and New Jersey, and where the East River meets the Long Island Sound. Deodatis calls that “a major investment,” adding that “spending $20 billion or more to protect a relatively small percentage of the population is something that will have to be debated.”

“Hurricane Sandy: is this something that is really out of the ordinary, or something we should be expecting on a more regular basis?” — George Deodatis 

The long-term option, which would take more than fifty years, is, to Deodatis, the most contentious and costly: moving entire communities farther inland — what the climatologists call “planned retreat.”

“But all measures,” says Deodatis, “should be considered from a cost-benefit point of view.”

They should also be considered quickly.

“My opinion is, if no decision is made within a year, then nothing will happen,” Deodatis says. “This is the experience gained from past natural disasters: immediately after, there’s a lot of talk about doing something. But then people start saying, ‘OK, let’s postpone it,’ then something else more important comes in, and people’s attention is diverted.”

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