Seven years ago this month, Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast of the United States, killing more than 150 people and causing about $70 billion in damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.
Governments and individuals responded with an outpouring of support for the devastated communities and funds for relief and rebuilding. The federal government alone provided a remarkable $50 billion in aid.
However, the country missed a golden opportunity presented by Hurricane Sandy to rethink and restructure policies and programs to better prepare for deadly and costly impacts of storms along the nation’s coasts.
In 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers released a comprehensive report on Hurricane Sandy. It considered coastal flooding from storms and gradually rising sea levels, calling for a “paradigm shift in how we work, live, travel and play in a sustainable manner as the extent of the area at very high risk of coastal storm damage expands.”
Since that report, the country has endured more devastating hurricanes: Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017; Florence and Michael in 2018. New science points to more intense coastal storms as the climate warms. Estimates of future sea level rise, which will steadily push storms farther inland and inundate bigger swaths of land, are trending upward.
States including New York and California, and communities including Miami and Boston, are making progress in preparing for these risks. But the country as a whole has not embraced the call for a “paradigm shift” in how coastal risk is managed.
What should the country do now to protect the coasts?
First, we need to treat coastal storms and rising sea levels as a single problem. Planning for one risk without thinking about the other can lead to a fragmented and ineffective response.
For example, elevating buildings is a reasonable strategy when applied to the problem of temporary flooding from storms, but it fails when rising seas bring permanent inundation.
In addition, federal programs for flood insurance and disaster relief urgently need reform. The flood insurance program encourages people to stay in risky coastal places that will eventually be inundated by rising seas. Disaster programs should refocus on smarter investments to avoid disasters in the first place.
Although some state and local governments are coping with coastal flood challenges, others are not. The federal government should provide significant new funding for planning and implementation.
We also need to invest in planning to protect coastal infrastructure and ecosystems. The federal government can work with state and local governments to protect or relocate critical infrastructure, such as military bases, transportation assets and water facilities. Ecosystems, such as beaches and wetlands, need space to migrate landward and the federal government should be an advocate for these natural resources.
Finally, coastal homeowners need help to avoid devastating financial losses as growing flood risks drive down property values. The federal government should buy risky property well ahead of rising sea levels. Current owners should have the option to stay until the property becomes unsafe — paying rent but not flood insurance premiums.
Hurricane Sandy was a traumatic experience that millions of Americans consider best forgotten. But as the pain of loss and hardship fades, so can the sense of urgency for rethinking our relationship to the coast. Now is the time to renew and strengthen the national effort to prepare for growing coastal flood risks.
Jeff Peterson is a former senior official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.