After the incredible destruction and suffering that Sandy brought to the United States’ northeast, talk is now turning to how to rebuild and how to avoid more such disasters in the future.
Most ideas span a continuum. This continuum runs from what sea-level and coastal-adaptation specialists call “protection” at one end to “accommodation” to “relocation” at the other end. Protection means building protective structures such as sea walls or other forms of coastal armoring. For example, Sandy’s aftermath has invigorated advocates of building storm surge barriers that would protect parts of New York from the type of impacts wrought by Sandy.
In the middle of the spectrum, others are discussing “accommodation,” or the idea of building in the same places but making structures more able to withstand the impacts of coastal disasters. Examples of this include proposals to build urban areas with several floors of parking garages under large buildings or elevating the electrical services for low-lying sewage treatment plants.
The other end of the spectrum–relocation–has hardly been mentioned. It may be that, just like after Katrina or other catastrophic events, it seems uncaring or impolite to suggest that maybe we should not be living in some of the hazard-prone areas that we have developed. However, a publication out earlier this year from the International Panel on Climate Change clearly indicated that the main reason the world has seen a dramatic increase in the cost of disasters–both in terms of human life and money–is that we are choosing more and more to put ourselves in harm’s way as populations shift to coastal areas. This leads one to the unsurprising and common-sense notion that the best way to avoid coastal hazard is to avoid development of the areas most vulnerable to coastal storms and flooding.
While it’s obviously too late to apply this understanding to intensely developed areas such as New York City or Miami, it is worth local governments considering the longer-term costs and benefits of allowing development in undeveloped hazardous areas or increasing development in minimally developed hazardous areas.
With all the bad that Sandy brought, let’s hope that it can at least inspire increased dialogue about how to avoid increasing our exposure to such events in the future.