A Scientist Who Foresaw New York Storm Surge Reflects from His Flooded Home

Nov 6, 2012 Posted by

Dot Earth - New York Times blog

November 6, 2012, 4:52 pm

By ANDREW C. REVKIN

Klaus Jacob, a Columbia University earth scientist who pretty precisely projected the flooding a big hurricane surge could cause in New York City long before Hurricane Sandy hit, reflects in this video on the impacts on the region — including on his own storm-flooded home in Piermont, N.Y., a tiny town along the Hudson River a few miles north of the George Washington Bridge. (The video was shot by the university.)

My initial reaction was centered on the ironies in such a situation, but listen to the section where he describes how, when he invested in raising his home in 2003, he was hemmed in by local zoning, which limits houses in his neighborhood to a total height of 22 feet. He did what he could, raising appliances like the dishwasher well off the floor. So the damage is far less than it might have been.

This situation speaks of the opportunity this disaster has created for governments and citizens, from the level of local zoning to that of federal flood insurance, to reexamine norms in light of both the implicit threat posed by extreme weather and the amplified risks coming with a warming climate and rising seas.

Carl Safina, the marine conservationist and writer, made this point in a CNN.com post last week (which I alluded to in a link roundup but want to emphasize again):

[U]npreparedness requires, one might say, quite a lot of preparation. We build in places prone to flooding. We do that largely because subsidies encourage it. Federal flood insurance is a way the entire country subsidizes building and rebuilding in places destined for repeated hits.

We rely on overhead lines to bring electricity, lines vulnerable to falling trees. And when they fall, we put them right back. Underground lines are more expensive. But if you have to keep repairing the overhead lines…

We’ve created coastal bowling-pin communities; we set ‘em up and the weather takes ‘em down. I live in one. I’m guilty. In my defense, I’ll claim entrapment, because I have federal flood insurance. You made me do it. So I just want to take this opportunity to thank you. But I’d like to also tell you, it’s OK with me if you withdraw your generosity. In fact it would be better if you did. You help make us lazy. And by us, I mean millions of people living along the coast, whistling in the dark. And you help our politicians look away from the oncoming truth.

Let’s hope that whoever occupies the White House starting in January can work with Congress to identify policies that end up underwriting development in hazard zones. And, in our local communities, a similar look at zoning and other rules that might contribute to vulnerability wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

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