Huffington This Week: Far From Unthinkable

Dec 1, 2012 by

In this week’s Huffington, five HuffPost reporters give a detailed and unsparing account of the man-made factors behind Hurricane Sandy’s damage. John Rudolf, Ben Hallman, Chris Kirkham, Saki Knafo and Matt Sledge not only tell the story of the storm, but paint a damning picture of the shortcuts, expedient decision-making and lack of preparation that allowed it to inflict such suffering and devastation. “In the end,” they write, “a pell-mell, decades-long rush to throw up housing and businesses along fragile and vulnerable coastlines trumped commonsense concerns about the wisdom of placing hundreds of thousands of closely huddled people in the path of potential cataclysms.”

The story of Hurricane Sandy begins long before the storm made landfall. It’s a story of unheeded warnings — from evacuation orders to climate change — and reckless real estate development: In Staten Island, where Sandy claimed 21 lives, more than 2,700 mostly residential structures were built between 1980 and 2008 in coastal areas at extreme risk of storm surge flooding.

“People love a view of the ocean but don’t understand what every geologist knows,” says Nicholas Coch, a coastal geography professor at Queens College.

So what did geologists know, and what did they try to communicate to those in government and real estate? The answer to both questions is: a lot. There’s the 2010 study that placed Staten Island in the “bull’s eye” for a storm surge in New York harbor. There are the never-pursued suggestions for higher sea walls and a harbor barrier to protect New York City against storm surges. Blunt warnings from New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection about the lethal combination of hurricane risk and population growth along the coast. As Suzanne Mattei, former chief of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s New York City regional office, puts it, “It’s just horrendous that there’s been all this research and all this analysis and so little action.”

And then there are the unforgettable images: Vinny Baccale, who glanced out his window in Staten Island to see his neighbor drowning in the street; night nurses at a nursing home in the Rockaways, kneeling together in prayer as waves pounded the building’s walls; Gov. Chris Christie flying in a helicopter above the Jersey Shore, calling the damage “unthinkable.”

But as Rudolf, Hallman, Kirkham, Knafo and Sledge write of those who have studied climate change and its effects: “for them, the catastrophe Christie was flying over was far from unthinkable.”

This piece first appeared in our FREE weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available in the iTunes App store.

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