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DRIESSEN: Superstorm Sandy devastation highlights infrastructure problems
Politicians and planners should have been better prepared
Undaunted New York and New Jersey residents continue rebuilding their neighborhoods and lives in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Meanwhile, politicians are using the storm to advance agendas, deflect blame for ill-advised decisions and obfuscate and magnify risks from projects which they have designed, promoted, permitted and gained profit.
Sandy was "unprecedented," the result of "weather on steroids," they insist. "Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared. This storm should "compel all elected leaders to take immediate action" on climate change, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pronounced. Baloney.
The facts simply don't support this obscene posturing. It was never a matter of if -- but only of when -- a storm like Sandy would hit. People, planners and politicians should have been better prepared.
Manhattan was pounded by behemoth storms and "confluences of severe weather events" in 1667, 1693, 1788, 1821, 1893, 1954, 1962 and the four-day Great Blizzard of 1888.
The Category 3 "Long Island Express" in 1938 brought gusts up to 180 mph. Such winds today would rip windows from skyscrapers, launching a deadly blizzard of flying glass, masonry, chairs, desks and other debris, analysts say. Anyone seeking safety underground would drown as subway tunnels flooded.
Average global temperatures have not changed in 16 years, and sea levels are rising no faster than they were in 1900. Even with Sandy, November 2012 marked the quietest long-term hurricane period since the Civil War, with only one major hurricane striking the U.S. mainland in seven years.
In Sandy's aftermath -- with millions freezing and hungry in dark devastation -- Mr. Bloomberg sidetracked police and sanitation workers to prepare for the New York City Marathon -- until public outrage forced him to reconsider. If he had worried less about 32-ounce sodas and seas that are rising a mere foot per century, he would have had more time for critical issues, including numerous political decisions that virtually ensured devastation far worse than would otherwise have occurred.
Architects, city planners, mayors and governors alike thought nothing of placing generators in the basements of hospitals and skyscrapers built in areas that are barely above sea level. Sandy's nine-foot surges (plus five feet of full-moon high tide) flooded those basements, rendering generators useless and leaving buildings cold and dark. Past storms brought surges of 12 to 18 feet high onto Long Island, and studies have warned that a Category 3 direct hit could put much of New York City and its key infrastructure under 30 feet of water.
Mr. Bloomberg's Arverne by the Sea initiative transformed what he called "a swath of vacant land" into a "vibrant and growing oceanfront community," with "affordable" homes starting at $559,000. The new homes were built on 167 acres of land raised five feet above the surrounding Far Rockaway area. Those Arverne homes mostly survived Sandy. Yet the high ground caused storm surges to rise higher and move faster elsewhere than they would have on Rockaway lowlands that are always hit head-on by storms moving northward.
If Sandy had been a Category 3 hurricane like its 1938 ancestor, the devastation would have been of biblical proportions, as winds, waves and surges slammed into expensive homes, businesses and high rises, and roared up waterways rendered progressively narrower by hundreds of construction projects.
Lower Manhattan has doubled in width since 1700. World Trade Center construction alone contributed 1.2 million cubic yards to build Battery Park City, narrowing the Hudson River by another 700 feet. The East River likewise has been hemmed in, while other water channels have been completely filled. Buildings, malls and raised roadways constructed on former potato fields, forests, grasslands and marshlands have further constricted passageways for storm surges and runoff.
As a result, "superstorms" send monstrous volumes of water up ever more confined corridors. With nowhere else to go, the surges rise higher, travel faster and pack more power. Governors, mayors, planners, developers and residents ignore this at their peril.
No wonder politicos prefer to talk about climate change, rising seas and worsening weather. They are desperate to deflect attention and blame from their decisions, which have put more people in the path of greater danger. Indeed, the very notion of packing more and more people into "sustainable, energy-efficient" coastal cities in the New York-New Jersey area is madness on steroids.
Worse, politicians increasingly and intentionally obscure and misrepresent the nature, frequency and severity of storm flood and surge risks, to promote and permit more construction in high-risk areas. They claim they can prevent or control climate change and rising sea levels by regulating carbon-dioxide emissions -- while ignoring real, known dangers, exacerbated by their decisions.
Not surprisingly, unsuspecting businesses and homeowners continue to buy, build and rebuild in areas that are increasingly at risk from hurricanes, nor'easters and "perfect storms." Worst of all, as population density increases in the New York-New Jersey area, the ability to evacuate people plummets, especially when roadways, tunnels and other escape routes are submerged.
Sandy was a rare, but hardly unprecedented, confluence of weather events. The political decisions and blame-avoidance, however, are all-too-common confluences of human tendencies -- worsened by government officials seeking greater power and control, with steadily declining transparency and accountability.
Politicians point fingers at scapegoats such as "dangerous man-made global warming" and "heartless" insurance companies. Perhaps it is time they examine their own policies.
Paul Driessen is senior policy adviser for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and author of "Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death" (Merril Press, 2012).
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