Responding to Sandy

Bridget O’Brian
November 19, 2012

Columbia’s campuses were largely spared the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed neighborhoods, flooded tunnels, forced hospitals evacuations and knocked out power to millions throughout the region. But many in the tri-state area face a challenging path to recovery.

Students, faculty, staff and alumni have responded to the disaster with volunteer service, blood donations, financial contributions and local news reporting. But Columbia’s most visible contribution to the recovery may well be the expertise of its many researchers with a deep knowledge of climate science, sustainable development, and health and public policy.

A University forum on Monday, Nov. 19—co-sponsored by Columbia's Earth Institute, the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research and World Leaders Forum—focused this University-wide conversation, bringing together just a few of the many Columbia researchers whose interdisciplinary work has added to our understanding of the risks facing coastal communities, including New York City and its suburbs. All of this knowledge will be brought to bear in the rebuilding.

Cynthia Rosenzweig is the co-author of a 2001 report called “Climate Change in a Global City” whose findings on how a major storm would affect New York City were prescient. “Even when we were in the storm’s midst and now its aftermath, what happened tracked very closely to the impacts we highlighted and the vulnerabilities we had pointed out” in that report, said Rosenzweig, an adjunct senior scientist at Columbia's Earth Institute and a researcher with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Rosenzweig, who co-directed the New York City Panel on Climate Change, is also the principal investigator of the Consortium on Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast, a group of scientists from five area universities that has already begun work on an integrated approach to prevent such catastrophic damage from future storms.

Irwin Redlener, Clinical Professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health and an expert in disaster preparedness, has written an article for an upcoming issue of The New England Journal of Medicine that will assess the health system lessons from Sandy.

Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, had been predicting for a decade that New York could suffer severe flooding from a major storm, although he didn’t expect the waters to surge into his home in the village of Piermont, N.Y., 12 miles north of New York City. Officials “need to think about the best solutions and then discuss them with the public,” he says, and they will find out what the public is willing to pay for.

Columbia’s Center for Urban Real Estate, part of the Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning, will start assessing the solutions being proposed. “These things will have to be sorted through very carefully,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, a former city planner who directs the center, which has already developed innovative proposals for long-term development of New York’s harbor. “My bet is what flows from all this will be a mix of solutions ranging from higher density buildings in vulnerable areas along with systems designed to take on water.”

Although some have suggested building sea walls or barriers in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound, Steve Cohen, executive director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, deems them impractical. “New York City has 500 miles of coastline. How do you decide what you are going to protect?” he asks. “If you protect lower Manhattan, what about the people of Staten Island, how will they react?” Sea walls also may have an environmental impact, he says, so it would be wiser to find a way to seal off the city’s tunnels and make sure underground facilities are watertight.

Any plans and solutions are sure to involve massive shifts in how New York City and the surrounding areas do business. “There’s a lot to be done—zoning changes, changes in the rules of the game for developers, a serious look at mass transit and an overhaul of utilities,” says Ester R. Fuchs, professor of public affairs and political science and director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. “We have to require the public sector to engage and spend money on things that will benefit everyone in the long run.”

That will involve the federal government, perhaps even the expertise of the Army Corps of Engineers, to help with rebuilding efforts. But the first priority, says Fuchs, should be the immediate needs of those who lost their homes, finding them a place to stay as winter sets in.

“Hurricane Sandy is a wake-up call for the urban Northeast,” said Rosenzweig, the climate scientist. “We need to learn from it to improve resilience as climate risks increase due to climate change.”