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Frances Beinecke’s Blog

Hurricane Sandy Hits Home

Frances Beinecke

Posted October 31, 2012

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Millions of Americans woke up Tuesday morning to a changed world. Hurricane Sandy had flooded our streets, ripped down our power lines, and tossed trees into ours homes. Cars, boats, and debris carried by surging waters lay scattered along the roads. Towns and cities had been pummeled, and the storm wasn’t even finished yet. New Jersey was still getting gusts of up to 40 miles per hour and West Virginia was receiving up to 2 feet of snow. Eight million people didn’t have power and probably wouldn’t for days.

It will take months to assess the scope of Sandy’s destruction. But already we know this: the storm didn’t just break records. It upturned lives. Homes, businesses, medical needs, travel plans, nest eggs and more were threatened by the storm. More than 55 people died.

These are the true costs of extreme weather. Now that climate change is increasing the power and frequency of storms like Sandy, more people will be paying the price.

Some leaders ignore climate change, some belittle it, and others counsel patience.  Yet people living in the path of Hurricane Sandy understand that America can’t wait any longer to protect our communities from more extreme weather events.


Queens, New York. Photo credit: Jennifer Merschdorf

My own communities are among the hardest hit. I grew up in New Jersey and I live in New York, and I never saw anything like Sandy before.  Battery Park, Red Hook, and other neighborhoods were inundated by a 13-foot storm surge. A New York Fire Department company had to evacuate their headquarters via boat. People had to be rescued from their attics when flood waters submerged their Staten Island homes. Atlantic City’s iconic boardwalk was torn to shreds. Empty train cars washed up on the New Jersey Turnpike and had to be lifted off with a crane. New Jersey Governor Christie ordered urban search and rescue missions to try to save people who had not fled in advance of the storm.

“Urban search and rescue” was not a term I heard growing up here, but we have entered a new era. Climate change has begun to make its presence known. It is heating up our oceans and pumping hurricanes and other storms with extra energy, more moisture, and stronger winds. It is swelling our seas, so that storm surges are higher and cause more flooding. From Norfolk, Virginia to Boston, sea levels are rising four times as fast as the global average. Hurricane Sandy cut right along those swollen seas. 

Hoboken.PATH.Station.Port Authority of NY and NJ.jpg

Hoboken PATH Station. Photo credit: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

Climate change has become pervasive. “The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question,” writes Kevin E. Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

I know New York and New Jersey are resilient places. I have seen them recover from terrorist attacks and economic downturns, and I am confident communities up and down the East Coast will recover from Hurricane Sandy.

But when will we stop asking them to rebuild in the wake of disasters? When will we start confronting the challenge of climate change before more people are endangered? When will we begin arming our towns and cities with the tools they need to respond to extreme weather?

The longer we wait to have an open national conversation about climate change, the more communities will be in harm’s way. We live in the richest country in the 21st century. Surely we can have a civil conversation about how to prepare and deal with climate change. We can discuss the science, we can debate the politics, we can dispute the policy measures. But we cannot wait any longer.

We must honor the people who suffered through Hurricane Sandy—and the Midwestern drought and the Western wildfires and the numerous other extreme weather events of 2012—and we must confront climate change.


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josiah portilloOct 31 2012 06:27 PM

that hurricane is the worst hurricane i have ever witness

RobOct 31 2012 07:03 PM

Look up the 1821 hurricane. It was a Cat 3/4 when it hit NJ and NYC and flooded Manhattan far worse than Sandy. Long before global warming.

Stop using the latest storm to push an agenda. Sandy wasn't even CLOSE to as bad as 1821. And if 1821 happened once, it can happen again.

Mike S.Oct 31 2012 08:25 PM

This article is just as bad as the other one that politicized the storm before it had even hit. The fact that you throw in some actual concern for the people affected is irrelevant.

Anyone can do a google search and find the scientific data showing that globally, hurricanes have actually declined recently, not increased. So not only do you not have any evidence that this hurricane had anything to do with climate change, but the data indicates hurricanes are not actually getting worse.

This trend of capitalizing on human suffering is low, even for a group as unethical as the NRDC.

A.RiotesusNov 1 2012 04:34 AM

This hurricane might be new yorkers death. I wonder if every year from now, NYC will have a hurricane! But it was NOT EVEN close to 1821`s Hurricane Catherine .

Michael BerndtsonNov 1 2012 11:51 AM

Excellent post. I truly feel for those along the East Coast. My niece is at NYU. She started school last year greeted by Hurricane Irene and now has to deal with Sandy. Now that the damage is done and the cleanup begins its time to pull together and address climate change systematically rather then in perpetual emergency response mode.

This denial/response mode we've been in for at least ten years is probably only benefiting engineering, consulting and construction (EC&C) firms. Yes others may benefit from these natural and man made disasters. But no other industry can play both sides better then EC&C. This is not a political statement since the mod of operation of these firms is to be non- and/or a- political; simply to hedge its bets on future revenue streams. However, playing both sides of the aisle as a business plan is putting the United States into a clear and present danger.

On the one hand, EC&C firms will probably make a bundle on storm damage assessment and mitigation and infrastructure repairs for New York and New Jersey and the rest of the East Coast. On the other hand, EC&C has made a bundle on tar sands and shale gas and oil development and delivery. This cycle of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and responding to storm damage mitigation makes for one hell of a business plan. It is also immoral. And maybe there is culpability. I don't know. I'm an engineer not a lawyer.

Jan HammettNov 1 2012 12:21 PM

Climate Change and the crazy, dangerous weather it brings will not matter until it matters, personally. Until then, it is easier to deny....sad, because at one point, we will all know the feel of a weather disaster, up close and very personal.

Denise DahnNov 1 2012 02:26 PM

It's time for all of us to stand on the common ground we share–that we need a habitable planet to live on.

A single storm or hurricane like this is an example of what living in an extreme climate could be like for our future generations–something they will have to deal with to a much greater degree than we can imagine.

All of us, no matter what our beliefs are one way or the other, have a stake in a sustainable future. It seems to me that a very few people - maybe only a fraction of the 1% - are profiting handsomely from distracting us from the very real, proven danger of climate change. They are the ones the rest of us should stand against. We should demand action from our political leaders.

Dan LashofNov 1 2012 09:04 PM

Rob and Mike S.--You seem to be missing the point. Adding carbon pollution to the atmosphere is like a baseball player taking steroids. By trapping heat carbon pollution adds moisture to the atmosphere and raises sea levels. That makes severe storms more likely. Sure Barry Bonds would have hit some home runs without steroids, but doping certainly increased his chances. See this video from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research for a nice illustration of this analogy:

A hurricane did hit New York in 1821, but Wikipedia is going to have to update its article--It says that it was one of four tropical cyclones to hit New York, including Irene. Sandy makes five, and the first two-in-a-row hitting streak.

And if you think NRDC is alone in making these points, please take a look at the cover story of today's Business Week:

Mike S.Nov 1 2012 10:37 PM

Dan, I'm not sure if you read my post or not. Hurricanes have not increased globally.

Also, according to NOAA, looking back to 1851, the number of hurricanes hitting the US per year has been about 15 per decade compared to 20 per year before 1940. And major hurricanes have been about 5 per decade compared with more than 6 per decade prior to 1950.

Just because you say it's getting worse doesn't make it true.

Mike S.Nov 2 2012 09:55 AM

Dan, here is more information for you. From a scientist who is a believer in GW, but says that hurricanes are not getting worse. Not only that, but he says that GW is actually going to decrease hurricanes, not make them worse.

This guy is from the NWS Hurricane center, and the article is on the NOAA website.

RobNov 3 2012 04:31 PM

Dan -

Sandy did not make landfall in NYC, it came ashore near Atlantic City. Wikipedia needs no update on that account.

Higher seas certainly increase the chance of flooding. But they are only up 1' over the past century, not enough to significantly change the destruction that the storm caused. It was going to be horrific regardless.

Sandy was a big storm, but not unprecedented in its strength. It was largely a result of bad luck that NJ & NYC got hit this hard. High tide (and a spring tide at that!), contributed far more than the 1' rise in the oceans.

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