Lessons from Sandy
Sandy, first a hurricane and then a “superstorm,” didn’t do much more than kick up a bit of wind up here. And in a region that hasn’t fully recovered from last year’s tropical storms, Irene and Lee, we can consider ourselves very fortunate.
I was fortunate myself, getting out of New York City a day earlier than planned on the second-to-last train to leave before Grand Central Terminal closed down. I had planned to stay in the city an extra day, visiting my daughter, but figured if I didn’t get out Sunday I’d be stuck there through midweek. As of Wednesday, there was still no train service, so I would have been camping out at my friends’ apartment, playing board games by candlelight, which is how they spent most of last week.
My daughter was more fortunate, never losing power at her midtown dorm. And with schools closed throughout New York City, she and her dancer colleagues caught up on their sleep. “We’ve all been napping,” she told us in one of her many storm and post-storm updates. During the height of the windstorm the residents sheltered in the downstairs lounge, but after a few hours they were allowed to go back to their rooms.
We’ve all seen the photos from the city — subway tracks flooded, tunnels filled with water, water pouring through doors and over streets. The power of water is awesome, and seeing images of cars pushed around, boardwalks smashed, beaches and dunes rearranged, and streets buckled is frightening. My brother’s New Jersey neighborhood saw floods, fires and power outages; my mom in Connecticut couldn’t get out of her driveway to get to a shelter because of the trees and wires tangled together.
Sandy was dubbed a superstorm when the huge, late-season hurricane collided with another low-pressure storm, a more typical nor’easter. So it was a rare hybrid storm and reached some epic milestones, like the largest storm surge — 13 feet — New York City has ever seen.
And now the climate chatter begins, with some calling Sandy proof of global warming and some dismissing it as an anomaly, a freak. But just about every weather event, when taken by itself, is some sort of anomaly. Have you ever heard anyone say “Boy, the weather is normal this year”? No, it’s always far warmer, far colder, far rainier or far drier than usual.
No one can track trends from any single event. But it sure seems like over the past 10 or 15 years we’ve been seeing more “super” storms, more 100-year events, more anomalies.
Gov. Cuomo said just that on Tuesday. “There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement, that is a factual statement,” he said, speaking in New York City. “Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think, is denying reality.”
New York City is a strangely shaped place, a long island with a tidal river on either side, in a shallow harbor. The shallowness of the harbor means that a storm surge — when strong winds push ocean water into a dome-shaped wave — is magnified. When that surge pushed into the two rivers, they swelled and crashed over the bottom of Manhattan, flooding everything. Up the East River, Brooklyn flooded, the East Side flooded, seven subway tunnels flooded. The same thing happened up the Hudson, where there was flooding from New Jersey through Dutchess County.
Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist from Princeton, has been predicting that New York City would start seeing so-called 100-year events every five years or so. That’s because ocean water is warmer on average and sea levels are higher, both of which contribute to stronger storms, especially in places that are near sea level.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference Tuesday that he’s been seeing just that. “What is clear is that the storms that we’ve experienced in the last year or so, around this country and around the world, are much more severe than before,” he said. “Whether that’s global warming or what, I don’t know. But we’ll have to address those issues.”
One thing New York City will have to address is its underground infrastructure. If flooding is going to be the new reality, housing electric transformers underground might become unwise — cold seawater crashing into hot transformers caused underground fires last week. The city is built on tunnels, the subways and the car tunnels to New Jersey and the boroughs, that weren’t designed with frequent flooding in mind.
For now, the city buses are running again, and in time, subway service will return to normal. My daughter and her dorm-mates will be back at their various schools, and my friends and brother will have their power restored.
Whether Sandy was an anomaly or a warning, we can at the least use it as a reminder to think about how we can prevent a worsening situation in the future. Can each one of us use less power, less gas, create less waste — do something to stave off problems for our grandchildren?
For New York City, planning now can help mitigate flooding in the future. One idea, floated by architect Guy Nordenson, is to create barrier reefs in the harbor, with wetlands and inlets, to help slow storm surges. The Nature Conservancy has made the same argument, noting that taking steps to preserve natural populations of oysters — which make their own barrier reefs — would help.
Nature is not some esoteric entity we can leave to professors and scientists to deal with. It is the place we all live, and protecting it is the responsibility of all of us. There are those who say it’s too late, the damage has been done and none of our little actions can do anything to reverse it. There are others who say our human actions have no impact and that all weather — normal or weird — is just cyclical.
To me, it looks like things are changing, that weather is getting more extreme and that, in general, patterns tend toward warming. But even if that weren’t true, I would still think it important to protect what we have. And that means remembering, every day, to tread a little more lightly on the earth we live on.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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