Skip to main content

What we didn't learn from Superstorm Sandy

By Adam Sobel, Special to CNN
October 28, 2013 -- Updated 0416 GMT (1216 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Adam Sobel: The short-term responses to Hurricane Sandy were successful
  • Forecasts were very accurate, FEMA and MTA responded effectively, he says
  • Sobel says the one failure was that it hasn't prompted sufficient concern about climate change
  • Threat of storms, flooding will increase; cities need to prepare now, Sobel says

Editor's note: Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is an atmospheric scientist who specializes in the dynamics of climate and weather. He studies extreme events -- such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, and heat waves -- and the risks these pose to human society.

(CNN) -- Many of our immediate responses to Hurricane Sandy were successful. Scientists accurately forecast the storm; authorities ordered the proper actions; many people heeded the orders; and there was a massive government response in the aftermath.

What went most wrong, and continues to go wrong, is our handling of environmental risks in the long term. Even when the present has delivered an unprecedented shock, we still have trouble accepting that the future will bring new ones, unlike those before. It will.

Sandy was forecast with remarkable precision. Some models saw the storm coming more than a week ahead of time. Five days before it made landfall, the National Hurricane Center predicted the rest of the storm's track confidently, and almost perfectly. Forecasts this accurate are the result of decades of research and development, much of it done by government-funded scientists and engineers. Their remarkable achievement should not be taken for granted.

Adam Sobel
Adam Sobel

Many aspects of the immediate government response to Sandy were also successful. Having learned from his predecessor's failure with Katrina in 2005, President Obama took Sandy seriously from the outset.

A battered community, an unexpected angel

The Federal Emergency Management Administration had people and assets in place early, and mobilized reinforcements quickly after the storm to bring help to those in need. There were many successes at the local level as well. New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority did a remarkable job restoring subway service so quickly.

Historically, the worst part of the Atlantic hurricane season stretches from the last part of August through September and October, according to the National Weather Service. In late October 2012, Superstorm Sandy crashed into the northeastern United States, creating extensive damage to parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Click through the gallery to see more photos of disasterous U.S. hurricanes, and facts from the National Hurricane Center. Historically, the worst part of the Atlantic hurricane season stretches from the last part of August through September and October, according to the National Weather Service. In late October 2012, Superstorm Sandy crashed into the northeastern United States, creating extensive damage to parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Click through the gallery to see more photos of disasterous U.S. hurricanes, and facts from the National Hurricane Center.
Killer hurricanes 1900-2012
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
Killer hurricanes 1900-2012 Killer hurricanes 1900-2012

Our real problems are long-term.

Our infrastructure is not prepared for the climate we've had in the past, let alone the one we'll have in the future. It was clear for years that the New York City subways were dangerously vulnerable to hurricane flooding. Waterproofing was never undertaken. It was considered too expensive a response to a problem that would arrive at an unspecified future time. One of the storm's most expensive casualties was the new, half-billion dollar station at South Ferry, built in the flood zone.

This is not to single out the MTA. Similar examples line our coastline -- houses and businesses built on the beach and in coastal wetlands, power lines vulnerable to trees that come down even in tropical storm-force winds. The consequences of poor planning will become all the more serious as climate warms and sea level rises.

CNN iReport: Photographer revisits Sandy's path

New York City is actually a world leader in urban environmentalism. Mayor Bloomberg and PlaNYC's post-Sandy "Proposal for a Stronger, More Resilient New York" may be the most serious proposal by any city yet to become more climate-ready. I hope that it survives the end of Bloomberg's term, and that we find the funds and political will to implement it, or something like it.

But political and economic pressures discourage long-term investment. This is more true at the federal level than the local, and becomes still more frightening when we consider the most large-scale and long-term problem: human-induced global warming itself.

Floods like Sandy's will become more common as sea level rises. Rain-driven floods like those in Colorado a few weeks ago will also happen more often, as warmer air holds more water vapor.

Less dramatic, but perhaps ultimately more harmful, the coolest summers in a hundred years will be hotter than even the hottest summers that have occurred in our lifetimes. This has still not sunk in. It is outside our experience, and hard to grasp. But we know these things will happen. This, too, is a confident forecast. The changes are already under way, results of human greenhouse gas emissions, and consistent with the predictions of climate scientists decades ago.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions takes long-term vision. It also takes faith in science. Science, at its heart, is just the practice of taking reality seriously.

Under Obama, the United States has taken some modest measures. But we need to do much more. So far, the long-term costs of inaction have not been taken as seriously as the short-term costs of action.

Most disturbing, the primary tactic of those opposed to action has not been to argue about the real costs and benefits, but to pretend that reality is not what it is. We human beings are all a little shortsighted by nature, but there is no excuse for willful ignorance, or for conscious, intellectually dishonest denial.

When science delivers a threatening forecast, action is the only responsible course. Our leaders have shown great capacity to act upon a forecast for a Superstorm in a few days' time. We need to convince them to take the climate change forecast equally seriously.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Adam Sobel.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT