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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT