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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2013

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Editorial: Hurricane Sandy: It's Time To Face Facts

As my wife and I listened to the wind whistling around our apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, we knew, as we had been told, that this was going to be a bad storm. We were safe, on the fifteenth floor of a building that was itself on a bit of a rise. In fact, though we were prepared with extra water and candles, we never even lost electricity. We were one of the lucky families.

Because it was so hard to see the street from our windows, I decided to go downstairs and look out the front door. Though I did not put on a jacket, I probably harbored some notion of going out into the street, to experience the storm for myself.

I did go down. A mind changing sight was a heavy metal trash can careening down the street. I could just imagine being hit by it. I quickly went back upstairs.

As the images, like the sea, started pouring in on the TV screen, we realized just how fortunate we were. Billed as the second most damaging hurricane in U.S. history, its financial impact was large enough, its emotional and personal impact even greater. As this is written, more than six months later, many thousands have not yet been able to regain entry into their homes.

Following the sea and images, the questions now come rolling in. Should we build a sea wall? Allow building in flood plain areas? Rebuild destroyed areas? Who should pay for the cost of cleaning up and fixing devastated neighborhoods? How can we make our cities more resilient? What more do we need to know to do that? How many storms like this can we expect? In particular, how do we protect those least able to cope with disasters like this, the poor and underrepresented minorities who live in vulnerable areas?

Enter the insightful and thorough analysis of increasing resilience in cities by Howard Kunreuther, a regular contributor to this magazine, and Erwann Michel-Kerjan and Mark Pauly. As you will see—or perhaps already have—the article lays out an array of common sense proposals, not often enough implemented, that would do a great deal to protect cities and their inhabitants from the cruel onslaughts of the extreme weather we have every reason to expect will be coming our way. In their words, “…the case for making communities more resilient to natural disasters by investing in loss reduction measures now is an obvious one.” Citing a previous study published by the authors, they state that “…enforcing building codes for all residences in Florida could reduce by nearly half the expected price of insurance under climate change projections.…”

Cities are important in any number of ways, from economics to culture to environmental quality. More people are moving to cities, which is basically good news; the environmental footprint of an urban dweller is far less than that of a denizen of the suburbs. So we must protect the quality of life in cities both because it is only fair for the people who already live there, and also to induce more people to live there because of the reduced environmental impact.

More questions. Many of these solutions seem to be “win-win.” Why has more not been done? What are the barriers to implementation of these ideas? How can we convince the public and the body politic that these are vital to our future?

These are compelling issues. We cannot dodge them. They must be taken seriously, else we face an ever more dangerous and troubling future.

—Alan H. McGowan

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