What Hurricane Sandy Was Not

Posted on November 21st, 2012 by Anne Siders

by Michael Gerrard

A great deal has been said about what Hurricane Sandy was. Quite a few superlatives have appropriately been used. But I would like to list six things that Hurricane Sandy was not:

1. Hurricane Sandy was not a worst case event.   It was a Category 1 hurricane when it hit New York. A Category 3 hurricane combined with high tides and certain other weather patterns could have been even worse.

2. Hurricane Sandy was not a hundred-year storm. There are a lot of different views around about whether it was a 20-year storm, a 30-year storm, or whatever, and there are quite a few scientists who think that this sort of event will hit with considerably greater frequency in the decades to come.

3.  Hurricane Sandy is not the only kind of extreme weather-related event that New York City may face. Two other entirely plausible events are extreme precipitation that would cause massive flooding without any involvement of tides, high winds, or elevated seas; and protracted heat waves, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees for weeks on end. That happened in  Europe in 2003 and killed tens of thousands of people.  (Perversely, standard preparation for terrible heat waves involves installing more air conditioning, which with today’s energy system runs directly counter to our goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.)

It is often said that generals always prepare to fight the last war. We need to be sure that we do not just prepare for the last disaster, and put all of our limited resources in guarding against that one, without thinking about the other things that could happen.

4. Storms like Hurricane Sandy are not the sort of event that can be much affected in the next several decades by our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. The scientific projections show that there is so much heat embodied in the climate system, especially in the oceans, that global temperatures for the next three or four decades are largely already predetermined; toward the end of this century, the amount of GHG we dump into the atmosphere today and going forward will make a very large difference in global temperatures and therefore in extreme weather events, but this effect of current GHG reductions or increases won’t be evident for a long time.

5.   The prospect of future storms like Sandy is not something that current law is prepared to deal with. There is no comprehensive US law about adaptation to climate change. Instead there are some scattered federal, state and local laws — some from the legislatures, some the executive branches, some from the courts — but there are not enough even to call it a patchwork of law, much less a framework. Perhaps Hurricane Sandy will inspire us to build a framework and then to fill in the gaps among the patches.

6. The prospect of future storms like Sandy is not something where our best future course of action at all plain and obvious. The magnitude of public investments that has been discussed is immense, and these projects must compete against a great many other compelling priorities.  The land use decisions we face are heartbreaking — we seem to be left with a choice between rebuilding communities in places that will continue to be vulnerable to storms like Sandy,  or not rebuilding them and requiring their residents and the rest of us to lose an immense amount of what we value. Perhaps a small fraction of the tens of billions of dollars we’re talking about for sea walls and flood gates should go to offering to buy out the homeowners in the extremely vulnerable areas — that should probably be on the table.  After the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Chile in 2010, serious land use restrictions were imposed on coastal areas that continue to be vulnerable to such events.  That, too, should be on the table.  Some really tough decisions lie ahead — and failure to make a decision is itself a decision, but often the worst one.


  1. Thank you for sharing this earnest and beautifully crafted piece in order to stimulate informed and effective dialogue regarding what policy measures could have insured against the devastation and utter loss that too many experienced as a result of hurricane Sandy. It gives hope. Just in time for the holiday tomorrow.

  2. Hurricane Sandy was also not a 0.2 or 0.3% decrease in ocean pH which renders the global oceans incapable of supporting vertebrate life.

    Scare tactics don’t work, apparently, for climate advocacy. What should work is a new level of attention to the economics of energy efficiency. Today in the United States we have enough efficiency potential to triple or quadruple current electric utility efficiency activity. Doing this will save enough money to allow a subsidy to wind which is three cents per KWH, almost 50% larger than the wind production tax credit. And doing those two things together, with a segue to photovoltaics as this decade proceeds and PV costs drop below that of fossil fuels, will eliminate fossil fuels from the U.S. electric sector in thirty years.

    If we do that, we have a shot at controlling climate at a level which preserves the oceans. It’s not a wide shot. But the stakes are much higher than anything that greenhouse gas induced weather will cause.

    Once we have a carbon-free electric sector we can go on to increase electricity use to heat water and buildings, and expedite the end of natural gas. We will have the most trouble ending petroleum, but it can be done if we pave the way. Energy storage is abundant and cheap, just not well understood.

    The real barrier to this solution is the failure of the electric regulatory industry and public policy to recognize that we presently pay utilities to pollute, regardless of what we say we want. When we shift incentives a little, and make clean energy more profitable by sharing some of the savings, we get what we want and also have a strong distribution and generation mix to carry us into a future that uses photovoltaics and other sustainable technologies because they are the cheapest resources.

    Thank you for this article. It sets the stage for a larger conversation about what we are not paying attention to.

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