Superstorm Sandy: A Near-Miss for New England and Lessons Learned for the Future

Deanna Moran

Tomorrow marks the fourth Anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. On October 29, 2012, Sandy ripped through the East Coast, generating storm surge, flooding, and wind damage across 24 states. The storm claimed more than 70 lives – the majority from drowning and fallen trees.

Those of us in New England watched in horror as the storm devastated communities in New Jersey and New York – ripping houses off their foundations and flooding New York’s subway system and tunnels. While communities in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Cape Cod dealt with flooding, property damage, and power outages, New Englanders were left largely unscathed compared to our mid-Atlantic neighbors.

In Boston, the city came to a virtual standstill when the MBTA shut down as a precaution, but the reality is that the city could have been hit much harder. Had Sandy struck during high tide – barely six hours earlier – flooding in the city would have been severe and critical infrastructure, from the MBTA to our tunnels to our sewer systems, likely overwhelmed.

While cities like Boston have been spending a lot of time and energy developing plans and gathering data to respond to future storms like Sandy, not enough has been done here in New England to actually implement the measures necessary to protect our communities. Now is the time for action so that when the next storm hits, we’re ready to respond.

Sandy’s Legacy

New York and New Jersey experienced the most devastating impacts from Superstorm Sandy, with more than a half million housing units damaged or destroyed. The storm hit Sandy Hook, New Jersey, during high tide – causing an already 9-foot storm surge to peak at around 14 feet total. For reference, the average height of a two-story single family home is only about 20 feet.

Here in New England, Connecticut saw flood inundation as high as 6 feet above ground level, and FEMA disaster assistance loans and insurance claims mounted to more than $283 million. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, flood inundation heights were only between 2 and 5 feet, but were still damaging.

Sandy was downgraded from a hurricane to a “superstorm” before making landfall in the U.S. – but it was a Category 3 hurricane at its peak. Current modeling shows that if Sandy had retained this intensity when it reached New England, a significant portion of Boston would have been underwater.

What’s more, Sandy hit southern New England just a year after Tropical Storm Irene caused historic and destructive flooding in Vermont and western Massachusetts. Even a year later, recovery efforts from that storm were still underway when Sandy made landfall here. With climate change causing sea levels to rise, the amount of inundation from future extreme storms is expected to be even greater.

Preparing for the Next Big Storm

Storms like Sandy, Irene, and, most recently, Hurricane Matthew periodically remind us of the importance of preparing for climate change but for the past few decades, efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions have been the primary focus for towns, cities, and states. Much less attention has been given to adaptation efforts to prepare our communities for the climate impacts already in motion.

Boston has, in many ways, been a leader in this area. Over the past few years the City has taken steps to lay the necessary foundation of research, data, and modeling to inform future action on climate change. Currently four separate City initiatives are underway that consider the impacts of climate change, but where the rubber hits the road, much less progress has been made.

Historically underdeveloped areas like the Seaport District are currently booming with new development, but city agencies like the Boston Planning and Development Authority (BPDA) are still desperately searching for guidance on how to ensure and mandate that new development is resilient to climate impacts. Building standards and codes continue to be based primarily on historical data and, while adaptation measures are advised, they are ultimately optional. That’s like each of us knowing that too much sun can cause cancer, but opting to not put on sunscreen anyway.

Three years ago, a report by The Boston Harbor Association delivered sobering statistics on sea level rise and future flood impacts. The report states that the coastal flooding associated with a 100-year storm has a 1% chance of occurring each year. By 2050, the annual likelihood of this flooding could increase to a 20% chance or higher. By 2100, these type of flood events could be as frequent as every high tide.

Yet, the City continues to operate under the assumption that historically based FEMA floodplains are accurate enough for planning purposes, even though they know that flooding is likely to be more widespread. This is much to the benefit of developers who are in it for the short-term profits, but to the detriment of the city and its residents, who will be left to endure the tragic consequences of underprepared infrastructure and millions in property damage.

A 2015 report by CoreLogic showed that, though the number of properties designated as being in the FEMA Special Flood Hazard Zone is only 19,168, the actual number of properties exposed to flood or storm surge inundation in the Boston Metro Area is ten times that number – 191,146. The total reconstruction value of the properties that would potentially be affected by a hurricane is nearly $48 trillion. What is most troubling about these numbers is the thousands of homeowners who may not understand their risk.

We can’t let the momentum from storms like Sandy die down. As a city, as a state, and as a region, we need to be thinking about the next big storm. It’s not a matter of if it’s coming, it’s a matter of when. Now is the time for action so that when the next storm hits, we have no regrets. If we don’t act, we will be faced with catastrophe, all the while sitting on a mound of research, data, and recommendations for what we could have done to better prepare.

Check out CLF’s interactive story map here to see Sandy’s flood impacts in New England.

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