Skip to main content

America isn't ready for superstorms

By Stephen E. Flynn, Special to CNN
updated 1:47 PM EST, Sun January 6, 2013
David McCue stands near the roof of his beach house, which was completely demolished by Superstorm Sandy, in Ortley Beach, New Jersey, on Sunday, November 25. <strong><a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/30/us/gallery/sandy-damage/index.html' target='_blank'>See photos of the immediate aftermath of Sandy.</a></strong> David McCue stands near the roof of his beach house, which was completely demolished by Superstorm Sandy, in Ortley Beach, New Jersey, on Sunday, November 25. See photos of the immediate aftermath of Sandy.
HIDE CAPTION
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
Long, slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephen Flynn: Hurricane Sandy shows how poorly prepared U.S. is for major storms
  • He says we need to stop behaving as if such disasters are so rare, unpredictable
  • There are steps governments can take to get ready in advance of storms, Flynn says
  • Flynn: Storms should be closely studied to yield clues about how to prepare better

On CNN TV: Superstorms are a new breed of weather that put lives and cities in the eye of their fury. Are we ready for the next one? Watch CNN's "The Coming Storms" on Sunday, January 6, at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. Stephen Flynn is founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security and a professor of political science at Northeastern University.

(CNN) -- Major storms are always dangerous. Superstorm Sandy left 132 Americans dead, damaged and destroyed tens of thousands of homes, left millions without power, and crippled the largest metropolitan area in the United States.

The massive human and economic toll of this disaster came just seven years after Hurricane Katrina. It marked only the latest in a spate of deadly and destructive weather events, including the May 2011 tornado that leveled much of Joplin, Missouri.

Stephen Flynn
Stephen Flynn

Not being well prepared for dealing with extreme weather events is very expensive. Two months after Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey, the new 113th Congress has just approved a $9.7 billion storm relief measure. But these funds represent but a down payment on a $60.4 billion federal aid package that the Obama administration has requested to help the region recover from a disaster. Meanwhile, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut estimate that the tab for storm damage in their states is closer to $82 billion.

Americans need to stop behaving as though major disasters are so rare and unpredictable that little can be done up front to make them less catastrophic.

The overwhelming consensus among scientists is that the climate has changed. Global warming is making Mother Nature more mischievous, resulting in weather events that are more frequent and extreme. These disasters pose a greater risk both because the majority of Americans now live within 50 miles of the coast and because the critical infrastructure that coastal communities rely on is becoming more exposed and vulnerable.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



There is much that we can and should be doing to better anticipate and prepare for extreme weather events. As a nation, we also should be embracing proven cost-effective measures that will reduce the harm that disasters cause and bolster the speed at which communities can recover.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there are five important lessons to be learned.

1. Water is more destructive than wind. Media coverage of hurricanes and coastal storms places too much emphasis on wind speed. While images of trees, road signs, and reporters being buffeted by high winds make for good video, they distract from the more serious hazard associated with major storms -- coastal flooding from storm surge and inland flooding from torrential rains. There need to be better predictive tools for estimating how much water a storm may bring and when and where it is likely to go. Rising sea levels are elevating the flooding risk. As a result, adaptations in the design of urban landscapes and the location of critical assets such as power transformers, wastewater systems, and transit systems will need to happen sooner versus later.

Superstorm warnings ignored in NY
Sandy aftermath affects criminal cases
Family impacted by Hurricane Sandy

2. Aging infrastructure is vulnerable infrastructure. Failure to adequately invest in energy, transportation, communications, and other infrastructure practically guarantees the failure of critical systems when they are placed under the stress of extreme events. In 2009, when assigning grades for 15 sectors of America's infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers awarded 11 D's and 4 C's. In recent years, the backlog of maintenance, repair, and needed upgrades has only continued to grow, leaving us with aging infrastructure that is more and more brittle. At the top of the priority list must be improving the resilience of the nation's electric power generation, transmission, and distribution systems. While every major infrastructure sector is important, there is little that can keep operating when the lights go out.

3. It's not just about responding to disasters, but recovering from them. Warning people of a pending disaster and getting vulnerable populations out of harm's way is vitally important. So too is emergency response both during and immediately after a storm. But there is a need for far more robust planning for restoring critical systems quickly and getting communities back on their feet again. Harnessing the capabilities of willing and able citizens and the private sector is key. For instance, electric power could be restored more quickly if local independent licensed electricians could be deputized to support utility crews in conducting damage assessments and making repairs. Additionally, the counterpart to having detailed plans to guide evacuations ahead of a storm is having plans that support quickly bringing displaced people back into their homes, schools, and businesses. As extreme weather events become more frequent, it is important to try to make them less disruptive. This places a premium on bolstering community resilience. People and systems need to be able to better withstand, respond, adapt, and rapidly recover from disasters.

4. The federal government matters. Under our federal form of government, disaster response and relief have always been decentralized -- mayors and governors are in charge of incidents that happen in their jurisdictions. Historically, the federal government's role has been to provide assistance when local and state capabilities are overwhelmed. Washington has played this role in every major disaster dating back to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, when over 4,000 troops from the U.S. Army's Pacific Division were mobilized to provide emergency relief, including constructing temporary housing for 20,000 survivors. But as the scale of disasters has grown, so too has the role of the federal government. Extreme weather events like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy invariably involve multiple states. To coordinate rapid and effective response and recovery on a regional scale requires preplanning. And part of any thoughtful preplanning should be identifying incentives that encourage states and localities to put in place measures that mitigate the risk of needless loss of life and property. This will require a federal government that is increasingly engaged before disasters happen as well as afterward. Assigning a passive "call us if you need us" role to the federal government, practically guarantees future replays of the kind of ineptitude that marked the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

5. Learning from disasters needs to be institutionalized. When the U.S. Army goes to war, it takes along historians. It knows that every battle provides a potential learning opportunity for making its soldiers better war fighters the next time around. It also knows that the best time to collect information about what went right and what went wrong is while events are unfolding. However, when major disasters happen, the process of learning from them is often ad hoc. Mayors and governors may appoint commissions, and the U.S. Congress invariably holds hearings. Not surprisingly, these reviews often become politically charged. What is missing is a process much like that of the National Transportation Safety Board, that automatically conducts investigations and issues reports on civil aviation accidents. Within hours of an incident, the NTSB creates go teams made up of specialists with the relevant expertise to investigate what happened and to support the development of new safety recommendations. In the spirit of "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste," catastrophic disasters like Superstorm Sandy should be seen as teachable moments to better prepare the general public and elected officials for what is inevitable: the next storm.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Flynn.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
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
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
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
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
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
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
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.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
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.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
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
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
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
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT