America isn’t ready for superstorms

Published 1:47 PM EST, Sun January 6, 2013

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.

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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.

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.