Sandy Reveals the Steep Cost of Delaying Climate Action

Rockaway, Queens, after Hurricane Sandy.


Photo credit: anique

Jennifer Pinkowski was terrified when her parents and brother decided to stay in their Jersey Shore home during Hurricane Sandy. Writing in NRDC’s OnEarth magazine, Pinkowski described how the storm surge swamped the house and drove her family to higher ground. Fortunately her loved ones made it to safety, but their journey is far from over.

In the weeks after the storm, “they were told by contractors that the entire house would have to be gutted,” Pinkowski wrote. “This struck me as old news. Hadn’t it already been gutted? Hadn’t they? Never had I so viscerally understood what gutted meant until I heard the grief and stress in my parents’ voices as they watched their house be disemboweled bit by bit, day by day.”

Pinkowski’s family has some insurance protection, yet they still had to drain their savings and borrow against their home equity in order to make the house they planned to spend their retirement in habitable again.

They are not alone. Across the region, families, businesses, and municipal governments are still struggling to recover from Sandy and figure out how to pay for it.

Roughly 76,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey were impacted by the storm and 500 of those buildings were leveled, according to FEMA. The storm also devastated New York City’s transit system, leaving $4.8 billion in damages. Hospitals were also hard hit, and experts say New York’s health care facilities need $3 billion to resume services.

Taken together, these costs are staggering. On Monday, Governor Cuomo said the State of New York would need $42 billion to recover from Sandy. That includes $33 billion to repair storm damage and $9 billion to protect against future storms. Mayor Bloomberg said New York City will still need $9.8 billion in additional aid.

These costs amount to a fee for climate paralysis. Report after report confirms that climate change is intensifying extreme weather events like hurricanes, drought, and heat waves. It heat ups our oceans and loads storms with extra energy, making them more violent. It also contributes to sea level rise, which increases storm surges and coastal flooding.

And yet some politicians continue to deny the existence of global warming and block efforts to address it. By failing to fully confront the climate crisis, we are saddling our communities with steep costs, devastating losses, and mounting dangers.

The insurance industry agrees. Munich Re, the largest reinsurance company in the world, released a report in October concluding that climate change is intensifying natural disasters and that North America is experiencing the largest increase in extreme weather in the world.

Munich Re noted that insured losses from extreme weather totaled an average of $9 billion per year in the 1980s. That total jumped to $36 billion a year by the 2000s. Insured losses due to U.S. thunderstorms alone hit a new record of roughly $26 billion last year—more than twice the previous record for thunderstorms set in 2010.

America is paying dearly for climate change. Now it is time to invest in solutions that will yield dividends for generations to come.

Green infrastructure—things like grassy swales, permeable pavement, and pocket parks—have been proven to reduce flooding and make neighborhoods more livable at the same time. Robust coastal wetlands will help absorb storm surges and filter pollution. Upgraded power grids and small-scale, renewable plants will diversify our power supply and limit blackouts. And making smart choices about how and where to rebuild and requiring states to account for climate change when they develop natural disaster mitigation plans—as NRDC recently petitioned FEMA to do—will help make our communities better prepared when future storms strike.

But we can’t stop there. We have to clean up the pollution that causes climate change. Clean energy measures—using energy more efficiently, cleaning up our power plants, rejecting dirty fuels like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and increasing our use of renewable energy—will not only reduce carbon pollution. They will also make our air safer to breathe and put Americans to work.

The Obama Administration has already begun unleashing these benefits, but we must do more. We must set carbon limits on existing power plants (click here to send a message to the administration in support of carbon limits). We must extend incentives for wind energy and spur investment in clean energy research. And we must help cities and states embrace the energy, water, and public health strategies that will make them more resilient. 

This is how we lower the costs of extreme weather: we make our communities cleaner, stronger, and more sustainable. 

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