Make Health a Priority Post-Sandy, Put Climate Change on the Map

With Hurricane Sandy’s one-year anniversary approaching on October 29th, the country continues to reflect on what we’ve learned about improving coastal communities’ ability to bounce back after adversity -- one definition of resilience.

A key aspect of resilience is preparedness. An NRDC preliminary analysis found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s antiquated methods for assessing areas at risk of flooding left hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers unprepared for storms like Sandy. 

The NRDC analysis compares the NYC areas flooded by Sandy, versus those expected to flood according to FEMA’s then-existing 1983 Flood Insurance Risk Maps that were in use. The pink ring shows the difference: neighborhoods and areas that weren’t supposed to flood, but did. This preliminary map lets viewers zoom in to about the borough level.

FEMA’s flood risk zone maps, created for the National Flood Insurance Program, are often used by state and local governments to identify vulnerable areas and to help drive preparation, evacuation, and response planning.  However, by relying on FEMA’s outdated maps (which had been created in 1983), vast areas of the city were not ready.

Despite mounting evidence of increased coastal flooding risk due to rising sea levels and climate change, FEMA continued to rely on outdated 1983-vintage flood maps.  These maps only looked backwards to historical floods in determining areas of vulnerability.  Our analysis of areas inundated by Sandy is a stark example of potential infrastructure damage costs and health harms from this policy.

We estimate nearly 304,000 people, including 45,000 older adults age 65-plus, and 17,000 children lived in areas which flooded as a result of Sandy but were not accounted for in FEMA’s 1983 maps. Both of these flood-vulnerable groups have an especially hard time during storms and floods getting out of harm’s way. Older adults in residential facilities and nursing homes were stuck in under-prepared high rise buildings in beach communities in Queens, as the NY Times reported back in 2012. Facilities that should have had contingency plans in place may, in part, not have expected to see flooding on the scope of Sandy. 

All New Yorkers rely on public facilities whose services were disrupted during Sandy, and these key services experienced flooding but were not part of FEMA’s maps. They may have had little idea that they were vulnerable to flooding:

  • 18 hospitals or nursing homes
  • 11 senior centers
  • 74 daycare or Headstart facilities
  • 83 private elementary or secondary schools

The health effects of Sandy lasted far beyond the storm’s landfall. The immediate loss of life and injuries dovetailed with the need to provide long-term safe shelter and homes for tens of thousands of individuals and families. Medical care was interrupted, safe food and drinking water supplies became challenges to provide. Residents and emergency responders reported respiratory complaints. Rebuilding homes, schools and institutions to be more resilient, and less prone to flood and moisture damage and subsequent growth of health-harming mold remains a concern. Ways to target rapid emergency and environmental health response to locations where large numbers of vulnerable people live, and reduce risks of contact with floodwaters that can be contaminated by sewage or chemicals, remain food for thought and future planning.

FEMA has made progress since Sandy and is now updating flood risk maps for New York and New Jersey. It’s terrific that among the top priorities of the June 2013 "plaNYC" update is for New York City to work with FEMA to improve the flood mapping process– but today’s flood map updates still don’t include the effects of climate change. Moving forward, FEMA’s floodplain maps, hazard mitigation activities and the help they provide to states and cities should take into account climate change’s possible effects on risks to health, property, and associated damage costs.

This would help protect public health and safety, and not just for New Yorkers: in the United States, 23 of our 25 most densely-populated counties are on the coasts. The hard-hitting combination of rising seas fueled by climate change and storm surge is already putting millions of people and billions of dollars of property at risk, and these risks will increase by century’s end, as detailed in a recent article in the journal Nature Climate Change. My NRDC colleagues Rob Moore and Becky Hammer have highlighted some of the opportunities that FEMA and states now have to work together on improving national climate-resilience.

Among NRDC’s top ten priorities for government action in the wake of Hurricane Sandy are establishing environmental health protection, resiliency planning and recovery programs that aim to protect the most vulnerable local populations locally. Creating climate change-savvy maps of where the greatest risks from rising sea levels and higher storm surges threaten to inundate homes, hospitals, schools, and businesses under a changing climate, will help provide public health protection that’s poised to reach out to those in harm’s way.

Luckily, climate change science now provides local information for more and more parts of the US. We urge FEMA to modernize the process for state hazard mitigation to address climate change adaptation issues as soon as possible, and update planning guidance and tools for states to assess their hazard risks from climate change. Taking these actions will help prepare for future disasters, build climate resilience, and save lives, property, and money.

We can learn from events like Sandy and start to plan the future with all the best tools science offers. The future, with a changing climate, isn’t an abstraction. Sandy made that all too clear; it’s the home we all will be living in tomorrow — especially our kids and grandchildren — so let’s plan with them in mind.