The flooding devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. (Photo courtesy of FEMA)
Even a brief look at television news these days shows the immense devastation from Hurricane Sandy. Worse, this is yet another depressing reminder of the consequences of our inadequate attention to infrastructure planning and investments that can mitigate damage from a major storm.
The numbers alone are stunning: Sandy was more than 1000 miles in diameter with sustained winds of 110 miles per hour as it hammered 17 States. Sandy was over land for 32 hours, causing more than 100 deaths and about $60 billion in damages.
By contrast, Hurricane Katrina was 450 miles in diameter but had sustained winds of 120+ miles per hour. Katrina was over land for 33 hours, causing more than 1,800 deaths and direct damages of $120+ billion.
A tragedy such as Sandy rightly spurs reflection among federal officials and other experts about how to minimize future death and destruction. What follows are a few points, I hope they consider:
The “danger zone” is larger than most think. With 60+% of the U.S. population residing within the Coastal zones, the risks to population and our infrastructure is at a growing risk to large storm events such as Katrina and Sandy. Sandy shows that that major storm events are not limited to the Gulf Coast.
Prevention deserves more focus. We, as a Country, have a history of responding quickly after disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, especially through the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and more recently, FEMA. But we often fall short in making the investments necessary to minimize the consequences of such events. For instance, with Hurricane Katrina, the hurricane protection system for New Orleans was far from complete even though plans had been authorized in the late 1960’s after Hurricane Betsy.
Hurricane Sandy packed sustained winds of 110 mph. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
In the case of Sandy, there was tremendous damage in New Jersey’s Passaic River Basin. But plans have been on the books to provide increased flood protection for this vulnerable area for decades. However, issues between the States of New York and New Jersey and funding limitations at the Federal level have kept this protection from being implemented.
Keep in mind cost/benefits. With flood and storm damage reduction benefits exceeding costs on the order of nearly 7 to 1, as referenced in the most recent Civil Works Program Statistics of the Corps of Engineers, there is an obvious financial incentive to make these investments. Lack of funding seems especially foolish after a disaster such as Katrina or Sandy.
With Congress taking up discussion of a new Water Resources Development Act and the opportunity to increase our investments in our critical infrastructure, the time has never been better to have a true National discussion on protecting our vulnerable coastlines from natural disasters.
Rob Vining Senior Advisor