Superstorm Sandy, One Year Later

Redesigning our coast to hold back a hurricane


When Superstorm Sandy rolled across the Northeast last Oct. 29, it was among our worst nightmares –– a historic tempest that inundated entire swaths of coastline, pushing the Atlantic Ocean past points that we did not believe floodwaters could reach. In a day, Sandy wreaked $68 billion in damage to homes, businesses, roads, bridges, tunnels, subways, railroads, harbors and beaches.

In Sandy’s wake, with no electricity and heat and with winter just weeks away, we felt desperate. We were far more exposed to nature’s destructive elements than we had thought.

Writing for The Washington Post, Brian McNoldy, a senior researcher at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, noted in an essay last November that Sandy was the second most powerful hurricane in terms of the kinetic energy that it produced, after Isabel in 2003. (Katrina was third.) According to McNoldy, Sandy generated as much kinetic energy as two World War II-era atomic bombs.

Long Islanders spent months reconstructing their homes and businesses after Sandy. Many still have not rebuilt.

The question is, when everyone is restored, do we simply move on, pretending that nothing happened? Or do we remake our coastline to ensure that our structures and infrastructure are protected in another Sandy?

Henk Ovink, director-general of national spatial planning and water affairs for the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, is “on loan,” he says, to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this year as a senior adviser to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who reports to President Obama. Ovink is helping to oversee Rebuild by Design, a program initiated by the president that aims to build greater resiliency into our coastline to hold back the ocean and protect our communities in a hurricane. Ovink, who arrived in the U.S. in April, is staying for a year, in part to spread the word about the need to rethink how we design our cities and suburbs in flood zones.

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