Outsmarting The Surge

The devastating superstorm was a sign of things to come. How we can better prepare for a catastrophe-prone future

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Andrew Quilty / Oculi for TIME

Correction appended Nov. 13

After Hurricane Sandy hurled the Atlantic at the Northeast coast on Oct. 29 and 30, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo returned from touring a shell-shocked New York City to face reporters. The storm surge had inundated lower Manhattan, Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn and Queens. It had obliterated the New Jersey shore. Across more than a dozen states, from North Carolina to Maine and as far west as Michigan, it left more than 50 people dead and more than 8 million without power, and it likely caused more than $20 billion in damage. Sandy, a seemingly minor Category 1 hurricane, was a major catastrophe.

But for Cuomo, Sandy was the harbinger of something even worse. "We have a 100-year flood every two years now," he said. "We need to make sure that if there is weather like this, we are more prepared and protected than we have been before."

We'll need to be. Thanks to a combination of factors — more people and property in vulnerable coastal areas as well as climate change — we're likely to experience disasters on the scale of Sandy more often in the future. That's a future we're not ready to handle, and judging from the near total absence of debate about global warming on the presidential campaign trail, it's a future we're not even thinking about. The good news is that there's still time to prepare — if we heed the lessons of the storm.

Make sure you can see ahead.

When the infamous Long Island Express hurricane hit the Northeast in 1938, there was little warning and less preparation. As many as 800 people died, making it one of the deadlier storms in U.S. history. We'd never be so unprepared today, thanks to the more than two dozen U.S. weather and environmental satellites that peer down on the planet and help predict its weather.

But in September, NOAA's GOES-East satellite — one of a pair of orbiting spacecraft that provide the backbone for advanced weather forecasting — suddenly winked out. Fortunately NOAA had a backup GOES satellite already parked in orbit, and forecasting capabilities were unaffected in the month leading up to Sandy's formation. But that near miss was a scary reminder that the U.S. satellite fleet is in peril, threatened by budget cuts and government short-sightedness. "Gaps are opening in both our operational and research satellites," says J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric-sciences program at the University of Georgia and president-elect of the American Meteorological Society. For every $1 spent on space infrastructure, about $5 in disaster-damage costs are saved — proof that it makes economic sense to keep our eyes in the skies operating.

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