On October 29, Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, leaving damage strewn across the Caribbean in its wake. With a diameter of 820 miles, Sandy was the largest Atlantic tropical storm to date and caused roughly $50 billion in damage, making it the second most costly disaster after Hurricane Katrina. Hospitals were evacuated, the stock exchange was closed for the first time since 1888, levees broke, the New York City subway flooded, power was cut to 8 million homes and communities were left to cope with property damage and the loss of loved ones. While damage and hardship were widespread, the storm greatly affected the region’s most vulnerable: the poor, the ill and the elderly.
The storm may be long over, but its effects are still tangible today. To ensure a strong recovery and resilient future, it is essential that people continue to engage, innovate and take action on issues related to Sandy’s impact and larger implications. As the people who will be grappling with future storms, environmental issues, health impacts and community vulnerability, millennials can and must make a considerable contribution in determining how we move forward.
Communities have proven resilient, with businesses, politicians, utility workers, organizations and residents uniting to help provide relief and begin rebuilding, but there are still many ongoing struggles and lingering questions. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, there were calls to address climate change and outdated infrastructure, but that sense of urgency has largely subsided. Hospitals are coping with the closure of facilities and an overflow of patients. More than 3,500 families in the region still have no home and others no heat, relying on continued support from FEMA. Those whose flooded homes did withstand the storm face the problem of mold, and homeowners along the coast are worried about the increasing cost of flood insurance. President Obama cited Sandy’s disruptions to economic activity as one reason why the economy shrunk in the last quarter of 2012. Clearly, though Sandy has faded from the headlines, many in the Northeast are still feeling its effects.
Other communities across the country are similarly grappling with the lasting impact of extreme weather events. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans just over seven years ago, and while there has been much progress, people are still coping with its effects. Under half of the pre-Katrina bus routes are running in New Orleans, a third of low-income mothers in the city are still suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms and many homes remain abandoned or damaged. Even when Sandy hit the Northeast in October, New Jersey and other parts of the region were still recovering from Hurricane Irene, which made landfall in August 2011. Given this recognition that a storm’s impact lasts long after its landfall, it is particularly important that we continue to monitor recovery and develop innovative solutions in Sandy’s aftermath.
Government, in its capacity as a steward of the common good, has a critical role in leading relief efforts and promoting development strategies that will reduce vulnerability. Many elected officials have embraced this role. Recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed purchasing homes that were damaged by Sandy, tearing them down and maintaining the easily flooded areas as undeveloped land, which would serve as a natural buffer to protect coastal communities. While not yet approved, that program, which would pay residents the pre-storm value of their now damaged homes and offer incentives for others in vulnerable areas to sell and relocate, would cost roughly $400 million and involve approximately 10,000 homes in the 100-year flood plain. However, many elected officials have avoided some of the most difficult questions. This past August, North Carolina’s state legislature passed a law that banned the use of the latest data on sea-level rise when planning coastal development, leaving residents along the coast without the long-term strategies that could reduce vulnerability to floods, storms and rising oceans.
Students and other young people are determined to consider these difficult questions and build on innovative policy solutions. As we approach the six-month mark of Superstorm Sandy in April, millennials around the Northeast are coming together to examine what has been done and is being done to help affected groups and to consider the best ways to protect our communities in the future. With the state of emergency now in the past, we have a measure of distance and perspective that makes it possible to envision strategies for a more resilient future in addition to ongoing recovery efforts. There are serious concerns that warming oceans may provide fuel for increasingly powerful storms, but climate change isn't the only issue that warrants attention. We must also consider how we prepare and build, how we support the most vulnerable members of our communities and how we can fairly and effectively respond after a disaster. Many community organizations, decision makers, members of the defense community and businesses have been eager to engage in this discussion and have proposed changes to emergency response and infrastructure. Millennials, many of whom felt Sandy’s impact, are eager to push this conversation and action forward. If we fail to act today, they are the ones who will be affected by and tasked with addressing these challenges in the years to come.