It's become clear that superstorm Sandy is going to have a big effect on our lives for the coming weeks, months and years. At least we hope it will. Sandy and its damage must affect our state of mind long-term because we can't just repair and return to business as usual. We have to move our thinking and our infrastructure from the 20th century to the 22nd. Will there now be, as there were with the attacks of 9/11, two types of thinking about how to build and protect infrastructure and other assets: "pre-Sandy" and "post-Sandy"?
This is an important question, and one that has to be addressed pretty quickly, because insurance companies and the federal government are going to be deploying an awful lot of money to help Long Island and New York City recover. If the rebuilding isn't done with an eye toward the future, that money and this disaster will have been wasted.
How do we recover from an emergency as fast as possible, but also in a prudent manner that takes into account the newest technologies and a changing climate that is coming to be seen as the "new normal"? If storms of a severity we previously expected to see every 100 years are now, indeed, going to occur every two, building and hardening in a way that keeps them from leveling our infrastructure are going to be cheaper than an endless cycle of repairs and replacements.
On Long Island, the Bay Park sewage plant is home to a host of operational problems at the best of times. A Sandy-related fire has caused a shutdown, and a pretty wide swath of Nassau County residents can't use their toilets, lest sewage start coming up through the pipes and the streets. In Long Beach, a water treatment plant overrun with seawater is one of many troubles for a community in ruins. Should that facility, or its replacement if a new one is built, be so close to the sea?
Across the barrier islands, in fact, homes have been destroyed, infrastructure demolished, and beaches dramatically shifted.
Should the beaches be rebuilt, replenished, protected? If so, how? What about the homes? Houses on beaches are a beautiful thing, but do they make sense? How far from the water must they be situated to survive storms? How high up? How heartily built?
And what of New York City? On Long Island we complain that power lines and equipment ought to be buried to prevent outages. In Manhattan, they are, but this week that's turned out to be a terrible Achilles heel as water poured in. Transportation, the lifeblood of this region, turns out to be deeply vulnerable to flooding. Subway tunnels, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel have all been unmasked as soft targets for raging waters. And when they're out of commission, New Yorkers face brutal commutes.
These problems have to be rectified to allow for normal living, but addressed in a way that prevents recurrences and takes into account terrible storms as the norm. The fiscal hawks will scream that hardening and modernizing will cost billions. But having not done so is clearly going to cost billions, in damages and lost economic activity.
Repairing to the old standards, and clinging to patterns of building that don't account for the changing climate, are "pre-Sandy" thinking. "Post-Sandy" thinking, done right, will serve us all far better.