Feds: Shore up Northeast against climate change

Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force calls for world's biggest cities to spend now to battle future floods

Taxis sit in a flooded lot after Hurricane Sandy October 30, 2012 in Hoboken, New Jersey. The storm has claimed many lives in the United States and has caused massive flooding across much of the Atlantic seaboard.
Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images

Coastal communities in the Northeast need to be better prepared for hurricanes and other extreme weather brought on by climate change, a presidential task force said in a report published Monday.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force said coastal communities should assume floods will become more frequent, and should realize that spending more now on protective measures could save money later.

The report included 69 recommendations on how the Northeast can adapt its shoreline infrastructure to rising tides and extreme weather.   

The report comes a day after the online release of another study, led by a World Bank economist, saying climate change-induced flooding could cost the world’s 136 biggest coastal cities $1 trillion dollars annually by 2050 -- unless such cities raise their defenses.

The United States faces especially difficult problems, the HUD task force said, calling for development of a more advanced electrical grid less likely to be crippled in a crisis.

The report also said local officials were unprepared for the impact of Hurricane Sandy, which battered the Northeast last October, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency had not revised its flood maps.

"Since FEMA had not updated flood maps of New Jersey and New York City in more than 25 years, it was difficult for local planners to effectively understand and address current and future risks posed by climate change, urbanization, and other factors."

Task force recomendations

Some of the group's main recommendations are already underway. They include creating new flood-protection standards for major infrastructure projects built with federal money, and promoting the use of a new sea level calculation system to help builders and engineers predict where flooding could be a problem.

Dr. Jay Hobgood, director of the atmospheric research center at The Ohio State University, told Al Jazeera that the best way to keep storm surge from the Atlantic Ocean at bay would be to build up the dunes and marshes that block the waves, but that houses and other developments there stand in the way.

The cost of insuring homes along coasts might in the future force people to leave, Hobgood notes, opening up the shoreline to being restored to the natural sea barrier--dunes, marshes and wetlands--it had been before large scale development started.

The Task force found that the cost of insuring homes along the shore was a difficult problem regulators should continue to discuss.

"If it ever gets too expensive to live there, that will be a tipping point for the coastal areas," Hobgood said.

"After a major storm affects the coast people won't want to rebuild. And that may be the opportunity to do the coastal restoration without disrupting their lives, because the storm itself has already disrupted their lives."

The study by World Bank economist  Stephane Hallegate and colleagues, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, said the current losses in the world’s largest cities amount to $6 billion per year, with four cities -- Miami, New York and New Orleans in the United States and Guangzhou in China – accounting for 43 percent of the costs.

Hallgatte told NBC that the United States faces particular challenges to adapting to climate change because of its patchwork of local, state and federal governments.  

"The U.S. has trouble financing infrastructure, not only for coastal protection, but also transportation," Hallgatte said.

Adapting to climate change

To Hobgood, America’s decentralized political system provides both an opportunity and an obstacle to adapting to a changing climate.

"Building codes and zoning are local, so if a local community decides they want to do something they can move fairly quickly to change the zoning to allow or not allow building close to coast. The disadvantage is if you face a large regional or national problem then you really need a national solution. That's where the decentralization makes it more difficult," Hobgood said, adding that the federal government’s sheer financial might can help if applied correctly.

In June, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a $20 billion plan involving sea walls and dunes to protect the city from another Sandy-scale storm.

The Nature Climate Change study found that about $50 billion per year worldwide would be required to boost flood protection for the 136 cities in the report -- far below the estimated losses.

"Failing to adapt is not a viable option in coastal cities," the Nature Climate Change study said.

As for this hurricane season, Hobgood said things have been calm so far.

"Last year was a really quiet year until we had Sandy," he said.

Wilson Dizard contributed to this report. Al Jazeera and wires

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