Sunday, November 4, 2012

Superstorm Sandy

NASA image of Sandy as it hits the east coast on October 29, 2012.

The scope of damage wrought last week by Hurricane Sandy along the northeastern seaboard (and inland) is unprecedented. While the hit upon the most densely populated region in the country is largely incalculable in human terms, the measurable costs will be immense, likely in the many tens of billions of dollars.(1) These costs include not only those associated with property destruction but also the loss of business in Sandy's aftermath and economic productivity moving forward. 
Innumerable outlets have already chronicled Sandy and its impacts so I’ll focus my comments upon its significance to architects like me. How will Sandy and its consequences adjust our world views? It’s my belief that Sandy’s occurrence will come to mark the moment when a majority of American finally came to understand the severity of global warming and its consequences. It’s too difficult to escape the conclusion that Sandy is a precursor to a “new normal” wherein weather events of such violence and scope are progressively more common around the globe.(2) Business as usual is not a rational path forward. 
Weather trends point toward the increasing probability of superstorms. I blogged previously about why large-scale climate change is taking place and the likelihood that we’ve already crossed a critical threshold where exponential acceleration of rising temperatures and coastlines is inevitable. The bottom line is that our lives will be impacted in unimagined ways. We must envision a future world in which our existence is dramatically and irrevocably transformed by the effects of global warming and progressively more chaotic weather. Many will disagree with me, but I fear our laudable efforts to promote sustainability in design may in some respects be too little, too late.(3) 
It is reasonable to question whether we can afford to continue to put people and assets into harm’s way. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, levelheaded voices pointed out the tragedy that befell New Orleans was much more than a natural disaster; it was also a social, political, and engineering catastrophe. Our natural response is to rebuild communities and restore ways of life deeply rooted in tradition and rich with history. The strength of New Orleans’ cultural and physical identity suppressed the question of whether rebuilding made practical sense. Unfortunately, with sea levels forecast to rise by as much as three feet before the end of this century, the odds “The Big Easy” will confront another existential moment are exceedingly high. 
The same is likely true for all low-lying coastal communities around the world. If and when another Sandy comes around—and it will—the damage may be even more severe. Imagine if it was Bangladesh that suffered Sandy’s wrath. The suffering and loss of human life would have been staggering. Disaster risk managers will be unable to ignore the consequences of a failure to address the dangers. Insurance companies will reassess their coastal underwriting strategies, dramatically redesign their pricing, or suffer unsustainable losses. The risk to the bottom line may drive many to act by reassessing their commitment to emotional and financial investments in vulnerable locations. 
Perhaps Sandy’s ferocity will trigger development of practical climate change adaptation strategies for the built environment. Indeed, dynamically adaptive design may become a fixture in the curricula of schools for up-and-coming generations of architects. Buildings will be designed to move, react, and adapt in real-time conditions to changes in the environment around them. Out of necessity, human habitation within at-risk areas may lose its permanence and become transitory. A century from now, the United States and some of its most iconic cities may hardly resemble what they do today. 
Regarding how design professionals can immediately help in the wake of Sandy’s devastation, AIA National president Jeff Potter, FAIA reported that AIA’s Disaster Assistance Committee urges architects outside the areas affected to not yet rush in to volunteer services. As the recovery moves ahead, the AIA will share information about how members can assist following the immediate emergency response. There’s no doubt that architects can and will play a role; however, our greatest contribution will be helping to formulate long-term plans to mitigate and adapt to the impact of future superstorms. 
Lamentably, Sandy draws only belated attention to the extent to which climate change has been ignored during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. What should have been a signature issue this election year instead has been relegated to insignificance in the chase for electoral votes. We’ll see if with Sandy came a silver lining, one that has meaningfully altered our relationship to our environment and our attitude towards it.  

(1)  According to Wikipedia, property damage alone for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 exceeded $81 billion. Sandy may end up being more costly due to the scope of its economic disruption.

(2)  Regrettably, it will have taken Sandy’s impacts upon the nation's centers of media control, political influence, and wealth to awaken leadership to the unavoidable realities of climate change.

(3)  I’m not suggesting that designing with sustainability in mind is futile; rather, I believe our predominantly narrow focus upon individual building performance fails to adequately place sustainable design within the overarching climate change context.    

No comments: