‘Taking Chances’ at The Coast: Have We Learned Hurricane Sandy’s Lessons?

‘Taking Chances’ at The Coast: Have We Learned Hurricane Sandy’s Lessons?

Rutgers-edited book explores Sandy’s devastating impacts and the future of the coasts
Media Contact
Todd B. Bates

This is the first story in a three-part Rutgers Today series on storms of the past, present and futureRead part 2 here and part 3 here.

Hurricane Sandy at 1:45 p.m. on Oct. 28, 2012.
Photo: NASA Earth Observatory, NASA/NOAA GOES Project
Hurricane Sandy walloped New Jersey, New York and other states, causing astonishing coastal and inland flooding, prolonged power outages and more than $50 billion in damages.

In a new book – Taking Chances: The Coast after Hurricane Sandy – Rutgers University and other experts explore the historic superstorm’s catastrophic impacts and shocking aftermath from numerous angles.

The book, published by Rutgers University Press, investigates whether Sandy, which killed hundreds of people, was “a transformational event, just another storm or something in between.” Topics include the meteorology and climatology of Sandy, evacuations in coastal Connecticut, ecological damages and responses in New Jersey, gentrification around Brooklyn’s polluted Gowanus Canal, efforts to “Restore the Shore,” and impacts on water, wastewater and electrical utilities.

Twenty-seven professors and experts contributed to the book, which was edited by Karen M. O’Neill, associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers, and Daniel J. Van Abs, associate professor of practice in the department. The department is in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

A free colloquium on Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. on Oct. 28 at Rutgers. The colloquium, which is open to the public, will be held in Livingston Hall in the Livingston Student Center at 84 Joyce Kilmer Avenue in Piscataway. 

Rutgers Today asked O’Neill and Van Abs to discuss “Taking Chances” and the future of the coasts.

Rutgers Today: How would you describe the responses of people, governments and businesses to Sandy?

O’Neill: Build it back. I have a sense that people really feel emotionally like there’s something missing when their boardwalks and stores aren’t in place.
Van Abs: A frantic focus on restoration – the stores, not the houses. The iconic fixtures were recreated very quickly, except for in a couple of towns, like Long Branch, where they said ‘we’re not going to rush this. We’re going to figure out how to do this right so when the next storm comes, there’s a really good chance our boardwalk will survive.’

Daniel J. Van Abs and Karen M. O'Neill, associate professors in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University.
Photo: Todd B. Bates
Rutgers Today: What transformations have taken place?

O’Neill: We talk about transformational change and I would say it’s mostly been gradual. Storm effects tend to be local. It takes a lot to persuade people that what happened to your neighbors up the way applies to you. One of the tricks of the mind that keeps people there is they forget the long history of the Shore or any coastal area.
Van Abs: Water supply, wastewater and electric utilities are spending hundreds of millions of dollars replacing what was – with something better. But if you look at the beaches, there’s no transformational change. They are simply trying to rebuild what was there.

Rutgers Today: What do you think needs to be done and how big an obstacle is money or the lack thereof?

O’Neill: This is a wealthy state. I don’t think there’s any excuse. There’s no reason why New Jersey can’t be a leader in resilience and there’s no leadership for it.
Van Abs: There is a very, very strong official stance against major change. People don’t want to face the issues and go through adaptation because it will be a struggle and a fairly expensive struggle.

Rutgers Today: What are your concerns going forward?

O’Neill: A social disaster may happen before a physical disaster if people start believing they can’t sell their house or give it to their kids. Insurance companies, utilities and a few other institutions that have to do long-term planning did learn lessons from Sandy, and those lessons could lead to decisions that undermine the assumptions that go into life at the Shore. The assumptions are that there may be seasonal damage, there may be winter storms taking away sand, but it’s all fixable and life goes on.
Van Abs: Our stormwater systems are designed for the 25-year storm, but all of our designs and regulations are still based on old data and the assumption that those conditions will continue in the future. The time frame for recurrence of these storms is shrinking and we’re getting more and more severe storms.

Rutgers Today: What will the Jersey Shore be like in the future?

O’Neill: It may start to look a little bit more like North Carolina, with houses on stilts.
Van Abs: It’s going to be a second homeowner shore and it’s going to be a much more commercial shore. My prediction is that if we get another two or three bad coastal storms within a generation, the entire dynamic will change. A storm the same as Sandy, with sea-level rise, would be just incredibly damaging. We’re not prepared for it.

Media Contact
Todd B. Bates