Research & Innovation

Stevens Researchers, Climate Consortium Distill Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

As recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy continue, Stevens’ Alan Blumberg – the director of the Center for Maritime Systems and George Mead Bond Professor – and other Stevens experts who study climate and impacts in urban areas, are looking for ways to minimize the loss of life and livelihoods the next time an extreme weather event affects east coast cities.

Three days preceding Hurricane Sandy, the Stevens team used its Storm Surge Warning System designed by Nickitas Georgas to predict the storm tide to within 20 percent, aiding preparations for the flooding. The group now hopes to build upon its forecasting of coastal storms and clearly identify to people living in urban areas in the northeast the flood dangers they pose. It is using various climate change and sea level rise projections to study the interactions between them and storm surges in the New York Metropolitan Region and for the New Jersey to Massachusetts coasts. The long-term sea level rise projections from the climate team are being integrated into the Stevens’ storm surge model, ultimately providing ecosystem and infrastructure impacts. 

As an investigator for the Consortium on Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast (CCRUN), Blumberg is part of a group that is monitoring the effects of climate change in the region, taking a close look at the aftermath of the storm, and working toward a recommendation on how community resilience and disaster-response can be improved. CCRUN is a NOAA Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment (RISA) research group with expertise in climate science, oceanography, engineering, green infrastructure, public health and social vulnerability.

“Hurricane Sandy is a wake-up call for the urban Northeast,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a researcher from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the principal investigator of CCRUN. “We need to learn from it to improve resilience as climate risks increase due to climate change.”

Striking during high astronomical tide, Hurricane Sandy became what meteorologists termed a “superstorm” due to the combination of unusually warm temperatures in the North Atlantic and its interaction with another weather front moving through the eastern United States.

Tropical storm-force winds extended approximately 1,000 miles in diameter across the densely populated urban coastal areas of the Northeast. Sandy produced a storm tide -the total height of water entering New York Harbor- of almost 14 feet.  

More than 100 people lost their lives during the hurricane. Initial estimates are that flooding and strong winds caused upwards of $50 billion in property damage and economic losses on the East Coast. An estimated four million people were without power in the New York metropolitan region and in New York City alone more than 20,000 people may be homeless due to property damage. 

Impacts to infrastructure were crippling from New Jersey to Connecticut. Seven subway tunnels under the East River were flooded, with service out for close to a week. According to the group, the long-term impacts of the storm are still being uncovered.

“While it’s impossible to eliminate all vulnerabilities during a storm of this magnitude, one thing we can do is seek to harness new and enhanced natural green spaces including wetlands, parks, and other permeable landscape features to protect people from the next extreme weather event,” said Franco Montalto, a co-investigator from Drexel University who is studying the interaction of the storm with regional green infrastructure networks.

CCRUN investigators will examine ways to minimize health risks, such as polluted water sources, in the wake of storm surge flooding; and recommend infrastructural improvements that can limit the amount of flooding that occurs.

“As sea levels rise, we are going to see more coastal flooding; fortunately there are steps we can take as a society to reduce our vulnerability,” said Radley Horton, a co-investigator from Columbia University.

In addition to Blumberg, Rosenzweig, Montalto and Horton, CCRUN’s investigators include: Columbia University’s Bob Chen, Patrick Kinney and Upmanu Lall; Reza Khanbilyardi, from the City College of New York; and Richard Palmer of the University of Massachusetts – Amherst.