Investing in Resilient Infrastructure after Superstorm Sandy

A guest blog written by communications intern Johannes Dreisbach.

Post-Sandy flooding in Matnoloking, NJ

Post-Sandy flooding in Matnoloking, NJ | Greg Thompson, USFWS

When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in early November, it wreaked unprecedented destruction.  

In addition to flooding streets and subway tunnels, uprooting trees, damaging cars and houses, and injuring and killing residents of the area, Sandy also caused incredible damage to New York and New Jersey’s water infrastructure. 

Water treatment plants across the region were inundated by storm surges, sending hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage into flooded city streets and local waterways.  These spills are devastating to the environment and pose a significant public health risk to residents.

Although it’s been over a month since Sandy hit and communities are slowly cleaning up and drying out, the pollutants, toxins, and bacteria carried by floodwaters are still present.  These pollutants came not only from spilled sewage, but also from oils, pesticides, and other substances washed off of city streets.  Many homes are completely uninhabitable and workers helping in the cleanup process are at risk of becoming sick.

The economic costs of Sandy are still being calculated, but estimates place it as one of the costliest storms on record along with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The devastating results of Superstorm Sandy illustrate the importance of our water infrastructure systems.  With the increasing likelihood of severe storms due to a changing climate, our current management systems should be updated to mitigate future disasters.  While the focus is often on replacing damaged or destroyed infrastructure, some officials are acknowledging that changes and upgrades should be made such as raising the motors of treatment plants above rising flood lines and waterproofing circuitry.

In order to plan for a more resilient future, it is important to consider climate change in all aspects of water management planning because it can impact the water resources as well as the infrastructure necessary to provide clean and safe water.  In our report Weathering Change, we look at what the Federal Government can do to prepare our water infrastructure for what is becoming an uncertain future. 

In particular, we suggest that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should revise the infrastructure funding criteria to require consideration of climate change impacts in the siting and design of projects.  Additionally, we recommend that the federal government directs federal funding toward more innovative and climate-adaptive infrastructure, like green infrastructure and natural flood management.

The Obama Administration has been responsive to the idea of making water infrastructure more resilient.  We had the opportunity to take part in EPA’s work group on Climate Ready Water Utilities (CRWU).  Here, we worked with a diverse group of stakeholders to assist drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities in becoming “climate ready.”  

CRWU has provided resources for the water sector to adapt to climate change by promoting the consideration of integrated water resources management (IWRM) planning in the water sector when thinking about climate and water.  Additionally, in the Obama Administration’s emergency funding request for Superstorm Sandy, there was acknowledgement that climate change is real and it is critical that we begin addressing it in a comprehensive way in order to help communities prepare for increased climate impacts, asking for almost $13 billion for “mitigation” efforts that will help various agencies prepare for and prevent similar damage on such a devastating scale in the future.  

Investing in innovative infrastructure that considers future climate conditions will be critical to preparing for and mitigating the impact of future natural disasters.