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Rising tide of common sense

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - Updated: 7:09 PM

Regardless of where the storm lands, we're all ultimately in its path. It would be nice to think that once you have a 100-year storm, it'll be another 100 years before the next one comes. Or, if you have two, why then, you're off the hook for a couple of centuries. And three -- that's got to be good through 2312. Right?

Consider the absurdity -- and ignorance -- of such wishful thinking the next time someone declares that there's no reason to be fussing about climate change, or doing anything about its effects and our contribution to it.

Consider, too, that storms like Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, and Superstorm Sandy, and the havoc they've brought, one year after another, are very much in keeping with what scientists have been warning of for years -- rare events becoming more and more common.

Last February researchers at MIT and Princeton released findings that climate change likely means that what we now dub 100-year storms could more likely come every three to 20 years. Even more devastating 500-year storms could be expected to show up from 25 to 240 years apart.

Maybe now some slow-to-the-game politicians are getting it, in the wake of Sandy. More than 8 million homes without power at one point. Homes, parks and beaches washed away in two states. Air traffic halted. New York City's subway system stopped. Two Manhattan hospitals evacuated because emergency backup systems failed. People in high rises without elevator service. The New York Stock Exchange down for two straight days, the first time since 1888. The cost? Some estimates put the damage at $20 billion. Lost business could mean another $10 billion to $30 billion more.

It's against that cost, and the likelihood that we'll be paying such multi-billion dollar tabs with increasing frequency in coming years, that we need to weigh the undoubtedly lower but still steep price tag for protecting lives and property against future storms. What more needs to be done to ensure that hospitals have their disaster readiness plans and equipment in place? Should New York City put floodgates on its sewers and subways, or build a seawall to withstand the surge from storms like Sandy? Should vulnerable upstate communities do more to prepare against the kind of rising streams that all but wiped out some of them in 2011? How quickly should such large public projects be done? How would we pay for them?

And how, for that matter, do you plan for changes scientists are still coming to understand?

It's encouraging that Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledges that, for all practical purposes, "there's no such thing as a 100-year flood" anymore, and that there's a "longer conversation" about this overdue. We need, first, for government and citizens alike to get on the same page that science and nature already are. And that goes double for a Congress whose ranks include committed deniers of science.

Maybe a brisk October flood with a price tag in the tens of billions will be the splash of cold water they need to come to their senses.

Next, then, would come a discussion about what's necessary to protect the lives and property that would otherwise be lost, whether or not they're willing to open their eyes to it.

-- The Times Union of Albany


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