Revisiting Superstorm Sandy, Part 4: Questions Needing Answers

Published February 13, 2013

[Patrick Moffitt is the co-author of this piece. Read Part 1 herePart 2 here, and Part 3 here.]

 As previous posts have tried to show. we already have too many “answers” from the political class and their allies. What we need is realistic questions to start anew.

We hope Part I (“Spinning Climate and Weather“), Part II (“Political Actions“), and Part III (“Warnings Given and Ignored“) will inspire people to interact in the comment section by raising still more needed questions, rather than only expounding on policy “fixes.”

Questions like the following are an essential first step.

Communication, Risk, and Decision-Making

1. How do we communicate flood, wind and wave storm risks in understandable, consistent,and actionable terms to the public and elected officials, and among the various federal and state agencies? How can we create a consistent policy with respect to warnings and evacuation orders?

2. What safety factors should we use in risk analyses and our decision making process, and why? How should we account for land subsidence and sea level rise in planning and risk analysis? Who decides?

3. Can we evacuate 3.5 million people in New York City and Long Island in response to a Category 3 or 4 hurricane? Is there sufficient time to make that decision, given our current storm models? Will any mayor order an evacuation of 3.5 million people 48+ hours in advance of a storm? How should we make the evacuation decision and by what metrics? What are the mortality estimates for such a storm?

4. How does the public make an evacuation decision? How does a governor or mayor make an evacuation decision? How can we increase the probability that the correct decision is made – and what metrics do we use?

5. What safety factors should we use in risk analyses and in our decision making process, and why? How should we account for land subsidence and sea level rise in planning and risk analysis? Who decides?

6. Is “once in a hundred years” the proper basis for storm risk analysis? Is the risk the same for Manhattan as it is for the Outer Banks? Should urban and rural locations be using the same risk basis?

7. Should we add a “storm risks and coastal processes” curriculum into our K-12 educational system?

8. What are the relative “natural risks” for NYC associated with climate change, droughts, storms, Carrington solar events, and earthquakes? How do we know and how do we compare? What risks do we prepare for and why?

9. What protection do dunes, groins, beach replenishment and sea walls provide? What are the chances for breach or failure?

10. How do we incorporate the potential for dune failure in our coastal protection systems into our risk analysis, flood mapping and evacuation planning?

11. What safety factor should be incorporated into current flood insurance rate maps (FIRMs)?

Knowledge Assessment

1. What do we know, and how sure are we about what we know? What do we need to know, in order of importance? How big are the potential unknown unknowns?

2. What are our data gaps? How significant are they?

3. What confidence level do we have in our knowledge of the intensity and frequency of storms prior to the modern instrumentation era? What is the confidence level for our storm return frequency projections? Where are our largest understanding gaps, and how are they ranked?

4. How do we account for changes in land use, dredging and relative sea level rise, when comparing surges and waves to past storms?

5. How good are our current weather models? What more needs to be done? What unknowns will always remain?

6. Are waves properly accounted for in coastal flooding? Do “hurricane waves” exist and what is our confidence level about them?

7. Is our current instrumentation infrastructure (such as tide and river gauges) adequate? Is funding adequate?

8. What level of safety is provided by mitigation structures such as dunes and sea walls?

9. What level of continuing beach replenishment is required to protect barrier islands? What are the variables and how well do we understand them? Can we stop barrier rollover?


1. What risks are we willing to assume, and at what cost in property and lives? Who pays – and who decides, when such critical issues are involved? What public input should there be in these decisions?

2. When do we pull back development, when do we rebuild, and when do we harden our coastal infrastructure? What metrics do we use? What are the social and economic consequences?

3. What are the potential impacts to the US economy following a direct hit of a Category 3 or 4 storm on NYC? How do we use this knowledge? Who decides if this risk is acceptable?

4. What are the tradeoffs associated with increasing population density in our urban coastal areas?

5. Can greenhouse emission controls change projected storm risk? If so – by how much? What hard evidence backs up such conclusions?

6. What are the major hurricane risks associated with flying glass and masonry debris in cities with skyscrapers (especially older ones)? What is the cost to mitigate?

7. What are our current policies, programs, actions and inaction really costing us?

Where Politics, Bureaucracy, and Private and Public Interests Intersect (Messy Questions)

1. How do we promote transparent, trustworthy systems and ensure accountability?

2. Why was mitigation planning nearly absent prior to Sandy, despite decades of warning?

3. What legal and regulatory hurdles complicate mitigation and storm response?

4. How do we verify the effectiveness of government coastal storm and flood prevention and mitigation programs? What metrics do we use, and what rankings, to adjudicate competing interests?

5. What are the unintended consequences of government programs and Federal disaster aid? How do we efficiently align incentives and desired actions?

6. Should government be allowed to investigate itself and review its policies and programs? Or should we insist on independent investigations? How should we define “independent”?

7. Should we allow government agencies to review their own policies and actions? What is the alternative? Who decides?

8. What role should local, state and FEMA authorities each play in disaster planning and response? Do we know how to make the process seamless?

9. How do we adjudicate the complex and often contradictory value judgments and interests in the planning process? Can we rank them? How do we avoid the allure of magical solutions?

10. Are policies that push future development into urban coastal cities really sustainable? Are they safe?

10. Why have we failed to address known risks? Can we change this record and, if so, how?

11. How should we rank the competing interests and value judgments in the storm hazard mitigation planning process?

12. How do we protect science and engineering from “undue” political influence? How do we protect the public from “undue” scientific and engineering influence? How are the rights of individuals protected? What decisions should we make at the local, state, federal and individual level?