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U.S. Opinions: Washington

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After Sandy, rebuild right

From an editorial published in Thursday’s Washington Post:

By late Wednesday, much of the water that flooded New York City during Hurricane Sandy had receded into the harbor. But recovery crews still furiously pumped water out of the city’s subterranean arteries. Electricity was still out south of 39th Street, along with many traffic lights, and the city’s death toll stood at 22.

Now imagine if New York’s water level were two, three, four feet higher. That’s what the New York City Panel on Climate Change predicts could happen later this century, depending on how global warming affects the harbor.

Sandy reminded Americans not only of the importance of cooperation in times of crisis and the promise that great cities such as New York will restore themselves. It also demonstrated the vulnerability of the seawalls, bulkheads and electrical wires upon which Americans rely.

The job now is not simply to pump water out of inundated subway lines. It is also to figure out how to harden the United States’ vital coastal infrastructure.

New York city planners have begun looking at options. A municipal report last year suggested updating building codes and other regulations to encourage flood-proof structures, ensuring that permitting is predictable for upkeep on seawalls and bulkheads, and building barriers such as dikes and levees. These must also be high enough to withstand truly brutal weather, as New Orleans can attest. Proposals for massive storm-surge barriers to ring off upper New York Harbor are also on the table.

Fortification may well be needed outside cities, too. Three nuclear reactors shut off during the hurricane, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued an alert at a fourth site. None resulted in any big problems, but Sandy should heighten the industry’s diligence.

National leaders need to get serious about slowing climate change. But the country must also plan to adapt to a warming world, anticipating not just the historically unusual, but also the historically unprecedented.

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