Has ‘Superstorm’ Sandy Reshaped Our Responsibilities?

November 5, 2012

The massive Sandy passes over the Northeast on Oct. 29 as seen in this radar image from Google Earth.

Thanks for joining me on my blog as your new ASCE President. During my year in office, I’ll share some of my views on current civil engineering-related issues affecting our profession, including how ASCE fits in. I’ll then read your replies and respond to the most thought-provoking comments.

To all who have suffered losses due to Hurricane Sandy, I extend my sympathies and wishes for as full a recovery as possible.

Sandy was so enormous, so unprecedented, it actually made “hurricane” seem inadequate to describe it. The huge swath of damage it inflicted on the Northeast has been estimated at $50 billion and continues to climb. Most tragically, scores of people have died. Fortunately, most residents in Sandy’s path heeded evacuation warnings, so the toll is not as severe as it could have been.

Are we entering a new era of “superstorms,” as the media dubbed Sandy? If so, what should civil engineers be doing to prevent devastation on a huge scale? Are we really going to need Netherlands-style dikes to protect New York City? Will we need to build levees up and down the Eastern seaboard? Could this change how we define sustainability?

Offer your thoughts below on what “superstorms” may mean for the future of civil engineering. This critical issue deserves a robust conversation.

Before signing off, I want to encourage you to join me in contributing to relief efforts. The American Red Cross, ASCE’s official partner for relief efforts, has been busy helping those hit hardest by Sandy. The fastest and easiest way to provide financial support for relief efforts is to text the word “Redcross” (one word) to 90999. You will donate $10 automatically, which will appear on your cell phone bill. There also are other worthy agencies conducting relief efforts deserving of your help.


  • My spammed (apparently) comment of November 12th:

    First, let me extend my sympathies to the people suffering from Sandy and the subsequent nor’easter. It gives me no pleasure to see New Jersey and New York suffering from storms that they knew would happen. People continue to build in are
    as where it is pleasant to live most of the time and complain when their idyllic property is destroyed.

    I have long considered that our “standard” has become “to protect to the 100 year storm level”. This is lazy of us and in error. We as designers need to consider the benefits versus the costs of protecting property to a higher level or a larger event. Once we have a B/C matrix analysis, the owners (or government) then needs to decide how much they want to spend for protection – with our guidance.

    Japan’s nuclear industry suffered from inadequate consideration of the consequences of under design. New York City needs to protect its infrastructure (subways and electrical systems in particular) to a higher than 100 year event because the cost in terms of repairs and lost income is so expensive. Those of us in the hinterlands may not need such protection.

    New Orleans must consider the cost of protecting low production real estate from a large hurricane. Will the real estate that is protected support the cost of the protection? Maybe the real estate protected will not, in which case, the city should either buy the affected real estate (another B/C scenario) or warn the owners that they will not be protected.

    We also need to be realistic about the cost of flood insurance. FEMA’s flood insurance program radically changes the economic decision point for people who choose to build in dangerous flood-prone areas at the expense of other people who do not incur such danger but still need flood insurance. We, as engineers, should not encourage the house sparrow scenario.

    We cannot dictate the path that people or governments take. We must provide them with accurate, realistic and truthful analyses so that they can make informed decisions.

  • Dear Greg,
    I suspect that your spam sieve has blocked far too many entires. 128 blocked versus 5 replies? Please.
    I left a lengthy post – as I perceive you want – so check out my Facebook site for my comment.

  • william hayden jr.

    Please refer to ASCE’s LME LIVE Blog Post:

    Societal Limits To “Protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare”

  • What is your opinion about mandating Mario Diaz-Balart’s “Safe Building Code Incentive Act (H.R. 2069)” to ensure that states have a statewide building code for natural disasters? Would this help Civil Engineers in any possible way?

  • The results of Superstorm Sandy, and the follow-up nor’easter, are a tragedy that we wish on no one. However they offer ASCE members an opportunity to talk about the infrastructure crisis. Unless we must start using the word “crisis”, average citizens will not vote for change. We need to recognize that politicians react to their constituants, not to ASCE. We need to convince voters that the infrastructure fragility exposed by these storms lies just beneath the surface of almost every American community. They need to understand that preventative maintenance and planned upgrades are less expensive and far less disruptive than recovering from a disaster. Then we need to advise elected officials at every level of government that we have solutions that will generate jobs in the near-term and improved economy in the long-term. But we need to act now!

  • Hi Greg,

    I live in NJ and am the VP for the Central Jersey Branch of ASCE as well as a Director for the NJ Section. We are currently developing short-term, mid-term and long-term plans to deploy assistance to victims of Hurricane Sandy. The help we’re planning to provide will supplement efforts from many sources, similar to those being offered by Red Cross. I applaud the Society’s efforts to bring assistance, and hope to coordinate with you and other leaders from our society to bring assistance to those in need in our great state of New Jersey.

    thank you!
    Andrés Roda

  • Daniel Stanton, PE

    We should continue to mitigate against EROSION.

    Respect should be paid to locations near water.
    And we should present the cost benefit of building anywhere.

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