A Prescient Voice on Sandy: Suddenly Everyone Is Listening

For much of the last decade, Klaus Jacob warned of New York’s vulnerability to severe flooding in a major storm. Four days after the storm that crippled New York and New Jersey and swamped his own home along the Hudson River, Jacob reflected on Sandy’s lessons and what comes next.

Kim Martineau
November 06, 2012

For much of the last decade, Klaus Jacob warned of New York’s vulnerability to severe flooding in a major storm. Rising seas and more extreme weather from a warming climate could cripple the New York region, he told anyone willing to listen.  As Hurricane Sandy approached, New York magazine called Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the ‘Cassandra’ of New York City Subway Flooding. A day later, Jacob was proven right—and was himself swamped by the storm. Despite having spent $10,000 in 2003 to protect his house in Piermont, N.Y, 12 miles north of Manhattan on the Hudson River, from a 100-year flood, water invaded his home and destroyed both family cars. On his fourth day without power, phone or internet, Jacob took a break from cleaning up to reflect on the damage and what comes next.

[youtube width=”500″ height=”281″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mq-kewAc5-Q[/youtube]

Klaus Jacob, speaking from his home in Piermont N.Y., 12 miles north of New York City:

When Sandy hit in terms of the storm surge here it was. It was one to two-feet above the FEMA 100-year flood zone, and therefore it affected a lot more people than those that normally get flood insurance, including myself, and it created havoc in this little village which is a microcosm of course for what happened in New York City.

This village, Piermont, is a disaster zone. You can hear probably the machines in the background. We had the National Guard here to clean up the pier. We have a wonderful fire department that takes care of people and pumped out all the houses. Now we are on our hands and knees to get the mud out of all the houses and the doors, the armoires and the hutches. It’s a lot of work!

We had a pretty good model so within a few inches I knew where [the water] would go. My wife and me, we simply went to sleep. We did not experience the flood. We got rattled in the house. It was shaking from the winds but we slept through the flood and didn’t go down until 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning to look at the mess. By then the water was gone of course, or most of it was gone.

I had raised my house in 2003 and I wanted to raise it much more above the FEMA flood zone but interestingly enough I couldn’t have done it or I would have had to give up my third attic floor. As I wanted to raise my house more, I hit the zoning laws which only allow 22 foot maximum height of houses in this particular neighborhood.

We had thought in 2003 ahead of time, once we knew that we couldn’t raise the house up anymore. So we did what we could. We lifted the dishwasher up on the kitchen counter. We raised the kitchen stove as much as we physically could before the arrival of the storm but it obviously was not enough. Not that we would have raised it more. We just didn’t have the muscle power and time and honestly not enough work horses to put all the stuff on it. It’s a learning experience. Another interesting case is that the village police and fire department recommended that we all bring our cars to a particular lot but I didn’t know what its elevation was nor apparently did they because both of my cars—my wife’s car and my car– got flooded up to the seats.

I am a seismologist. How in the heck did I ever get involved in this other mess? Well, very simple. As a seismologist I was concerned about the consequences of earthquakes. So in the 1990s we ran a five-year program with the help of FEMA in which we estimated what the consequences of a major earthquake in New York City would be. We finished that study a few months before 9/11. And you could not talk after 9/11 about natural disasters. But eventually, the climate community took notice of those loss estimates that we had made for New York City and they said, ‘Oh, can you do that for hurricanes and sea level rise and all those things that have to do with climate change?’ We said we don’t know, but we can try. So, we tried. And unfortunately we hit it right on the nose.

Essentially, the city.. and the other agencies like the MTA, which is not a city agency, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, they all did something but obviously not enough to prevent the tunnels to flood, and that’s not surprising because we were still in the study stage rather than in the action stage.

So, we have to spend engineering time. Allow them to think about the best solutions and then discuss them in the public, which one we are willing to pay for. Because with enough money you can be as secure as we want but we are all short on money therefore there is a trade-off between costs versus benefits and we have to get to the bottom of that.”

One hears, and that has been going on for some time, shouting matches between potential winners and potential losers, and depending on which solution there are different groupings of losers and winners. We have to overcome that dissent and work towards a consensus. We are all sitting in the same boat.

There is clearly a political fallout from this event. The fallout should have occurred a year earlier when we had Irene knocking at our door. We missed the chance to come together after that and really take actions.

Certainly the victims of such events understand that sea level rise and climate change is a reality. It behooves the electorate to make a decision whether they want to have people in the government and therefore elect them that are climate deniers and we will continue to suffer the consequences. I wonder how long we as voters allow us to have representatives in the government that take threats of national importance not serious. I think it is inexcusable, it is irresponsible and it will have fatal and economic and livelihood consequences.