The super-storm was a wake-up call to cities. But will they keep their climate change preparation going?

Coastal cities have built up infrastructure over the years that cumulatively has been an engineering marvel: ports and waterways, water and sewer and electrical systems, roads and bridges and tunnels and subways. But it’s all going to look modest compared to the projects necessary to deal with the impacts of climate change.

Massive flood barriers straight out of a science fiction movie may rise between the north fork of Long Island and near New London, Connecticut. The Golden Gate strait may similarly become a floodgate, turning San Francisco Bay into a giant freshwater pond, to keep rising sea levels from inundating populated areas. Even with such measures, power plants near the water will have to be dismantled and relocated. Building mechanicals must come out of the basement. Flood and drainage systems must be overhauled for miles and miles of subway tunnels.

A successful resilience retrofit could buy coastal cities a couple hundred years of staying dry, says Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, noting that the U.S. is where Amsterdam was over a century ago, in terms of planning for the challenges of water. But, Yaro added, "it’s going to take a catastrophic event" to prompt U.S. cities to get serious and get started.

His remarks were in 2010.

Two years later, just before Halloween, that catastrophic event came – Hurricane Sandy.

For the nation and for metropolitan regions on the coast, Sandy was without question one of the top news events of 2012. It may have even influenced the presidential election, prompting Mayor Michael Bloomberg to endorse President Obama, and moving the Patagonia-clad New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to cozy up to the president as well.

The after-the-fact response, from the flooded New York subway system to the hundreds of battered homes, piers and other structures all along the New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut coastline, was urgent and impressive, and rebuilding will continue for a long time.

But Sandy was really a wake-up call, similar to Katrina, to snap us to attention about the need to plan for the next 50 years. Sandy was, in the opinion of most scientists, a precursor of what is to come with more frequency in the decades ahead, even if the nation and the world takes steps to mitigate global warming: violent storms, powerful storm surges, and sea level rise from the melting of ice.

In the immediate aftermath, Sandy did prompt some discussion of adaptation and infrastructure. The engineering and logistics are staggering; cities and states want to launch the projects that are unequivocally the best and most effective, learning from those in Europe and elsewhere who have gone before us. That’s going to take a lot of energy, even before getting to the hardest question of all – how to pay for it.

It seems clear an off-budget approach, perhaps an infrastructure bank, will be necessary. The fiscal cliff and its aftermath obliterates any real policy discussion right now. In the meantime, one the leaders in Washington who best understood the challenge of climate change, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, is on his way to becoming secretary of state. That doesn’t look promising for an effort in scope and complexity that will be the equivalent of going to war.

America can look to many places around the globe to tackle adaptation and resilience, but one very similar country that has gotten serious is Australia. Indeed, Yaro made his comments at a gathering of planners and scholars putting together the book Resilient Coastal City Regions, which includes a look at four case studies of adaptation strategies down under. Among the conclusions of the research project, co-authored by Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute and Ed Blakely, former post-Katrina recovery czar for New Orleans: sometimes the only thing to do is engage in something you might be hearing a lot more of in the years ahead: strategic retreat.

These are major questions for our cities, which by tradition of trade and transport, have been founded near water. Adaptation may well become the central occupation of the urban planning profession and planning schools; it certainly must get on the radar screen of the environmental movement. It’s silly to waste time and energy trying to protect a snail darter, when in 50 years there won’t be any ecosystem for them to live in anyway.

At year’s end, it remains unclear whether Sandy really will be the big event that jump-starts this kind of paradigm shift in politics, design, and culture. It sure seemed like it had the power to do so. Just as the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut could prompt an historic shift in our thinking about gun control.

Plenty of hard-eyed commentators have already said even the horrific death of little children won't change anything. And so maybe it will take another mega-storm bringing even greater devastation to be the catalyst. Or another after that. While we wait, the rest of the world will continue with preparations.

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