Denise DersinEditor in Chiefddersin@hanleywood.com

Photos: Anje Jager/agencyrush.com

Denise Dersin Editor in Chief ddersin@hanleywood.com

Hurricane Sandy, one of the largest Atlantic hurricanes on record, is also close to causing record-breaking losses. Starting its path of destruction in the Caribbean, it sliced through Jamaica and Haiti before regrouping for an assault on coastal New Jersey and New York. Ultimately, it affected every state on the East Coast, as well as states as far west as Michigan and Wisconsin. More than 200 people lost their lives to the storm, and damages are estimated at more than $60 billion in New York and New Jersey alone. The storm destroyed homes, businesses, infrastructure, and power plants. Only Hurricane Katrina had a larger impact than Sandy, and as with Katrina, the effects of Sandy will be felt for many years.

The storm also laid waste to the environment, sweeping away large areas of the coastline itself. Islands were cut into pieces, sand dunes moved, and large swaths of beaches and land are now underwater. In some places, the coastline itself has effectively moved inland. Fluidity of the boundaries where water meets land is a natural occurrence, although it usually happens gradually, not in one grand event. But as anyone who lives on the shore knows, the concept of permanence there is tenuous. And building a house on a barrier island is even dicier—in fact, it’s a flat-out crapshoot.

As rebuilding begins, will we do anything differently or simply try to replace what was there before? This is a good opportunity to effect some much-needed change in the public sector regarding our transportation infrastructure, energy delivery systems, zoning, and building codes. Even simple changes, such as requiring mechanicals to be housed on a higher floor or the roof instead of in the basement, could have a major impact.

But larger measures are definitely necessary. Subway systems need to look at ways to remain operational in flood situations, redesigning entrances to keep water from entering the tunnels and increasing pumping capabilities. Con Ed in New York is moving toward installing submersible switches and placing high-voltage transformers on higher ground. A larger-scale idea calls for moving from a centralized electric grid to localized ones, called “microgrids” or “distributed generating” networks. These kinds of systems, made up of small, neighborhood networks rather than the regional megasystems we now have, could help minimize the massive blackouts that occur when a single point of failure can cut power to 500,000 homes.

The prospect of replacing individual homes as they were and where they were raises more questions—complicated questions of individual freedoms and personal responsibility as well as the responsibilities of federal, state, and local jurisdictions and society as a whole. Should people be allowed to rebuild in flood plains and other risky areas? If private insurance is no longer available, should the government be providing it? These questions are provocative and contentious and probably won’t be answered this time around. A few more large storms like this one, though, and some difficult decisions will have to be made.

In the meantime, zoning changes will prevent some of the destroyed homes from being rebuilt, and the ones that can be will have to follow coastal construction regulations for proper siting, structural connections, envelope design, and utilities. Thanks to these regulations and the builders and architects who implement them, new residential construction is far superior to what was built in the past century.

Robert LiMandri, commissioner of New York’s Department of Buildings, affirmed that fact, telling The New York Times: “Some of these neighborhoods have really been hit hard, and as you walk around, you realize that the buildings that are built to newer codes, they have withstood; although they have water damage, they’re still standing. And they can be right next to something that was built in the ’20s, which is not there anymore or essentially gone.”