Frankenstorm. Hurricane. Superstorm. Whatever you want to call it, Sandy, the extreme weather event that struck the east coast of the U.S. exactly a year ago this week, drove home the devastating impact climate change is having on us and our communities.
Disaster and Devastation “Superstorm” Sandy, as it became known, was the largest hurricane to ever form over the Atlantic Ocean. It was so massive, it affected several Caribbean countries and 24 U.S. states, including the entire eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine and west across the Appalachian Mountains to Michigan and Wisconsin. It also left behind a clean-up bill totaling more than $65 billion. In all our storm history, only Hurricane Katrina cost more.
As Sandy approached, hundreds of schools were closed to protect children from damaging winds, rain and floods. States of emergency were declared in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and more. In Washington, D.C., the federal government shut down. Bridges connecting Pennsylvania to New Jersey were shut as well. Over 5,000 commercial airline flights were canceled, along with some Amtrak services. It was just one extreme storm, but it brought half the country to a fearful standstill. The rain pounded and the winds howled for nine days, from the storm’s first sightings October 22 off the coast of Nicaragua to the path of destruction it carved through Cuba and the Bahamas until it finally hit Florida on October 27, moved relentlessly up the East Coast, and petered out over Canada.
The worst impacts were felt in New York and New Jersey. The Big Apple was somewhat reduced to its core as 150,000 homes across the city’s five boroughs were damaged and lower Manhattan flooded, forcing both the subways and the New York Stock Exchange to shutter their doors. In New Jersey and Long Island, the situation was far more dire as entire beach communities were pounded to smithereens. When even a Ferris wheel gets swept out to sea, you know you’re dealing with something uncommon.
In the end, 160 Americans were killed, making Sandy the deadliest U.S. hurricane since Katrina. Tens of thousands of people were rendered homeless, their houses either burned to the ground, washed away by waves, or so overcome by mold and mildew as to be uninhabitable. The federal and state governments are spending billions of dollars to help rebuild eroded beaches and reconstruct damaged communities, though 26,000 residents just in Ocean County, New Jersey still haven’t been able to return to their neighborhoods. Some individuals are suffering lingering psychological effects similar to post traumatic stress disorder.
Silver Lining? If there is any silver lining to this terrible cloud, it may be that finally, both people and politicians are taking climate change more seriously.
What we do know is the temperature around the globe is increasing faster than was predicted even 10 years ago. We do know that the Arctic ice cap is melting faster than was predicted even five years ago. We do know that there have been … an extraordinarily large number of severe weather events here in North America, but also around the globe. I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions,” declared the president. “And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.”
~ President Obama, at a news conference two weeks after Sandy struck
In fact, President Obama’s belief that climate change is happening may have helped get him re-elected to a second term. In the crucial days right after the storm and before the 2012 election, he earned the endorsement of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who cited the President’s quick and focused mobilization of the federal government as well as his belief that climate change must be stopped. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, also strongly praised Democrat Obama for his Sandy response, even though he’d previously endorsed Mitt Romney, the president’s opponent. Indeed, the storm ignited widespread public debate over whether Mitt Romney had once proposed eliminating the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the primary federal agency that oversees disaster response. Romney denied doing so, but the issue cast doubt over voters concerned about getting help in the event another extreme storm occurred.
Sandy seems to have been a game-changer among the public, as well. In 2010, two years before Sandy struck, psychology Prof. Laurie A. Rudman of New Jersey’s Rutgers University asked 269 students whether they would vote for a fictional “green” politician over one who favored the status quo. The majority of students supported the status quo politician. After Sandy hit the region, Rudman surveyed a new group of 318 students. This time, students more strongly embraced the “green” politican. They also said that they believed climate change was influenced by human behavior.
“People were more likely to base their decisions on their gut-feelings in the aftermath of Sandy, compared to before the storm,” Rudman reported.
While it could be expected that people directly impacted by an extreme storm would make the climate change connection, what about others who only experienced Sandy from afar? According to post-election polling conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland, 60% of American voters agreed with the statement that “global warming made Hurricane Sandy worse.” In the same survey, 73% of respondents concurred that “Global warming is affecting extreme weather events in the United States.” Nationally, the number of people who strongly agreed that climate change is affecting weather increased by 36%. One Year Later Today, those attitudes persist, at least among citizens in New Jersey. A poll released by the Edward J. Bloustein School for Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University found that nearly three quarters of New Jersey residents are concerned that climate change may affect the state; two thirds of those say that Hurricane Sandy and other recent storms have changed their views about climate change.
“These numbers are telling me that the distance between the individual resident and the implications of climate change has closed,” said Bloustein professor Michael Greenberg. “Superstorm Sandy, I really do believe, this is a game changer in the recognition of climate change,” said Bloustein Dean James Hughes.
What Can We Do? The question is, what should we as individuals and as a nation do about it? Step number one certainly has to be to drastically reduce our use of coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning these fuels creates carbon pollution, the primary source of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Because power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S., Moms Clean Air Force is a strong proponent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to limit power plant pollution. You can help by telling the EPA you support the new limits on carbon pollution from power plants, too. At home, do your part to save energy by taking simple but practical steps to insulate your attic and crawl spaces, windows and doors, and even your water heater. Here are the top ten ways to save energy and money at home that we at Big Green Purse recommend. Added bonus: Anything you do to save energy will save you money, too.
Post-disaster rebuilding to maximize energy efficiency plays another important role. Communities like Greensburg, Kansas are already showing the rest of America how to make saving energy the driving force behind community reconstruction after disaster hits. Finally, perhaps the most important action you can take is to vote for local, state and federal officials who understand the climate change threat and are willing to support meaningful and measurable policies and programs to stop it.
Join Moms Clean Air Force, a national community of over 180,000 moms strong working to make a difference.