On Resilience

by Klaus Jacob, Columbia University

Klaus Jacob is a geophysicist and Emeritus Research Professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He teaches Disaster Risk Management at Columbia’s Earth Institute, School of Continuing Education. Current research is focused on climate change, sea level rise, and storm surge impacts on coastal megacities. He has served on the Research Advisory Group to the HUD-sponsored post-Sandy Rebuild by Design program and currently serves on the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC). He contributed to the New York State’s ClimAID adaptation project, and wrote for MTA’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Sustainability a climate change adaptation draft plan. TIME magazine named Dr. Jacob one of globally 50 “people who mattered in 2012” for forecasting the consequences of a SANDY-like coastal storm on New York City’s subway system, one year before hurricane SANDY hit and validated his forecasts. He lives in a small village on the Hudson River that suffered severely during Sandy.

Sandy put almost 3 feet of water in my first-floor living room and kitchen, the night of October 29, 2012. This is a date many of us will not forget. Yes, it was a mess. Cleanup alone took almost a week, and pulling out soaked moldy insulation from the walls, replacing the warped living room floor, and mandatory electrical rewiring and outlet replacement, and many other fixes, took another 4 or 5 weeks. We replaced our living-room gas-fired Vermont cast iron stove with a wood burning stove and exterior chimney, because after flooding, when we need heat most urgently, gas and electricity tend to be shut off. We wanted some utility-independent option to heat the house and cook a hot meal. After Sandy, we were able to camp in the house, although we accepted a friend’s offer to stay for a few days, during the rewiring when power was off. All the essential control systems of our modest 1-family clapboard home (heat, air conditioning, hot water, and electric fuse box), were unaffected and safely installed under the attic roof. We had relocated them there in 2003 when my wife and I bought this house for the late golden years of our life. At that time, we had applied to the local Village Zoning Board to raise the house three feet higher than the designated 1% FEMA base flood elevation. We were given permission to raise the house only one foot because otherwise we would have exceeded the maximum building height dictated by local zoning. Administrators of our little village located at the shores of the tidal, surge-prone Hudson River had yet to experience a Sandy or Irene. When the storms did come, parts of the village suffered much more severe damage than we experienced. Variances to exceed the standard building height limitations have been granted since for elevating houses in the flood zone.

I slept through the night when Sandy roared. I was too exhausted to stay up and watch the flood come and go. We had spent all day lifting everything that was movable upstairs or onto the kitchen counter, dishwasher and all. Luckily we had the help of neighbors and strong-armed assistance of my wife’s friends from the local Rowing Club. Our plumber disconnected the gas lines and we managed to raise the heavy commercial kitchen range and a gas-fired Vermont cast-iron stove, but not high enough since we ran out of concrete blocks on which to stack them. When we were finished in our house, we joined the rowing team to help neighbors whose houses were even at lower elevations. We moved our cars to higher ground to a place local police told us to move them. There, both were promptly flooded:  a total loss.

Why do I tell you my personal story? Because I think there are a couple of lessons, for you, for me, for all of us, including officials. 

Resilience, the capacity to prepare for and endure an extreme event with minimum damage and to recover from it with minimal lasting effects on our lives, health, homes, income and livelihoods, requires persistent, intentional planning and actions. Resilience does not happen to you. You are in charge to create it for yourself, your family, your neighborhood, and your community. 

So how do we go about this business of creating resilience?

Read this guide carefully. Put it under your pillow and sleep a couple of nights over it. But then pull it out again, and put it on your dinner table and discuss it with those closest to you. Invite a few neighbors for a meal or just for company, and share your thoughts. Discuss your plans, whether they make sense, how you can help each other, or what actions may have to be organized in your building, your neighborhood, or your community. In truth, you and your neighbors are the real first responders. And not just responders: you are the one that needs to be prepared to the best you can do, way BEFORE the monster arrives. And some such events are announced days or at least hours ahead of time, but others (like a sudden twister, not to speak of an earthquake – yes we can have some) may not be. So you need to have a general state of preparedness and home resilience, and then do more when a warning for an approaching event is given. Listen carefully to the forecasts, and then adjust your plans accordingly.

So there is long-term planning, and short-term preparation. The more long-term planning you implement, the less short-term preparation you’ll have to do. When a storm approaches, you will have a checklist to address: food, clean drinking water, pet care, asking friends whether you really can come over and stay at their safer home, how you get there, car care, shutting things down, getting your essentials together and arranging your evacuation if officially requested. If you think it safer to leave even without a formal request, get these essential items on your checklist done. Trying to do all this in the pre-event frenzy is often too much. A couple of ounces of foresight and sound preparedness are worth the tons of damage and nightmares avoided in hindsight.

It may not be enough for you, your family, your building, or your block to organize for such preparedness. You may need the help of community organizations, your church, synagogue or mosque or temple, or even your rowing-, surfing-, or whatever-club, and yes, of some City offices and elected officials. Being prepared for some of these common issues, to create community resilience, you are likely better off joining a community effort. But it cannot replace your own actions to intentionally and persistently plan for your own safety. You may think: but I don’t have the time and money to do what I know I should do. True. But the next storm does not care about that. If you have not tried to do your best, that storm will let you know.

Read and study this guide carefully and then get into action. You, and your family, your neighbors, your friends need to act. You’ll be surprised at how well different members of your community can work together when there is a common vital goal. You are in charge. You will be thankful after the next storm for having taken action beforehand. Whatever Mother Nature has in store for us, you can and will be prepared.

Sunset on Jamaica Bay. Image courtesy of Ofelia Mangen Sypher.

Sunset on Jamaica Bay. Image courtesy of Ofelia Mangen Sypher.