October 29, 2013

Time to Wake Up: The Anniversary of Hurricane Sandy

Mr. President, this is my forty-eighth trip to the floor to remind Congress it is time to wake up to the threat of climate change.  

I’m joined here by Senators Blumenthal and Schumer, because one year ago today, Hurricane Sandy struck our states with frightening force.  Now, a year later, communities across the Northeast have dug out and are rebuilding, but Sandy left a permanent mark on our coasts and on our consciousness.

To be sure, we cannot say that this devastating storm was specifically caused by climate change.  However, Sandy showed the many ways we are vulnerable to the undeniable effects of climate change, like rising sea levels and warming oceans—effects that can in turn load the dice for more damaging storms.  

As evening fell on October 29, 2012, a storm surge from the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded swept against Rhode Island’s shores, about five feet above mean sea level.  A few hours later, waters peaked around New York City, about nine feet above mean sea level.  A harrowing night followed for victims of Hurricane Sandy—a night that took more than 150 lives and caused $65 billion in physical damage and economic loss.  

Hurricane Sandy—or Superstorm Sandy as many remember it—hit twenty-four states with direct effects.  Flood waters invaded homes and swept out roads.  High winds knocked out power to eight-and-a-half million homes and businesses, cutting a swath of darkness that could be seen from space.  An entire New York neighborhood was gutted by fires that emergency personnel could not reach through the storm.

Sandy flooded nearly the entire coastline, with beaches and dunes driven down by the waves and wind. Displaced sand and stone covered roads, like here on Atlantic Avenue in Misqaumicut, Rhode Island.

Houses were swept off their foundations in Rhode Island’s southern-coast communities like Matunuck, shown in this photo.  Here we see Governor Lincoln Chafee, a former member of this body, surveying the damage to these homes.  President Obama granted Governor Chafee’s request for a federal disaster declaration covering four of Rhode Island’s five counties.  More than 130,000 Rhode Islanders lost power. Eight cities and towns implemented evacuation actions.  Nearly a third of all Rhode Islanders were directly affected, one way or another, and in a close-knit state like ours nearly everyone was touched by Sandy.  

Rhode Islanders are resilient, and we are recovering.  Over $30 million has been paid out to Rhode Islanders for more than 1000 federal Flood Insurance claims.  FEMA has approved more than 260 projects for reimbursement.  Over $12 million has been put to repairing our state’s parks, wildlife refuges and historic sites. Individuals and families received more than $423,000 in grants to meet their immediate basic needs for housing and other essential disaster-related expenses.  

The federal government will always play a central role for communities like ours picking up after a disaster like Sandy.  So it would make sense for the federal government to learn from these events and be smart as we plan for future risks.

The Government Accountability Office recently reported on the risks to U.S. infrastructure posed by climate change.  Roads, bridges, and water systems are designed to operate for fifty to 100 years.  Well, fifty to 100 years from now, our climate and our coastline will be very different.  Sandy threw at Rhode Island’s shores Atlantic seas that had risen almost ten inches since the 1930s, against a shoreline that had already retreated more than 100 feet in some locations.  

As climate change progresses, more and more infrastructure will be exposed to more and more risk.  
Earlier this year, GAO added to its High Risk List the United States’ financial exposure to climate change.  GAO—our congressional watchdog—now warns that it is fiscally irresponsible to ignore the signs of climate change.

The President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, and his Climate Action Plan, both call for adaptation to this risk from climate change, particularly for better coastal resiliency and preparedness.  

Here is an example of doing it right. When Hurricane Katrina hit the I-10 Twin Span Bridge that crosses Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, it twisted and toppled the bridge’s 255-ton concrete bridge spans, off their piers and into the lake.  The bridge was rebuilt, using Federal Highway Administration funding, but they built it stronger, they built it better engineered, and in some sections they built it more than twenty feet higher.  

It makes sense to make sure that our agencies repair American infrastructure to the commonsense standard that it’s ready for future risks.  Rebuilding to the specs that failed is not common sense.  Being deliberately stupid in order to deny climate change is a losing proposition.  

Well, Congress can do something smart right now.  We could pass the Water Resources and Development Act with the resiliency and restoration provisions that were in the Senate-passed bipartisan bill.  
Congress could support the President’s Climate Action Plan, using our wise Earth’s natural protections for our coastal infrastructure.   

Of course, even robust climate adaptation won’t let us off the hook in some places.  New England can build levees and dams to hold the waters back.  But the vast low areas of Southeastern Florida are porous limestone, and even if you built a giant dike, the water would just seep in through the underlying limestone.  

A study last year found that three feet of sea-level rise, which is what we presently expect, will hit more than one-and-a-half-million Floridians and nearly 900,000 Florida homes, almost double the effect on any other state in the nation.  

So Florida should want to prevent as much climate change as possible, and that means cutting carbon pollution.  Ultimately, for the open market to work, we need to include the full cost of carbon pollution in the price of fossil fuels.  Anything less is a subsidy to polluters.  What Florida should want, is for Congress to enact a carbon pollution fee to correct the market, and then return that fee to American families.  
Ultimately, inaction is irresponsible, and Americans get it.  Eighty-two percent of Americans believe we should start preparing now for rising sea levels and severe storms from climate change.  

And young Americans in particular see through the phony climate denial message.  Get this: three-quarters of independent young voters — and more than half of Republican young voters — would describe climate deniers as, I quote, “ignorant,” “out of touch,” or “crazy.” Let me repeat that. The majority of Republican voters under 35 would describe climate deniers as “crazy, “ignorant”, or “out of touch.” Continuing the climate denial strategy is not a winning proposition for our friends on the other side. Even their own young voters see through it.

Congress should wake up to the alarms that are ringing in nature, and to the voices of the American people.  One of the loudest alarm gongs was Hurricane Sandy. Voltaire said, “Men argue, nature acts.”  Well, nature acted, driving epic winds and seas against our shores, and she will continue to act, if we continue to tip her careful balances with reckless carbon pollution, and shameless subsidies to the big polluters.  We need to wake up as a Congress and take responsible action to protect our homes and communities.  We need to remember Sandy, and learn her lessons.

I yield the floor to my distinguished colleague from New York.