Hurricane Sandy and the Case for Resilient Design

Posted by on Oct 31, 2012

Flooding in Southampton, New York on October 29th. Lucas Jackson, Reuters. Posted on The Atlantic website.

While most of us in the Northeast were making last-minute preparations for the massive storm on Monday, I was sitting in Hartford’s Bradley Airport, about to catch one of the last flights out before the airport closed down.

Ironically, I was on my way to sunny Florida to give a long-planned keynote presentation on resilient design at the Sustainable Communities Workshop in Sarasota. Despite my pangs of guilt for leaving home and not being there to pull out my chainsaw should the need arise, getting the word out on resilient design remains a top priority for me, and I stuck with my plans.

It turned out that Vermont did just fine with Sandy and the Nor’easter it tangled with to create one of the most intense storms in recent history. The Mid-Atlantic Coast, of course, was not so lucky.

Sandy’s devastation

This morning, eight million utility customers were without power, many thousands of homes were destroyed or heavily damaged on the Jersey Shore and Long Island, and New York City’s subways sustained the worst damage in their 108-year history. This was a storm we will be talking about for years….

…or at least until the next one comes along that is even more destructive.

Fourteen months ago, most of us in Vermont thought that Tropical Storm Irene would be talked about for years, but that storm has now been pushed out of our collective memory as we sit glued to our TVs (those of us with power) aghast at the devastation in New Jersey and New York.

Hurricane Sandy at 10:40 am, Eastern, on October 29th. NASA GOES Satellite. Posted on The Atlantic website.

Reminders of Katrina

Watching the aerial views of Atlantic City from Florida last night, I couldn’t help but be reminded about Hurricane Katrina seven years ago—the event that launched my interest (some would say obsession) with resilience and passive survivability.

Those who have been paying even modest attention to climate scientists in recent years know that more intense storms are almost assured as we continue warming the planet. In the fifty years from 1958 through 2007, the Northeast has experienced a 67% increase in intense storms (defined as the heaviest 1% of all precipitation events), according to the United States Global Change Research Program.

The need for resilience

Hurricane Sandy provided a perfect backdrop to my Florida presentation yesterday. So often when I speak on the topic it is abstract and distant. “Oh I suppose resilience is important, but it’s just not near the top of my priorities,” I hear as I travel around trying to build support for taking strong actions.

A multi-structure fire caused by down power lines in Breezy Point, Queens on October 30th. Photo: Frank Franklin, II, AP. Posted on The Atlantic website.



Now, the need for resilience is front-and-center. There are people who will be without power for weeks. Will they be able to stay in their houses without electricity? Will their pipes freeze if we get a cold spell before power is restored? By building or retrofitting to achieve resilient design, we can create homes that will never drop below 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit even if the house is totally cut off from power and heating fuel—they can do that with high levels of insulation, top-performing windows, passive solar gain, and other features that I’ve been covering in these RDI blogs.

Resilient design also informs where we build and how we create infrastructure to deal with stormwater. It tells us to build with materials that can get wet and dry out again without growing mold. It leads to the use of hurricane tie-down strapping that will keep roofs from blowing off in intense winds.

Seawater pouring into the Ground Zero construction site in Battery Park on October 29th. Photo: John Minchillo, AP. Posted on The Atlantic website.

I am heartbroken about the dozens of deaths from Sandy, the tens of thousands of families whose lives are turned upside-down, the business that have had to shut down—some of which will not reopen. But I am also excited about the opportunity that a crisis like this affords for deciding to do things differently.

Sandy could be a turning point for policy-makers—an epiphany. We may finally see concrete actions on how to adapt to the realities of climate change. For the sake of those who may be affected by the next Sandy or Irene or Katrina, let’s hope that this can be a wake-up call for us all!

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. Alex, Thank you for sharing your recent experience…irony, coincidence, your Florida presentation must have been interesting if not just timely. In light of Sandy, what are some of your more specific thoughts on macro, micro resilient design in NYC.

  2. Hey Alex,

    Thanks for this timely and important post. I’d love to talk with you about your work on resilient design. It is an area I am also actively involved in. A taster version of my thinking can be found in this article:

    Towards a Resilient Global Economy

    One of the projects I am involved with is the creation of a regional resilience research center based in Seattle that focuses on the Cascadia Region. It is a project of the International Centre for Earth Simulation based in Geneva.

    Send me an email if you’d like to talk.



  3. Alex, Thank you for talking and writing about the intersection of green building, sustainability and global climate change. It is hard enough to get a rational national conversation going about the effects that global climate change is having on our lives and the economy. We need to adapt, but seem reticent to change, even in the face of the full gamut of severe weather events that have inflicted misery on wide swaths of the Country.
    Building traditions change slowly in response to the time, place, and environment they exist in. Our environment is changing more quickly than any time in modern history, and our buildings, communities, and infrastructure need to respond, and adapt, and be resilient to this rapid pace of change.

  4. Alex – thank you for working to raise the profile of this critical element of building and neighborhood design. It’s regrettable that it often takes terrible situations like Sandy to really focus attention on the need for urgent change action, but you are right that we must look for the long-term opportunity in Sandy.

    The pain and devastation on the east coast almost buried news of, what could have been, an almost simultaneous disaster and similar resilience challenge in the Pacific Northwest last week. At approx. 8pm Pacific Time on Oct 27th (just 2 days before Sandy struck the US east coast), a magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck under islands just of the coast of northern British Columbia, Canada. Tsunami warnings were issued as far north as Alaska and out to Hawaii. Fortunately, the depth and “side-to-side” plate movement that caused the quake, resulted in light structural damage and a small tidal wave relative to its magnitude. Hence we heard little about it, particularly with Sandy looming. However, if the epicenter had been just a couple of hundred miles to the south on a linked subductive (up/down) fault line, most seismologists believe that quake damage and the size of the resulting tsunami would have been much greater. The impact would have been directly on the populous coastal regions around Seattle WA and Vancouver and Victoria BC. Coastal communities of Hawaii, Alaska and Oregon may also have suffered wave-related impact. Millions would have been affected either directly or by the aftermath of potential power failures and affects on drinking water.

    The north-west dodged a bullet – this time. Regrettably, the north-east didn’t. But the combined message sent by two events occurring so close together must surely add voice and volume to the resilience and sustainability conversation that needs to be had at all levels. Thanks again for being a leading voice in that conversation

  5. Alex, clearly you saw this coming a long way off. What an interesting topic area to be involved in.

    As you bring this discussion from the conceptual to the practical, I’ll want to stay involved. Will we do more with rainwater catchment? Will future code updates require generator wiring? Will we all learn how to make cheese and salt pork again? And so forth…

  6. Martin, in addition to rainwater harvesting, it would be great to have a conversation about what resilience looks like for a manufacturer of roofing products. Are better adhesives called for with more intense storms? With GAF being the largest producer of asphalt shingles (I think), you could lead the industry with this. What else would it look like?


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