Editorial: Better prepared for next big storm

Editorial: Better prepared for next big storm

The Westerly Sun

Everybody learned from Superstorm Sandy. From first responders and town officials to business owners, meteorologists and emergency planning experts. Homeowners learned a tough lesson: Know your flood insurance policy and know that living on the shoreline carries greater financial risks than you might have imagined.

The concept of lessons learned was the clear take-away from our six-day series that concluded Friday. The storm was ranked the second most costly in the U.S., after Hurricane Katrina, causing $71.4 billion in damage, mostly from storm surge. And this region didn’t even get the brunt of it.

Town officials and first responders now have a better understanding of how to manage in the hours and days after such devastation, when property owners who were forced to evacuate are desperate to return to see what they have to face. They know to expect people taking advantage of others’ misfortune, too.

Local planning and zoning and building officials, previously conscious of particular concerns for shoreline development, now have even greater respect for those needs. Updated building codes that require construction with resiliency in mind are intended to minimize destruction, leading to a mix of elevated homes and homes with “breakaway” first floor walls in non-living areas to let the water flow through with minimal damage and loss. These changes come after Westerly property owners filed $14.8 million in claims with the National Flood Insurance Program from Sandy. 

The concept of damage from storm surge farther inland than people previously considered is now in the forefront of forecasting tools, building codes and emergency planning for the aftermath of the next storm.

Beach business owners, too, have made adjustments by returning to the sand but doing so with less of a construction footprint and in a way that allows them to literally pull up stakes in advance of a storm to minimize losses and damage to nearby property owners. Others have gone in the other direction, rebuilding under the new resiliency building codes with elevated first floors.

Both approaches show more respect than in the past for nature’s force and an understanding of the need for change gained by lessons from this hybrid storm.

And for those unaware, the point has been made clear that we have a national treasure in the University of Rhode Island and its researchers in oceanography and coastal issues. URI professors and students are part of a federal research project focused on storm surge, and coastal and inland flooding.

URI oceanographer Isaac Ginis told us for last week’s series that “Our group at URI is one of the major partners in developing this modeling tool.”

We learned that Ginis is helping to develop mathematical models that make it possible to more accurately forecast hurricanes. “Sandy demonstrated to the research community and to the forecasting community that there was a significant gap and also a limitation in our ability to forecast the storm surge and coastal inundat ion,” he said.

That means a significant contribution to global storm forecasting and emergency planning is coming from Rhode Island.

Many suffered quite a lot in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Many more have learned quite a lot from the storm. When the next one hits, we’ll all be better prepared because of the lessons learned.             


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