Will Sandy’s Legacy Loom As Large As it Should Past 2012?

There’s a lot to be learned from 2012′s biggest storm, if our attention span can hold out long enough.

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Coastal cities have built up infrastructure over the years that cumulatively has been an engineering marvel: ports and waterways, water and sewer and electrical systems, roads and bridges and tunnels and subways. But it’s all going to look modest compared to the projects necessary to deal with the impacts of climate change.

Massive flood barriers straight out of a science fiction movie may rise between the north fork of Long Island and near New London, Connecticut. The Golden Gate strait may similarly become a floodgate, turning San Francisco Bay into a giant freshwater pond, to keep rising sea levels from inundating populated areas. Even with such measures, power plants near the water will have to be dismantled and relocated. Building mechanicals must come out of the basement. Flood and drainage systems must be overhauled for miles and miles of subway tunnels.

A successful resilience retrofit could buy coastal cities a couple hundred years of staying dry, says Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, noting that the U.S. is where Amsterdam was over a century ago, in terms of planning for the challenges of water. But, Yaro added, “it’s going to take a catastrophic event” to prompt U.S. cities to get serious and get started.

His remarks were in 2010.

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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.