Nova (1974–…): Season 40, Episode 17 - Megastorm Aftermath - full transcript

From PBS - In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy cut a path of devastation across the Caribbean and the East Coast of the United States, killing hundreds and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. One year after Sandy's deadly strike, NOVA investigates the critical question raised by this historic storm: What can we do to prepare ourselves for the next Sandy?

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It's a city's worst nightmare.

Megastorm Sandy delivers a wall
of water 14 feet high...

There was no way of stopping it.

Plowing into New York.

You needed Superman, I guess.

And across the region.

Crucial services collapse.

This is Manhattan,
and it was just chaos.

Miles of coastline
are devastated.

Whatever anybody could do,

it was not enough.

And who's to say it ain't
going to happen again?

But there is little doubt
it will.

The planet is heating up.

Glaciers are melting.

Sea level is rising.

Should warm ocean currents
reach these glaciers,

all hell could break loose.

How do we protect ourselves?

Can we wall off our cities
from the sea?

Are some places destined
to disappear?

Florida is doomed.

In the wake of Sandy,

how will we respond?

This is screaming at us that
we need to be better prepared.

"Megastorm Aftermath,"
right now on NOVA.

New Yorkers pride themselves
on being tough...

We'll ride it out like we ride
all of them out, you know?

Resilient, nonplussed,

and maybe a little cocky
in the face of adversity.

It's raining here,

but, um, you know, whatever,
it's a little rain.

What are you going to do?

But on October 29, 2012...

This is a record surge of water
rushing over the edge

of Lower Manhattan.

They, and their city,
met their match.

My God, it's washing
everything away!

That was the day megastorm Sandy
came rolling into town.

The storm is on top of us
right now.

It was the biggest,
most devastating storm

to hit the city
in recorded history.

Strong winds pushed
a huge wall of ocean water

14 feet higher than sea level,
onto the coast,

covering 51 square miles
of the city.

70,000 homes and apartments
were damaged.

An entire neighborhood
burned to the ground.

Utilities failed in spectacular,
massive fashion.

And 43 people died here,
most of them drowned.

Sandy brought mighty Gotham
and much of New Jersey

to their knees.

As soon as the waters recede,
unsettling questions

begin to roll in.

Was Sandy a freak event,
or a window into our future?

We live in a new era.

Greenhouse gases
like carbon dioxide

generated by burning
fossil fuels are building up

in our atmosphere,
insulating our planet,

holding in more
of the sun's heat

and driving the temperature up.

The Earth's climate is changing.

No one knows exactly how
that will affect our weather

day to day.

But there's one thing
scientists agree on:

as the Earth and
its oceans heat up,

warm water takes up
more volume than cold.

At the same time,
glaciers are melting.

The result... sea level around
the world is rising.

And that means
as the storms come...

coastal cities are more
and more at risk.

Climate change will
raise the sea level,

and sea level will contribute
to the power of flooding.

It's not only
New York and New Jersey

that are in the crosshairs, but
Miami, New Orleans, Charleston.

As our sea level
continues to rise,

it won't take a Hurricane Andrew
or Katrina-size storm

to create flooding hazards
along our coastline.

Thousands of miles of coastline
all around the world...

China, India, Japan.

We live increasingly
in coastal areas.

This is screaming at us

that we need to be
better prepared.

But what can coastal cities do

to prepare and protect

Can we engineer a solution

and wall off our cities
from the sea?

Or are some areas
just too hard to protect,

and, eventually,
should they be abandoned?

We have to start to retreat

from the most exposed

As New Yorkers, we cannot

and we will not abandon
our waterfront.

It is one of our
greatest assets.

Or is there another way?

A way to embrace nature's
defenses and the water,

even as we try to keep it
at bay?

Sandy should demand
a national response.

There but for the grace of God,
it could have been Boston,

it could have been Seattle.

It could happen to Houston.

How are we as a nation
prepared for dealing

with these kinds of risks?

And reality is we're not near
as prepared as we need to be.

As Sandy approached, Dan Mundy
knew his home was at risk.

The retired firefighter
lives in one

of the most flood-prone
neighborhoods of New York City...

Broad Channel.

It's a sliver of an island
in the middle of Jamaica Bay,

on the southern end of Queens.

Elevation above sea level:
about four feet.

It's very unique
what we have here.

It's very different.

People that don't know
and come and visit and see it,

they say,
"Wow! This is beautiful.

Look at your views."

Well aware that his home
was in harm's way,

Dan Mundy built his own
private seawall around it.

You can see my bulkhead
out there.

There's 250 tons of stone.

But the fortress couldn't
hold back Sandy's storm surge.

You see how high it is
and how big it is.

Well, Sandy come
over the top of it.

It was just unreal.

This storm, it just went beyond.

Whatever anybody could do,
it was not enough.

And, you know, who's to say it
ain't going to happen again?

That's the question
haunting thousands

whose homes were damaged
or destroyed by the sea.

Sandy's waves tore
through the Rockaways,

about five feet above sea level.

The Red Hook section
of Brooklyn: eight feet.

Staten Island:
four feet above sea level.

Lower Manhattan:
about eight feet at the Battery.

In New Jersey,
Sandy caused flooding

from Hoboken to Atlantic City.

Around the region
and around the world,

the question is not
if it will happen again,

but when, and how often?

We know very well
a mean trend where things go.

The sea level rise
will not go down.

We know that for sure.

What scientists don't know
for sure

is how fast it will rise.

Over the past century,
sea level around New York

is up about a foot, partly
because of subsiding land.

But how much will it rise
in the next hundred years?

That may depend on what happens

in Greenland...

where vast masses of ice
are flowing from land to ocean,

raising the sea level.

David Holland is trying to crack
the sea level mystery.

That's what's brought him here
on a hazardous voyage

though the iceberg-cluttered
waters of Jakobshavn Fjord

in Greenland.

They say the iceberg
that sank the Titanic

came from this breathtaking
and extremely dangerous place.

These things roll.

And if it rolls,
it will take the ship with it.

Holland is a mathematician,

and he's here because he doesn't
have much faith in the numbers.

I would state that
at this moment

we cannot project
future sea level mathematically.

We have to be honest
with ourselves.

We have incomplete knowledge at
the moment and incomplete data.

Some of the data we do have
is disturbing.

An enormous reservoir
of fresh water is locked up

in the glaciers here,
at least for now.

If you melted all of Greenland,
then local sea level

around the planet
would rise just over 20 feet.

20 feet would submerge more than
a third of the city of New York.

But no one is predicting that
this will happen anytime soon.

The Greenland glaciers
have been slowly melting

for thousands of years, since
the end of the last Ice Age.

But today, with the planet
heating up faster,

there are ominous signs
that the movement of ice

from land to sea
might be speeding up.

David Holland believes

the reason lies
not in the warming air,

but in the water.

As a glacier slides
off the land,

its underside comes into contact
with the seawater.

In 1997, the ocean currents
changed abruptly,

and the water here got warmer by
nearly three degrees Fahrenheit.

Soon the glacier
started melting much faster.

During the 20th century,
it retreated eight miles.

But in just the first decade
of the 21st century,

it receded another nine miles.

David Holland is trying
to solve the mystery

of why this happened,
and if it could happen again.

The main thing
we're trying to study is

how do warm currents
approach ice sheets?

Why is it that sometimes
we see warm water

near ice sheets,
and sometimes not?

The answer to that question
is ultimately the answer

to the future of the sea level.

I'm going to start
the next cast.

To try to find that answer,

he repeatedly sends a probe
brimming with instruments

below the surface to depths
of 300 feet and more,

testing the water's temperature,
oxygen content and salinity.

Because all this water
is not created equal.

The water near the surface
is less salty,

diluted by the fresh water
from the recent glacier melt.

Usually cold water sinks.

But not in this case.

Fresh water is light, and it
floats on top of the ocean.

Below it is the saltier
ocean water

that is warmer
than the water above it.

Holland has found much of it
comes from the tropics,

carried to Greenland
by the Gulf Stream.

It eats away at
the glacier's underbelly,

eventually causing big pieces
to break off,

making more icebergs,
putting more water in the sea.

Holland is determined
to discover more

about the dynamic between
ice and ocean.

So he also submerges probes
for a year...

drops some from helicopters...

and even attaches sensors
to deep diving seals.

Still, they're just pinpricks
of light in a dark void.

There is little known about
how glaciers move and melt...

Not just here in Greenland,
but in Antarctica, too.

If you melted Antarctica,

you would raise
global sea level, say, 200 feet.

200 feet would flood

every city
on the Eastern Seaboard

and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Florida peninsula
would be long gone.

That is not going to happen
tomorrow morning.

The vast majority
of Antarctic ice is stable.

But a few ice sheets in the west
sit on ground below sea level,

making them more vulnerable
to melting.

In 2002, the Larsen B ice shelf,
a floating piece of ice

the size of Rhode Island,
suddenly broke up,

allowing the glacier behind it
to flow faster into the ocean.

David Holland worries
it could happen again

to other glaciers nearby.

These areas are enormous,
and warm water is near.

So should warm ocean currents
in the Southern Hemisphere

reach to these glaciers,
all hell could break loose.

With so many unknowns,
the current official estimate

for sea level rise
ranges from two to five feet

over the next century.

But David Holland thinks
that if we want to protect

coastal cities, we should be
prepared for much more.

If you were to say to me,

"For the next hundred years,
I want to be conservative

and protect things,"

I would build walls
three meters, ten feet.

When it comes
to flood protection,

Holland knows firsthand some of
the dangers of building too low.

Is it sinking?

Because when he's not
investigating the glaciers

of Greenland, he lives here,
in the heart of Manhattan.

When Sandy struck,
he and his wife Denise

were high and dry
in their apartment.

And then the lights went out...

and stayed out for five days.

There was no power,
no heat, no water.

It was surreal,

the concept that this major
city, Manhattan,

with this massive infrastructure
could be brought to its knees

by a storm.

It was just chaos.

The Hollands were among
the quarter million New Yorkers

who were in the dark because
of this spectacular event.

The Consolidated
Edison power substation

sits at the end of 14th Street,
right next to the East River,

about six feet above sea level.

Water and electricity
does not mix, obviously.

Most of the electricity
for Lower Manhattan

flows through these transformers
and relays,

as long as they're not
under water.

For over 50 years,
the 11-foot-high floodwalls

worked just fine,
until Sandy's storm surge

pushed 14 feet of water over
the banks of the East River.

Our hundred-year flood design
was down here.

And the waters were coming
over this capstan.

The flash point was a
circuit breaker that shorted out

after the salt water rushed in.

That breaker was
at a lower elevation.

And as the water
started to rise,

that breaker flashed over

and then caused a subsequent
failure at the transformer.

And so then you saw
this big flash of light.

Then there was
a cascading failure

because of the other relays.

And then the station
ended up being shut down.

ConEd is determined
to keep this station dry

whenever the next
megastorm hits.

They're building
about 180 aluminum doors

to plug any holes in the
substation's protective ring.

So if the same event occurred

and the same
storm surge occurred,

there'd be no customers out
in Manhattan.

And beneath the sidewalks
all across the city,

workers are installing
waterproof equipment.

Everything in this hole,

even if you submerge
it under water,

it is all submergible equipment.

If it's underwater,
it will still operate normally.

And they're deploying
more smart grid technology

that can be monitored remotely
and reduce power outages.

What we'll do over the long term

is work with the latest
climate science

so that we're further protected
in the future.

The electrical grid
is just one piece

of the vast infrastructure
clobbered by megastorm Sandy.

On the West Side of Manhattan,
the phone company Verizon

also got a climate change
wakeup call.

The impact of Hurricane Sandy

to Verizon was
the largest impact

to our wireline infrastructure

in our 100-year history.

Verizon world headquarters
sits at 140 West Street,

about 250 yards
from the Hudson River,

about five and a half feet
above sea level.

The ornate Art Deco lobby
is normally gilded and gleaming,

but the night Sandy roared in,
it was not

such a pretty picture.

We had water come in

through the front
and rear doors of the building.

And then water gets
into the elevator shafts,

down the stair walls,
and begins to fill up

the five sub-basements
of this building.

In the basement is the vault

where Verizon keeps
its crown jewels...

Telephone cables,
most of them copper,

the wires that connect
their landline phone customers.

Bad enough, but below the vault
is a pump system

that delivers diesel fuel
to the emergency generators

on the tenth floor.

But the pump was not waterproof.

When it failed,
the dominoes started falling.

No pump, no power.

No power, and these crucial
machines stop working...

Air compressors.

Verizon pumps air
into its copper cables

to keep water from seeping in.

Water, especially seawater,
destroys copper.

The network was
completely destroyed

with one massive storm
in one very destructive night.

The loss of that pump
was a crucial failure

in a night filled
with catastrophic damage

due to relentless flooding.

By morning, the land-based
phone lines in Lower Manhattan

were almost totally wiped out,
right in the financial capital

of America.

But there was,
literally and figuratively,

one glimmer of light
amid the unimaginable mess.

Fiber optic cables,
long, thin strands of glass

that transmit voice and data
with bursts of light,

are far more efficient
than copper wires.

And best of all,
they're impervious to water.

After Sandy,
the company immediately

started replacing
its entire copper wire network

in Lower Manhattan with fiber.

The changeover was
supposed to take years.

Verizon did it in six months.

In all, Sandy cost Verizon
about $1 billion.

And that crucial fuel pump?

It's now in a watertight room
with a submarine door.

Protecting New York's vulnerable
and venerable subway system

may be the biggest challenge
of all.

Sandy caused about
$5 billion worth of harm

to the nation's largest
transit system.

Hardest hit,
South Ferry Station,

at the southern tip
of Manhattan.

The station was
only three years old,

built at a cost of $550 million.

The day after Sandy,
it lay in ruins.

One of the culprits
is believed to be

this bundle of lumber, 2x8s.

After becoming flotsam
in the roiling seas,

it tore through
the makeshift barrier

workers had erected
at the station's entrance

as Sandy approached.

It was probably
like a battering ram.

When that wave effect came
in the surges,

it probably just blew
right through,

I mean, and that was it.

Where it came from, nobody
knows; I don't want to say.

I don't want to give Jersey
a bad name.

But it came from somewhere.

More than 60 million
gallons of seawater

came rushing in, filling the
station almost to street level.

You try and prevent it,
you try and deter it, you know,

and that's the best thing
you can do.

But can you really
actually stop it?

It was not for lack of trying.

As Sandy bore down on the city,

transit workers frantically
fought to stem the tide

with inflatable dams,
sandbags and plywood.

But there was no stopping
the water.

Subway stations, railyards
and nine tunnels flooded.

Water was coming
from everywhere.

There was no way of stopping it.

You needed Superman, I guess.

At the Hugh Carey
Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel,

which normally carries
cars and trucks

between Brooklyn
and Lower Manhattan,

there was little they could do.

We abandoned the place.

We basically pulled
everybody out of here.

Marc, come on, we've got to go!

80 million gallons of seawater
gushed in.

The tunnel was practically full.

Work crews managed
to clean it up.

They removed the ceiling tiles
and replaced enough lighting,

cameras and communications gear
to reopen the tunnel

just two weeks after the storm.

But there are years
of work ahead

to get things back
to their pre-Sandy condition.

Ten months after Sandy hit,
engineers tested

a water-filled emergency dam
that might offer

a layer of defense
for the tunnel the next time.

They are also
considering this idea

from West Virginia University...
An inflatable plug.

In the meantime, carpenters
have erected this plywood wall

at the low point,
where the water gushed in.

But in the long run,
will plywood and inflatables

and other small-scale changes
be enough

to protect this metropolis?

If I made this airtight

and we did not allow

the 66 million gallons of water

that we pumped out
to come into our system,

where would that water be?

It would be in the streets,
and would be in the basements,

and on the first floors of all
the buildings surrounding.

So it's more than just us
preventing the water

to come out.

It's got to be a really
regional issue to decide,

how do you deal
with something like that?

In the face
of rising sea levels,

how can an entire region
be protected?

With the threat
growing every day,

experts are looking for answers
in a place all too familiar

with the war against water...
The Netherlands.

The name itself says it all,
"The Low Lands."

Built on a swampy delta,

much of the country lies
below sea level.

You really wonder why
people settled here at all.

This must have been
such an uninhabitable,

inhospitable place.

It's a very soggy delta.

That's what these are for.

Windmills are essentially pumps.

If the sails turn,

the wheel will turn.

This will start spinning,
and the screw gets turned.

A giant Archimedean screw lifts
the water out of the floodplain.

In 1450, when they
were introduced,

this enabled us to live in areas

where before we couldn't live.

And then, of course,
there are the dikes, or levees...

Massive walls usually
made of earth,

built to hold back flood waters.

So really that's what
the Dutch have been doing

for a long time,
is defending their country

from the water, and defending
also implies

the feeling of the water
as an enemy.

In the winter of 1953,
the enemy got the upper hand.

A violent storm blew in
from the North Sea.

It was their Sandy
and Katrina combined.

In one night, over 1,800 people
lost their lives.

Several hundred thousand
lost their houses.

About a million animals drowned.

My family knows what it is

when your house is blown away
by the water.

And after that flood, we said,

"Well, this may never
happen again."

And that was the reason
for designing the Delta program.

Jos Geluk is an engineer
for the Delta program,

or Delta Works, the massive
flood protection system

launched in the wake
of the '53 flood.

In addition to a reinforced
system of dams and dikes,

locks and levees,
the Dutch added what they hoped

would be the ultimate weapons
in water defense...

Enormous storm surge barriers

across the mouths of rivers
and estuaries.

Protecting Rotterdam Harbor
are two giant gates,

together bigger than
the Empire State Building,

designed to swing shut
if the North Sea threatens.

And bigger still,
50 miles southwest of Rotterdam,

a five-and-a-half-mile long
storm surge barrier

with 62 doors, ready to close
at the push of a button.

We designed
on a chance of flooding

of once in 4,000 years.

If New York City wants
to stay dry

in a world with rising seas,
should structures like these

be part of the plan?

I think more and more

the Americans become aware
of the threat of the water,

and they will spend money on
protecting against the water.

As a Dutchman, you are
quite surprised to see

a large city like New York,
so many people exposed,

and no levees, no protection
at all... was astonishing to me.

Jeroen Aerts is a professor
of risk and water management

in Amsterdam.

Like many of his colleagues
here, he is a big believer

in big structures
to keep the water out.

He thinks New Yorkers
should think

about walling themselves off
from future megastorms.

Don't rule out yet the barriers,

because if sea level
is going to rise very quickly,

then you need a barrier.

But with so many inlets
for the sea to flow through,

one barrier would never
be enough to protect New York

and New Jersey.

The region would need to build
an elaborate ring

of strategically located
barriers to fend off flooding

from rising seas
and worsening storms.

One scheme imagines
a huge structure

at the Verrazano Narrows,
which separates Staten Island

and Brooklyn.

The concept is a hybrid
of two Dutch designs...

The giant barrier
with the gates,

and the huge swinging doors.

Another idea is
even more ambitious...

A five-mile-long
storm surge barrier

that would span from
Sandy Hook, New Jersey,

to the Rockaway Peninsula
in New York.

Engineer Jonathan Goldstick
would love to build it,

though he admits
Fortress New York would cost

tens of billions of dollars.

The cost benefit analysis
is tricky.

But it's a very good return, and
it really keeps the water out.

As sea levels continue rising,
at some point in the future,

even barriers like this
won't be high enough.

What the barrier should do
is provide us

with a relatively short-term
option for protection

while we implement a plan
that gets the city ready

for future higher
sea level rises.

If I were king of New York,
I would build it.

But if billions are spent
on colossal barriers,

will New Yorkers be left
with a false sense of security?

And might that delay action
on the crucial question

of how and where to build?

It looks like, "Wow, there's
this incredible benefit."

But essentially, we have delayed
the problem.

Even in the short term,
giant barriers can cause

huge problems.

Just ask the Dutch.

There were a lot
of unintended consequences.

It's turned out
that a lot of this intervention

to keep the water out
has had a detrimental effect

on the country's ecology.

Behind the permanent sea walls,
they created stagnant lakes

that are plagued
by noxious algae blooms.

The doors on the giant
storm surge barrier

were added
to address that problem.

But even with the doors open,
the permanent barrier structures

and manmade islands
reduce the ebb and flow

of the tides by 30%.

Precious little sediment
flows in.

As a result, the estuary's
sandbars, wetlands

and oyster beds
are disappearing,

taking with them
the natural flood protection

they used to provide.

This is really
one of the reasons

that the Dutch are moving
now towards a new approach

to dealing with water
and trying to intervene less.

The reality is,
the quest to control

big bodies of water almost
always produces big problems.

And nowhere is that more obvious
than in the heart of America,

on the mighty Mississippi.

Since the 19th century,
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

has been on a mission
to prevent flooding

and keep the river in its place

with big reinforced levees

and giant articulated
concrete mats

laid along the banks
to prevent erosion.

What we did in the 20th century

was we really isolated the river
from its delta plain.

Then we decided
that we really needed

to essentially
eliminate flooding

from the Mississippi River
under most circumstances.

Geomorphologist Denise Reed
understands that rivers

are meant to flood.

That's why here
in bayou country,

south of New Orleans,
she lives in a house on stilts.

One of Reed's biggest worries

is that in our fight to stop
flooding, we've essentially

turned the river
into a giant concrete pipe.

The sediment that comes out
of the end of the Mississippi

comes out of that long pipe
that we've made.

That essentially drops down
into fairly deep water.

That's not the way
it used to work.

The way it worked
for thousands of years

allowed sediment to spread out
at the mouth of the river,

creating the vast wetlands and
swamps of the Mississippi Delta.

But today, the delta
is starved of sediment.

As a result, every 40 minutes
or so, an area of marsh

the size of a football field

It's almost like
a Swiss cheese effect.

We've lost, I guess,
since the 1930s,

an area the size of Delaware.

That's a pretty large area.

Those vanishing
wetlands and marshes

are nature's best defense
against a storm,

acting like giant speed bumps

for waves surging in
from the sea.

In the world of water control,
they're known as soft defenses.

So imagine the storm surge
coming in.

Instead of moving across
a very smooth sandy bottom,

it's moving across
a rough surface.

And that really starts
to take some of the energy out

and slow down the storm surge.

But by how much?

To try and find an answer,
the Corps of Engineers

is using a complex model that
runs on this supercomputer.

Hydraulic engineer
Jane McKee Smith has simulated

a typical storm

without the benefit of the
wetlands that exist today

near New Orleans.

You get larger storm surge and
bigger waves hitting the area.

And certainly if you look back

the way they were hundreds
of years ago, you would see

a protective benefit
from those wetlands.

So it's a very big issue.

And if they continue to degrade,
then clearly

the city of New Orleans
is not going to be protected

the way we think it is now.

New Orleans sits right in the
midst of the Mississippi Delta.

Today, the city is regaining
its swagger,

in part thanks to this...
133 miles of new surge barriers,

levees, floodwalls,
gated structures

and pumping stations
that now ring the city.

The $14.5 billion project,
the epitome of hard defenses,

was built
by the Corps of Engineers

in the wake
of Hurricane Katrina.

We moved the perimeter outward.

And so, in some ways, you know,
we took the fight out

to the storm surge

instead of letting the storm
surge come into the city.

In August of 2012,

Hurricane Isaac gave
the hard defense system

its first big test.

The storm brought
80-mile-an-hour winds

and a surge that was only
two feet lower than Katrina.

This time the city
did not flood.

But Denise Reed worries
that if things don't change,

this low-lying city
will not be safe for long.

If we have a city behind a levee

and just open water
on the other side,

I don't think anybody thinks
that is as good a condition

as having a city and a levee

and extensive wetlands
on the other side.

To make matters worse,

scientists say the city
and the wetlands are sinking,

or subsiding.

The state of Louisiana
is fighting back,

pumping millions of tons of sand
onto barrier islands

and decimated marshes.

The goal... engineering
a solution that replicates

the way nature disperses
that famous Mississippi mud.

So, can New York find a balance

between hard barriers
and soft defenses?

We're going to pull up the ropes
and check them out.

Landscape architect Kate Orff
prefers the soft approach.

This is a typical blue mussel

that we are looking to recruit
on this rope.

Orff says the blue mussels
clinging to these ropes

could be a lifeline
for New York Harbor

and help the city survive
a wetter future.

The mussels are
a keystone species,

the first small step
toward Orff's grand vision...

A harbor filled
with vibrant shellfish beds

and small islands,

offering a natural defense
against high water.

You can't just think

about resiliency as closing
the gates,

you know, putting up
a giant sea wall.

But rather through introducing
reefs and offshore islands,

ecological systems
and marine life can play a role

in making a more
resilient harbor.

I think we've learned
over the past 100 years

that you cannot isolate
these problems,

that we live in an ecosystem

where everything is

Hold it!

Even though retired
fire captain Dan Mundy

spent a lot on hard defenses

at his waterfront home
in Broad Channel,

he's an evangelist for
the gospel of soft measures,

especially in the marshes
of Jamaica Bay.

As children, we used to drive
our boats through these,

so we knew these islands,
these marsh islands,

like the back of our hand.

We knew how big, how wide
the creek was,

we knew where your turns were,
and whatnot.

Then, in the 1990s, he noticed
that things were changing.

The creeks got wider,
the openings fell apart,

and instead of coming in
and making a turn,

it was just a big opening.

Along with his son, also Dan,
Mundy collected

old maps and aerial photos
of the marshes

and compared them to new views.

And when we looked
at the interior of the marsh,

looking, like, overhead
and looking down, we found out

the whole interior
was like a cancer.

It was eaten out
from the inside out.

The Mundys helped launch

a scientific investigation.

The findings were chilling.

Jamaica Bay was losing
33 acres of marshland a year.

Eventually, scientists believed
they found the culprit.

Polluted water was killing
the sea grass.

These plants that we see,

the roots are like arteries...
They go out feet.

Without the web of sea grass
roots knitting them together,

the sandy islands
dissolved away.

Since then, the Mundys
have spent years

trying to save the marshes,
with impressive results.

Today, pollution is down.

The water quality is up.

They've helped raise
millions of dollars to rebuild

many of the islands,
including this one.

And they organize
volunteer groups to plant

new sea grass to hold
the sand together.

And look at this.

We have new growth
coming up in this area.

That's the most
encouraging thing

that I've seen
since I started this project,

because this means that they're
going to be well established.

We can let this
go by itself now.

The Mundys
are stubbornly committed

to this place, even though
they live on the front lines

of the battle against
sea level rise.

We're not moving.

A little water
ain't scaring us away.

Do we retreat
from the tornado alleys,

do we retreat
from the mudslides,

and do we retreat
from the forest fires?

So if we apply that mentality
across the board,

there's really not many places
we want to live.

For them, natural defenses
are a key weapon in the fight.

We're going to get
the water quality back

to the way it used to be,
going to rebuild these marshes

that have disappeared.

And that all is going to help
with resiliency for the future.

It's going to protect
the shorelines.

The Mundys found
an unlikely ally in their quest

to rebuild the marshes
of Jamaica Bay...

The Army Corps of Engineers,
which built the new islands.

The Corps, now aware
of the mistakes it made

managing the Mississippi,
seems to be going soft.

We have to think about
a healthy estuary system

with salt marsh and soft
wave-absorbing type features

like islands
and things of that sort.

You can use a combination of
gray and green infrastructure,

gray being our traditional
concrete-type things,

and green being
those softer solution sets.

We know a lot
about the hard structures.

We're learning more
about the natural features.

But we really don't know
a whole lot

about how we combine these.

For now the Corps is focused
on brown... pumping sand,

nourishing beaches,

in the Rockaways
and on the Jersey shore.

It's tried and true protection.

We've only basically been
looking at soft solution sets,

basically sand on a sandy beach.

Enough to buy us some time
to take a deep breath

and look at what those
more complex solutions might be.

Most experts believe
that ultimately,

soft measures alone
won't be enough

to stop a storm like Sandy

from taking an enormous bite
out of the Big Apple.

Less than a year
after the megastorm hit,

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg
released a $20 billion plan

to make the city more resilient.

The plan calls for several
small storm barriers

at strategic locations, as well
as plenty of new sea walls.

And instead of
a giant storm surge barrier,

Bloomberg sees new developments
like this as the best defense...

Arverne by the Sea
on the Rockaway peninsula.

Homes here were raised
nine feet above grade,

with a robust
stormwater drainage system.

They sustained minimal damage
during Sandy,

a stark contrast
to what happened nearby.

To me that's the idea
of resiliency.

We can't keep the water out.

But if you can retrofit
your buildings to be able

to get wet, in a sense,

but not be critically damaged
during a storm event.

This sea change in attitude...

Accepting that sometimes
you have to let the water in...

Is exactly what's going on
in the Netherlands.

The whole foundation

on which the water safety system
is built

is really being subjected
to a critical revision.

The tide began turning
in the mid-'90s

after some devastating
river flooding.

At the same time,
scientists were issuing

increasingly dire warnings
about climate change

causing both sea level rise
and more rain in the region.

It meant that the expectation
is higher river peaks,

but also sea level rise.

And that would give a problem,

because the rivers flow freely
into the sea.

So when the sea level rise,
it will be much more difficult

to let the river water
flow into the sea.

The Dutch government launched
a program

called Room for the River.

At the most flood-prone
locations in the country

they asked property owners
to leave, buying them out,

so the dikes could be
moved inland.

So when flood waters come,
they will flow onto empty land

without damaging homes
or businesses.

Now we were talking about giving
back land to the river system.

And that was quite a step.

It is not just farmland
making the room.

In the city of Nijmegen,
they're reshaping the landscape

to make some space
for the River Waal,

bulldozing a peninsula,
leaving just a small island.

After many centuries
of performing a sort of alchemy,

turning water into land,

the Dutch are facing the limits
of their sorcery.

Not everyone everywhere
can be kept safe from the water.

Is this the beginning
of a tactical retreat?

The Dutch don't see this
as a retreat.

They see it as a form
of accommodation.

Now we're moving
towards an approach in which

water is seen as perhaps
not a friend but a "frenemy,"

somewhere in between.

In Rotterdam,

where parts of the city lie
22 feet below sea level,

the Dutch
are going even further,

coming up with innovative places
to put flood waters.

We don't have room

in the city of Rotterdam
to just add more canals.

So we have to think
of other things.

And that's one of the things
we're doing here,

is we're storing it
actually underground.

When a museum built this
underground parking garage,

the city added on

a 2.5-million-gallon
holding tank.

About ten times a year,
heavy rains prompt them

to open the valves
and fill the tank.

It prevents flooding
and stops untreated sewage

from flowing into the harbor.

The city is also creating
public plazas

that are walled and tiered

so they can double
as retention ponds.

When it starts to rain,
I mean, this fills up,

and all these terraces fill up,
and kids just love it.

I mean, they put on their boots
and they just run through it.

Another more elaborate one
is under construction

near a high school.

When it rains here,
the playing field will fill up

and hold water until the pumps
and sewers can handle it.

Keeping their feet dry has
always been a Dutch priority.

But the key lesson
they've learned over the years:

simply fending off the water
as if it were a mortal enemy

is like tilting at windmills.

Whatever New York does,
its defenses could be challenged

sooner than expected.

Because not only
is sea level rising,

but future storms could be
more destructive.

When megastorm Sandy
hit the Northeast,

many asked whether this monster
was the product

of climate change.

It's not clear to me

that this storm was caused
by climate change,

but I think
that we are in an era

where climate change
is likely increasing the risk

or probability of certain types
of extreme weather events.

Climate models suggest
that overall,

the number of hurricanes
might go down.

But the ones that do form
could be even more powerful

than they are today.

What all the models and theories
seem to agree on,

at least globally at this point,

is that the frequency
of the very high intensity,

Category 3, 4, 5 events,
should go up.

Hurricanes are giant
heat engines,

fueled by evaporation from
the warm surface of the ocean.

Once a hurricane gets revved up,

a warmer climate means
more evaporation

and a stronger storm.

If you look at the
most powerful hurricanes

on the planet, they have winds
near the surface

of about 200 miles per hour.

It's conceivable
that a hundred years from now,

the top ranking hurricanes
will have wind speeds

of, say, 220 miles per hour,
about a ten percent increase.

That may not sound
like very much,

but as wind speed increases,

the potential for damage rises

So you're talking
about something

that's half again more damaging
than current hurricanes.

That's what we worry about.

Bigger storms.

Higher seas.

Is a retreat from the water

In many places,

it will be absolutely

Florida is doomed.

Not today, not next year,
not next decade.

But 200 years from now, there
will be one big swimming pool.

So does it make sense
to invest in expensive projects

like beach renourishment
year after year

to protect a way of life
that may not be sustainable?

It makes a lot of sense

to put sand on the beach
in Rockaways right now.

But I would not suggest to you
that 30 years from now

or 35 years from now that that
might still make a lot of sense.

And does it make sense
for federal taxpayers

to subsidize flood insurance,
an incentive for people

to build and rebuild
right on the water's edge,

in low-lying parts
of New Jersey,

where 30,000 businesses
and homes

were damaged or destroyed
by Sandy?

Or in Broad Channel?

Premiums here have skyrocketed.

Dan Mundy worries it could be
a mortal blow to his community.

These are workers
that you're talking about.

These are people
who get on the A train.

They go to work every day.

They make $80,000.

They make $90,000 a year.

They can just about afford

to pay their mortgage
and whatnot,

and you bring these increases
in on them,

that's going to be a problem.

Not an easy problem to solve.

And it's just one
of many dilemmas

in the wake of megastorm Sandy.

When we got our back
to the wall,

America can respond.

And this thing is so big,

and it's going to affect
so much,

and it's going to affect
so much of the economy

of the United States,

that this is the game changer,
right here.

We have an opportunity
after these big events

to really think broadly.

We shouldn't waste
those opportunities.

Because there's an event bigger
than Sandy out there, I'm sure.