What Hurricane Sandy teaches us about our built environment

sandy_approaches_east_coast-noaaThe profession of Design is about to drastically change. If you’re an architect, engineer, planner or builder, the way you build is about to undergo some radical new transformations.

2012 is on track to become the warmest year on record, with some 40,000 temperature records broken in the United States this year alone. In addition, Arctic sea ice melted to a record low this year, further adding to a grim list of milestones and warning signs that most people are ignoring.

Both candidates running for President failed to once mention Climate Change during the 4-1/2 hours of debates. This is the first time since 1984 that has happened, and a sign that the carnival that has become our election process is unable to focus on what is truly important.

In short, President Obama admits climate change is real and raised minimum fuel efficiency standards in August 2012. Governor Romney isn’t sure if climate change is manmade or not, and changes his views on whether it exists at all. His energy policy advisor is oil baron Harold Hamm, so he wants to eliminate foreign oil, pushing for “North American” sources of oil. Romney stated “there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue – on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk – and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.”

[For the record, you can view President Obama’s stance on Climate Change here;
Governor Romney’s stance here.]

In spite of this silence, most environmentalists have been waiting for a tragedy to occur to wake up our policy makers. I tend to think it follows Winston Churchill’s famous indictment of Americans: “I always count on Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted every other possible option.”

Huffington Post map of Hurrican Sandy power outages in Eastern U.S.

Huffington Post map of Hurrican Sandy power outages in Eastern U.S.

Hurricane Sandy, the storm that has crippled New York and Philadelphia, (and leveled Atlantic City), has left our largest cities without power, transportation and most fundamental services. Some in the media have called it a “Frankenstorm” which may be appropriate both because it hit on Halloween week and given how unprecedented and powerful it is. But more importantly, it is a sign of storms to come and a brutal introduction to what is now the “new normal.”

Hurricane Sandy highlights the extreme vulnerability of our transportation and electricity infrastructure. To millions, climate change suddenly just became very real and very expensive. The Atlantic has a wonderful map showing the (still) flooded areas of New York as a grim predictor of things to come.

With economic losses of up to $20 billion, Hurricane Sandy is the disaster that could finally wake everyone up from their stupor. This would make it the costliest hurricane to ever hit the Northeast, and perhaps what is needed to change our policies to address our climate. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, power outages in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have “shattered records” with over 3 million without power.

In New York City, their transit system carrying 5.2 million passengers a day and essential to the city’s economy is flooded. The Wall Street Journal reported on the corrosive effect of flooding salt water on subway tracks and tunnels. Thanks to an already rising water table, the MTA’s 300 pumping rooms daily remove around 13 million gallons of water from their network of tunnels, and that’s on a dry day. The flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy could take up to four days to to pump out, according to MTA officials.

The Atlantic Magazine map showing the flooded areas of New York as a predictor of things to come

The Atlantic Magazine map showing the flooded areas of New York as a predictor of things to come

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday morning that the city and the state may have to consider building a levee to protect lower Manhattan, where waters rose 10 feet above flood stage. “It is something we’re going to have to start thinking about.” Mr. Cuomo said. “Anyone who thinks that there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality,” Mr. Cuomo said. “We have a new reality, and old infrastructures and old systems.”

A week before the Hurricane, the Center for Biological Diversity awarded their “Rubber Dodo” award to Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.
This award is given annually to those who have done the most to drive endangered species extinct. The Oklahoma Republican has done more to push the “anti-science” climate denial than any other member of Congress. Kierán Suckling, the Center’s executive director said, “Senator Inhofe gets the 2012 Rubber Dodo Award for being at the vanguard of the retrograde climate-denier movement.” Suckling continued, “Deniers like Inhofe, in positions of leadership, are dooming future generations of people to a far more difficult world.”

Just this past July, Bill McKibben of 350.org wrote an incredible piece in Rolling Stone highlighting that it may already be too late. Scientists agree that 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide is the limit we can release into the atmosphere. Yet, the oil in reserves (already sucked out of the ground and slated for burning) will pump 2,795 gigatons into your air, crushing the limit by almost five times what is acceptable. Even if we could magically stop this fuel from being consumed, it would send shockwaves throughout the economy. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times puts it, “We can either have a hard decade or a bad century.”

Architects, designers and planners can no longer sit by and think this does not apply to them. We need to redesign and rebuild our infrastructure. This is no longer a matter of simply adapting to a warmer planet. Hurricane Sandy has shown we must re-engineer the country, and do it right away. For a glimpse of the future of the profession, take a look at the incredible work of Architecture for Humanity (and donate or volunteer while you’re there.)

If you want to help the millions affected by Hurricane Sandy, I urge you to sign this petition and also donate to the American Red Cross.


Eric Corey Freed is principal of organicARCHITECT, an architecture and consulting firm in California, and author of four books including “Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies”.

Profile photo of Eric Corey Freed About Eric Corey Freed

Organic Architect

Eric Corey Freed, LEED AP, Hon. FIGP, is Founding Principal of organicarchitect, a nationally known award winning architecture and consulting firm, with nearly 20 years of experience in green building and sustainable planning.

When Eric was just 25 years old, noted architect and critic Philip Johnson described him as “one of the real brains of his generation.” Today, Eric continues the tradition of “Organic Architecture”, first developed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Eric is the author of four books on Sustainable Design, including "Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies", a bestseller with over 100,000 copies in print. EcoSalon called it one of their “must read books that will forever change how you see the world.”

Green Building & Remodeling Green Sense for the Home Green Your Home Sustainable School Architecture

He is a Chair of the Coachella Valley branch of the US Green Building Council, and sits on the City of Palm Desert Sustainability Commission. He has received awards from several Mayors, and worked with dozens of municipalities around the country.

Considered a thought leader in the field, Eric was named “Best Green Architect” by San Francisco Magazine in 2005; “Best Visionary” in 2007; and “Green Visionary” by 7x7 Magazine in 2008. Click here for his complete resume

Organic Architect website: www.organicarchitect.com


  1. avatar lesliewade says:

    Great article, Eric. Thanks for the links to other articles and resources. I hope it’s not too late.

  2. avatar paulmcneil says:

    Thanks for the post, Eric.  Its tragic that neither candidate addressed climate change in the debates.  As a species we only change when we have to… a few more Sandy’s and we will have to..

  3. One can only hope that given what has happened to gulf and now, to the New Jersey and the 15 or 16 other states affected by Sandy, that the warning would be heeded. If the US isn’t going to make efforts to first ACKNOWLEDGE the problem and address it, it’s going to have to be up to developers, designers, builders and planners to take the lead. They have to, some degree, done it New Orleans with buildings that adapt to flooding. Excellent, excellent article.

  4. One can only hope that given what has happened to the Gulf region and now to New Jersey and the 15 or 16 other states affected by Sandy, that thewarning would be heeded but political intransigence once again gets in the way. If the US isn’t going to make efforts to at least ACKNOWLEDGE that climate change exists and address future catastrophes, then it’s going to have to be up todevelopers, designers, builders and planners to take the lead. They haveto, some degree, done so in New Orleans with buildings that adapt toflooding.
     Excellent, excellent article.

  5. Excellent article but maybe too much to expect presidential debate/campaign to cover any topic in great length, even one as important as global warming.  Hopefully with time, awareness, and experience, change will happen in the building industry and United States.

  6. Eric, thank you for the great article here. And I’m very glad to learn about your books. I’m currently planning to become “energy independent” at my home and office. So, I will definitely check out your books and website.

  7. I keep meaning to read McKibben’s Rolling Stones article. Thank you for bring it back to the forefront and hopefully helping others find it as well.
    If this is the most important issue in the history of mankind, it is being met with a collective yawn. One has to wonder what event will spur enough concern that Americans will drop their Doritos Locos tacos and demand action? I suspect that time is a ways off with one television network consistently controlling 20% of America’s mindshare, and influencing half the country. Can we improve the situation in this climate? (No pun intended).
    But we must remain advocates, nonetheless.