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Learning from Sandy: Is Philadelphia Prepared for the Next Natural Disaster?

Alex McKechnie
The Drexel News Blog

February 21, 2013

Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy

The past 10 years were the costliest in U.S. history with regard to natural disasters. Hurricane Sandy left 131 Americans dead, more than 6 million without power and $50 billion worth of damages, making it the second most destructive Atlantic hurricane behind Katrina. While Greater Philadelphia was largely spared, neighboring cities along the Jersey Shore and in New York faced property damage, widespread flooding, power outages, crippled transportation systems and loss of life.

These extreme weather events are expected to grow in frequency and intensity because of climate change. Publicly subsidized insurance and federal disaster relief provide much- needed support to damaged communities when these disasters occur, but this assistance may also encourage people to take unnecessary risks by making it easier to build in vulnerable areas.

Scott Knowles

Dr. Scott Knowles

According to disaster prevention expert Dr. Scott Knowles, an associate professor in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences and author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America (2011), “In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, as is always the case, we heard a great deal about how we have to ‘learn the lessons’ and keep this type of destruction from ever happening again.  However, the changes necessary to protect ourselves from the worst effects of such storms are not easy ones to make, even if we all agreed on the priorities.”

While several of his colleagues at Drexel are trying to parse out Sandy’s lessons for urban and city planners and disaster response agencies from a civil engineering perspective, Knowles is taking a closer look at risk management and preparedness in the wake of the hurricane. On Thursday, Feb. 21, he will moderate an Urban Sustainability Forum at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University to discuss how we can use our knowledge from Hurricane Sandy to reduce our vulnerability and manage the risk of building and living in hazard-prone areas through better planning, engineering and policy, as well as what will be required to make Philadelphia more resilient to storms, extreme weather and other expected impacts of climate change in the future.

“During this forum, we will look closely at the storm itself, the impact and the ways it is still affecting people in the northeast,” said Knowles. “We will talk about the people who were hit hardest and try to understand where things stand for them today.  We will also talk about planning for the future, including climate change, sea level rise, insurance coverage and political action.”

The panelists bring a wide variety of expertise to the table. They include:

  • Alex Dews, policy and program manager for the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Sustainability
  • Howard Kunreuther, the James G. Dinan Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School and one of the world’s foremost experts on insurance and the ways that risks can and should be managed
  • Chris Linn, a climate change expert  and manager of the Office of Environmental Planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission
  • Lori Peek, associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University and co-director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis (CDRA)
  • MaryAnn E. Tierney, the FEMA Region III director, who previously served as the director of emergency management for the City of Philadelphia.

The event is free and open to the public. Those who are interested in attending can RSVP here.

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