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Climate Change and Historic Superstorm Sandy: 70+ Dead, Streets Submerged, Millions Without Power

Estimates of the damage so far have reached as high as $20 billion.

Superstorm Sandy has pounded the East Coast, bringing massive flooding and damage that’s left at least 16 people dead in the United States, killed more than 60 in the Carribean, and left more than seven million without power from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Parts of New York City were submerged under water as high as 13 feet, flooding a number of subway stations and causing blackouts. Sandy made landfall in New Jersey Monday night near Atlantic City after being downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone. But it still brought hurricane-force winds and rain, making it one of the largest storms the United States has ever seen. A snowstorm swept inland dropping heaving snowfall across Appalachia and shutting down large sections of the interstate in West Virginia and Maryland. Estimates of the damage so far have reached as high as $20 billion. Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman broadcasts from the road in Salt Lake City, working with our team in New York City, under blackout conditions, to bring you updates and analysis on the storm’s damage, its potential risks for East Coast nuclear facilities, and its connection to global warming. We’re joined by Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground.


AMY GOODMAN: Superstorm Sandy has pounded the East Coast, bringing massive flooding and damage that’s left at least 16 people dead and millions without power. Parts of New York City were hit by a record storm surge as high as 13 feet, flooding a number of subway stations, causing blackouts for more than 600,000 people. Roughly a quarter of a million customers lost power in Manhattan alone after a fiery explosion at a ConEd substation.

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey Monday night after being downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, but it still brought hurricane-force winds and rain, making it one of the largest storms the U.S. has ever seen. Estimates of the damage so far have reached as high as $20 billion. In New York, the storm set off a massive fire in the Queens neighborhood of Breezy Point, destroying at least 50 homes. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was flooded with water just hours after it was closed to traffic. The flood waters also filled streets, submerging vehicles, even sending some floating downstream. At least seven subway tunnels were flooded beneath the East River, prompting the head of New York’s transit authority to call Sandy the most devastating storm in the subway system’s history. Dozens of patients were evacuated from the New York University’s Langone hospital after a backup generator lost power.

For the latest on the storm itself, we’re joined on the phone first by Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground, which was recently purchased by the Weather Channel. And I just want to alert our television viewers that we are broadcasting in a very stripped-down, streamed-down way, because our studio in New York is completely without electricity, and we’re unable to power it up. My colleagues have been doing a remarkable job sleeping at the studio through the night, but at the last minute, we were not able to, just like so many other New Yorkers, get access to power. I am actually broadcasting to you from Salt Lake City, Utah. Jeff Masters is in Michigan, director of meteorology at Weather Underground.

Jeff, welcome to Democracy Now! Just explain the extent of the damage and the hurricane. Explain what’s taken place on the East Coast.

JEFF MASTERS: We just witnessed the worst hurricane in New York City history. There was a hurricane back in 1821 that made a direct hit on the city and brought the storm surge up a couple feet below what Sandy did. So, New York City has never seen this sort of a hurricane strike. We saw water nine feet above normal tide levels in the Battery on the south side of New York City. And the combination of the storm tide, which is the—the tide plus the storm surge, did reach about 14 feet. And unfortunately, the storm hit at about 8:00 p.m., which was about the time of high tide, so that surge rode on top of the tide and inundated much of the southern portion of Manhattan.

And we shouldn’t forget about what happened in the neighboring areas, as well. There has been over eight or nine feet of water along all of the New Jersey—northern New Jersey Shore, Raritan Bay, a lot of Long Island Sound. Portions of Connecticut had storm surges of eight or nine feet. And this is going to be an extremely devastating disaster, not quite on the scale of Katrina, fortunately, because we don’t have levees with people living below sea level behind them, but this storm is going to leave its mark in American history as one of the greatest disasters in history of our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting that you mention levees, Jeff, because this is breaking news from AP out of—and I don’t know if I’m pronouncing it correctly—Moonachie, New Jersey. “Authorities have launched a rescue effort after a broken levee flooded a small northern New Jersey town early Tuesday.

“Moonachie Police Sgt. Tom Schmidt says the levee broke and left about 5 feet of water in the streets within 45 minutes.

“The police and fire departments are flooded.

“Officials are using boats to try to rescue about 800 people [who are] living in a trailer park.

“There are no reports of injuries or deaths.”

Can you talk about—beyond New York City—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, other areas of the East Coast?

JEFF MASTERS: Yes. We’re having problems with river flooding in a number of areas. The New Jersey location is of the greatest concern right now with the levee breach. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland reached its highest flood level on record this morning because of heavy rains in Ohio. So we’re experiencing flooding in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York. Hudson River has also gone over major flood stage. So this storm dropped a lot of rain, and I think we’re going to see close to a billion dollars in river flooding, which isn’t anywhere near the level we saw last year with Hurricane Irene, but it’s still significant. Wind damage is also a huge concern. We’ve got about seven million customers without power, the last I saw. The U.S. record for most customers without power is 10 million, set during the superstorm of 1993. So, Sandy really does earn the moniker “superstorm.” It’s got effects over a huge area of the U.S., and not just the coast where it came ashore.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about two words that we don’t see with “Hurricane Sandy,” with “extreme weather,” with “severe weather” flashing on all the TV screens: “climate change.” Jeff Masters, can you talk about the relationship between global warming, between climate change and this monster hurricane?

JEFF MASTERS: I think this storm hitting the week before the election should really serve as a huge wake-up call for our politicians and to people of America. We’ve had a remarkable number of freak weather occurrences in the past two years that are unprecedented in meteorologic history in the U.S. Any one of these, you could say, “Well, maybe that’s natural variability.” But when you start thinking about what’s happened over the past two years, you really need to say, “Hey, what’s going on?”

OK, we’ve got Superstorm Sandy this year. We also had summer in March, where we had temperatures in the eighties for 10 straight days in areas of the Upper Midwest, unprecedented sort of warmth in the springtime. This year is by far the warmest year in U.S. history. And we saw the second- and third-warmest summers in U.S. history, back to back, the last two years. We basically didn’t have a winter this past year. Last year, we had record floods on the three largest rivers east of the Rockies—the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Ohio. And all of this has come in the presence of a steadily warming global temperature.

And it’s really not that hard to understand that if you add a lot of heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere, you’re bound to cause major changes in weather patterns. You’re bound to see unprecedented sort of weather events. And I think it’s a guarantee that some of the weather events we’ve seen over the past two years in the U.S. have to have the imprint of climate change on them. You wouldn’t have had this sort of crazy weather without it.

AMY GOODMAN: This is from ThinkProgress a few days ago. “In the last week, Sandy has been mentioned in at least 94 stories in major newspapers. Yet a Nexis search found that zero of these stories mentioned ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming,’ or even ‘extreme weather.'” Why is it, Jeff? You are a meteorologist. Why this hesitation in talking about climate change?

JEFF MASTERS: You know, it’s uncomfortable to get the sort of blowback that you get when you do talk about this issue. I mean, scientists don’t tend to be great communicators. That’s not why they went into the field. They went into it because they have a fascination with the natural world that they wanted to explore. And they tend to not want to get in front of people and be involved in sort of contentious discussions about something that’s going on. But we have to understand that whenever an industry finds its profits threatened by something they produce, they’re going to mount a large PR campaign to protect those profits. So it’s no wonder that the oil companies, which are the richest and most profitable businesses in world history, if they find their profits threatened, they’re going to go after anyone who may speak out about the science of what’s going on. So, it’s a very uncomfortable situation to be in where you’re being attacked by so many different places that the oil companies are able to incite to do this sort of thing, so I think it’s not a surprise at all that we’re seeing this sort of reluctance to talk about things.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have conversations with fellow and sister meteorologists talking about how to raise this? Because, I mean, the sense, I think, overwhelming sense, people have is a sense of powerlessness in the face of what’s happening, and yet, of course, there are major policy changes that can be made to deal with climate change.

JEFF MASTERS: Yeah, I have these discussions a lot. I mean, there is some hope for some change to occur. We saw that happen when the ozone hole opened up over Antarctica. All of a sudden, the world sat up and took notice and said, “Oh, this is probably pretty bad. We might be threatening life on earth here.” And some actions were taken, very strong actions, to rectify the situation, and they’ve been quite successful.

The problem is a little bit wider-scale now. Instead of one industry, the CFC industry, being affected, now you’re talking about the oil and gas industry, and it’s not just a few products that are affected, we’re talking about the entire basis of industrialized economy. I mean, fossil fuels are huge. So it’s a much bigger problem. But with these sorts of storms, I mean, people are going to wise up at some point and say, “Hey, what’s going on? Hey, maybe we shouldn’t mess with the very forces that enable us to live on the planet earth.” I mean, we’ve got to get self-preservation in our minds pretty soon, or this is just the start of things, too. I mean, here we are in the year 2012; what’s going to be happening in 2030 if we’re already seeing storms like this, summers like this, ridiculous flooding like we saw last year?

AMY GOODMAN: I know that you have to go on to another interview, Jeff Masters, but very quickly, what kind of weather can we expect next right now on the East Coast?

JEFF MASTERS: Yeah, Sandy is going to hang around for a couple days. It’s blocked from moving out to sea by a remarkably strong high-pressure ridge, which we see about, oh, once every couple hundred years—so what’s going on with that? So, it’s going to be cold. It’s going to be windy. You’re going to be seeing some lingering rains. And that’s the weather forecast for the next few days.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Masters, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Jeff Masters is the director of meteorology at the Weather Underground, which was just recently purchased by the Weather Channel. He was speaking to us from Michigan. And I am broadcasting to you, though you know that we are based in New York City, from Salt Lake City. We are going to play a music break. We’re going to attempt to do this, because we are not linked up with New York right now. My colleagues in New York, like so many hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, are completely without electricity. And so, we are broadcasting to you a very scaled-down version of this broadcast from outside of the state. And we’re going to attempt—we’re going to just see if we can bring you a music break.

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