Interview with Klaus Jacob, Columbia’s Disaster Risk and Climate Expert

Klaus H. Jacob, Ph.D., is a geophysicist and a rebuilder. He has worked at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory for over 40 years, and is a renowned earthquake, disaster and climate expert. He has a focus on disaster risk management, with most current research on rising sea levels, climate change and disaster resilient megacities. He serves on the Mayor’s New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) and NY State’s ClimAID project. TIME Magazine named him one of 50 “people who mattered in 2012” for forecasting consequences of a SANDY-like storm on New York City a year before SANDY hit. He will be teaching a course sponsored by the Earth Institute as part of Columbia’s Continuing Education Program this Spring, called “Disaster Risk Management and Sustainable Urban Resilience“.

Dr. Klaus JacobHow do you view conflict in your work?

As I come from natural disaster risk management, conflict is a boundary condition that is absolutely essential to be taken into account. For me, when disasters occur, they contribute to the often extraordinary vulnerability of populations that are already under stress. One characteristic of vulnerability to natural disasters is poverty. There is such clear correlation that you cannot ignore it; it is absolutely essential. Often disasters amplify and bring forward pre-existing stresses that are just amplified and multiplied.

Conflicts simply provide vulnerability that in the presence of external forces, such as a hurricane, a flood, or a drought, creates more havoc than they would without the conflict pre-existing to the disaster.

Conflicts are always complex but when they coincide with a natural extreme event then they become true disasters. An extreme event does not have to be a disaster; they can just stay extreme events but how they affect a society depends on whether there are already pre-existing conflicts.

How do you engage in the complex contexts in which you work?

First you have to fully understand the root causes of the conflicts. From where I sit, i.e. the physical sciences, you have to understand how they contributed to the vulnerability. Then you really have to understand the visions and concerns of the victims. Most times when donor countries or participants come and help, or want to help, they often impose their solutions and their economic or political models on the society. This is almost always prone to fail.

This is not only true in the less developed and truly poor areas; it is true also in our own society here in New York City. Look at the Rockaways or portions of Staten Island where the voice of the local people is still not sufficiently heard in developing solutions. Of course it has to work the other way around too, because often populations in those areas do not fully appreciate the severity of their exposure. For instance, take the sea level rise; that is not their day-to-day concern. They are maybe thinking how to put bread and butter on the table or a job for the next week onto their radar screen.

When you, as an outsider if we may call it that, try to work on solutions, you have to show what else they, the directly affected population, may be exposed to, which are usually things they haven’t considered. So it is a real educational, transformative-educational effort with outside help that is responsive to the needs of the affected population.

Even from the outset, any vulnerability assessment ought to be done in cooperation with the community. That is where the learning takes place. You cannot come in with a report ready and say here’s our result; if so, you’re doomed. That’s not how it works.

Your recent work focuses on disaster resilient megacities and you have contributed much to the resiliency of New York City. Tell me about disaster resilience and your approach to it.  

defend and protect_Jacobs

Cartoonist’s view of Defend/Protect Option as cited in Dr. Jacob’s report for Rebuild by Design (Cartoon Source unknown)

I will talk about my own personal experience here in NYC. We started to work on the vulnerability of the city originally to earthquakes. Around the year 2000, we presented these results, and people sort of more or less shrugged it off because earthquakes occur so rarely and we heard, “you really should focus on more pertinent risks of this city like storms, floods, or hurricanes.” Indeed, I then started working with a team of climate scientists from the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (a group from NASA and collocated here with Columbia) who asked if we could look at what would happen to the city if it were hit by a hurricane.

Originally, we did it without stakeholder participation, or maybe in a very limited way. For instance, we tried to include the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (AKA the MTA), but they did not want to know about our findings. All of the original studies were relatively academic. But, we did not rest there.

Once we had results, we needed cooperation. We contacted the MTA again: “hey look what’s going to happen, are you not concerned about that?” The engineering community within those organizations and also some mid-level administrators came on board. We were also lucky enough to find support with funding from the National Science Foundation and NYSERDA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. I worked very closely with the Department of Civil Engineering at Columbia and some very cooperative engineering groups in all the different MTA divisions, particularly in the NYC Transit.

We came out with a very detailed model published in our [prophetic] Responding to Climate Change in New York State Report (ClimAID) in 2011 that showed what would happen if a generic 100-year storm would impact the city. We outlined which subway tunnels would flood and how quickly that would happen. (See ClimAID Chapter 9: Transportation.)

It turns out it only takes 40 minutes to flood most of the floodable tunnels in NYC! Once that was known it sort of rippled like a shock wave through the technical community of the NYC Transit. However, it never made it to the MTA board of directors and, therefore, to the governor or legislators in Albany. This was the situation when Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011. Luckily, Irene stayed about a foot or so below where the subway system would flood. But, a year later, we of course had Sandy, which full-soaked the playbook as we had laid it out to an iota with two very important exceptions.

First, MTA Transit staff got into high gear — putting plywood, plastic sheets and sandbags on some entrances to the tunnels on the Harlem River, and they actually worked!

mta tunnel sandy

This barrier at 148th St. prevented catastrophic flooding of the subway and throughout Manhattan. Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Leonard Wiggins

They prevented the flooding of those tunnels. Then, the other even more ingenious response was to shut down the subway system more than a day before the storm made landfall. They ripped out all the key signal electrical and control systems from the tunnels we had said would flood. If salt water had gotten into them, the control systems would be destroyed and that would cause the subway system to be shut down for at least three weeks if not longer.

If you multiply that by the economic output of the city, about 4 billion dollars per day, and even if you take only a fraction of that, it would be tens of billions of dollars of avoided losses right there.

Because they removed these critical subway systems, they were able to clean up the tunnels from the mud and bring those unharmed signal systems back, which shortened the recovery time for most of the system to about a week. This was absolutely astounding! We had forecast it would take at least three weeks. That particular move saved NYC’s economy tens of billions of dollars and allowed people to get back to work so they could make a living.

While you are a scientist, you do a lot to engage the public with your research and scientific findings. How does public engagement fit into your work, and why it is important for the work you do?

On one hand, it is a-typical for basic scientists to get so involved and in detailed action with the public. On the other hand, I have been rehearsing this for most of my professional experience. I was originally more interested in plate tectonics and what it tells you about the stressors of earth’s movements and all the wonders of these basic things, but even so at any footstep throughout my career I could see that there were applications.


The Tarbela Dam on the Indus River in Pakistan; photo: PakistanPaedia

In the early 70s, I spent a year in Pakistan installing seismic networks around the world’s largest earth-fill dam called the Tarbela Dam, across the Indus River in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was clear that if that was not done right (i.e. to be safe against earthquakes), then a huge catastrophe could
follow. So, it seemed the natural thing to do. Similar, in my work up in Alaska in the Aleutians, it was clear that with all the interest of the offshore oil industry, it would be extremely important that any oil platforms there have to be able to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis.

Then I got back to NYC and, while we don’t have that many earthquakes in our history, we do have some, and I imagined what would happen to our wonderful skyscrapers and brownstones. This is why I got involved with being a co-founder with the National Center on Earthquake Engineering Research. I was the in-house seismologist, and we focused on getting a building code in NYC that would consider earthquakes.

It was a wonderful uphill battle – I like challenges!

I have had long engagements with the public even before coming to NYC. All my education took place in Germany, and while there, I was part of a political theater group. I was always engaged in the issues of the day. This was in the 60s when there were a lot of upheavals. We were used to not sitting around and waiting for others to solve the problem. I grew up in an atmosphere that was very activist and I never lost that trade, for better or worse. Sometimes my scientific colleagues think that is below the belt line. But, good luck if you can stay in the ivory tower, I don’t like it there!

What main challenges exist for us creating a resilient and sustainable world?

Most people right now think about improving their resilience without thinking how to make it a sustainable resilience. That is the biggest problem, particularly in this country. But, we can start with NYC to give a local example. There was money trickling gradually through from federal allotments post-Sandy to “rebuild” but I think we should not rebuild, we need to pro-build. That means we have to face what we want for the next two to three generations. We should use that money to provide safety for more than our own generation.

Here is what I call sustainable resilience: if you do something that serves your own safety and resilience now but does not become a liability or additional risk for future generations. Currently, we are not really pursuing that venue – we are pursuing resilience for us, but I think while we do that, we often create new risks and liabilities for future generations. The challenges are political resistance and short-term thinking. sirr_report_coverFor example, in A Stronger, More Resilient New York Report from June 11, 2013, Bloomberg outlines a response to building a safer, more resilient city. He calls for a seaport city with new waterfront developments that would protect some neighborhoods behind it. I think this is the wrong approach. Because of rising sea levels, this would not give sustainable protection.

In addition to protection, there are two possible alternative modes to adapt: accommodation and strategic resettlement. We need to accommodate to the water. We have to have our infrastructure not in the basement of buildings but in the attic, on the tenth floor of high rises, or on the roof of skyscrapers. We need submersible infrastructure.

Sure, this costs money, but who said climate change doesn’t cost money? It will cost billions or trillions (nationally) to do the right thing and it will cost us more trillions of dollars if we don’t do the right thing. This is something that has not yet penetrated into politics: it’s actually good and cost-effective for the economy to work on resilience and especially on sustainable resilience.

resilient nyc

Photo: Image Courtesy © BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

Resettlement is politically the most difficult thing to do; yet, it is ultimately the most effective as a long-term solution. We have topography in this city, which New Orleans hardly has and Miami does not have. We should take advantage of it. If you look at a comparison of census tracts from 2000 and 2010, we have diminished population in high-lying areas of Manhattan and many more people, buildings and assets in low-lying waterfront areas, e.g. in Chelsea. So, even in the last decade we still have the wrong policies and are not thinking strategically in the context of climate change and sea level rise. That has to change!

We need to be thinking about the lifetime of the things we want to survive. Supposedly all the things we are building here should have a lifetime of 80 or 100 years, i.e. built to withstand the conditions of 100 years from now. Yet, when holding developers to those principles, we have no administrative or regulatory way to do so. We need to do better at taking into account future climate conditions.

Check out this recent Klaus Jacob video from Rebuild by Design:

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