WASHINGTON — Twelve of the country's 47 largest airports are vulnerable to storm surges that are expected to increase from climate change, according to a White House report released earlier this week.
The U.S. National Climate Assessment released Tuesday warned that coastal airports with at least one runway 12 feet or less above sea level could suffer flooding during moderate to high storm surges.
The report noted that metro New York's big three airports — John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark — already flooded in October 2012 during the 14-foot tidal surge from Hurricane Sandy. LaGuardia closed for three days.
LaGuardia already maintains a dike and pumps for floodwaters, according to a 2002 Transportation Department report cited in the White House report.
"Many coastal airports are vulnerable to flooding," the 2002 report noted from a California assessment about airports built on swamps in San Francisco and Oakland. "Extreme high tides, coupled with flood conditions, can reach close to the existing levels."
Sea levels are projected to rise 1 to 4 feet this century, and more frequent storms from climate change could either flood runways or force construction of expensive barriers, the report said.
The damage from Hurricane Sandy served as a wake-up call for airports to protect against flooding, said Chris Oswald, vice president of safety and regulatory affairs for Airports Council International-North America.
For example, the New Orleans airport had restructured before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and the building and runways avoided flooding.
General airport strategies include building berms to keep water out, installing drains and pumps to remove water and adding insulation to protect lighting from seawater, Oswald said. But costs have to be weighed against other priorities, such as coping with earthquakes on the West Coast, he said.
"You're putting this in context of other risks in your business," Oswald said. "The question is how do we bring equipment back online as quickly as possible."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced $37.5 million in improvements for LaGuardia, saying "the question is not if another storm will hit, but when."
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is working at LaGuardia and Kennedy airports to move electrical and mechanical equipment to higher ground, to acquire more pumps and generators to minimize flooding and to install more flood-protection barriers, according to spokesman Ron Marsico.
Airports in Oakland and San Francisco are studying how to buttress facilities against storm surges. Oakland expects to complete this year its design and environmental review of dike improvements that are part of a $10 million, five-year improvement program, according to spokesman Mona Hernandez.