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One On 1 Profile: Scientist Klaus Jacob Warned For Years A Storm Like Hurricane Sandy Could Hit NYC

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Ever since Hurricane Sandy, NY1's "One On 1" profiles have focused on Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, and the latest subject, scientist Klaus Jacob, has warned for years about a storm like Sandy. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

In the year 2000, Klaus Jacob attended a conference on global warming, where he discussed some of the potential effects of a storm surge on roadways in New York.

"Downtown, the financial district is probably the first that one has to really focus on," he said then.

He's been talking about it for years. Now, people seem to be listening.

Klaus Jacob has been in the spotlight lately for essentially predicting what New York would experience during a storm like Hurricane Sandy. He was one of the many authors of a 2011 New York State report warning that rising sea waters and a huge storm could have a drastic effect on – among other things – subways and the metropolitan area's transit system.

In the aftermath of Sandy, Jacob says: "It's not always the nicest thing to be right."

"Now they come and say, 'Wow, you really were right' – as if being right was the important thing," he says today. "It's not who is right; the question is, who was smart enough to take it seriously?"

Jacob is a senior research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He's worked there since coming to New York from Germany in 1968.

Jacob has always been respected in his field, but since Hurricane Sandy his phone has been ringing off the hook. He's spoken at a number of Sandy-related events, including panels sponsored by NYU and the New School.

"We are – both as a city, as a society, and as individuals – in total risk denial," he told a New School symposium.

"With Sandy that was a very – forgive me that term – handy educational tool," he says. "You couldn't escape but learning from it."

Jacob has also spoken to citizen groups like the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance.

"I look at it as a unique opportunity to get science where the rubber hits the road."

Jacob repeatedly emphasizes that the problem for our shoreline is not only that a warmer atmosphere and ocean waters will result in more intense storms. Because of higher sea levels, he also believes even small storms will mean big trouble.

"The economically devastating effect comes from frequency of storm surges," he says. "The flooding will increase, even with same number of storms, because all these little storms will now flood areas that before didn't flood."

Jacob is obviously passionate about his work. But he has other passions too, including music, New York, and world travel. Still, at a party, conversation often comes back to a recent earthquake or tsunami.

"That's all they want to talk about with me," he says of people he meets. "Dammit, I am interested in more than just that stuff. I'm tired of being Mr. Doom and satisfying their three-minute need to fill up on a little scientific information, and then they go back to their day-to-day interests."

That may be an annoyance, but Jacob believes political shortsightedness on climate change is a more serious problem. He says the 2011 study on climate change was considered seriously by city and state engineers, but never made it into the political arena – another example of the short-term versus long-term dilemma.

"You have the choice between ten new trains and five new stations every year, or addressing climate change adaptation," he says.

What drives Jacob's concern about climate change and the future of the planet? One reason connects back to his childhood memory of growing up during World War II, riding his bike under Allied bombers.

"I had my binoculars with me, and I looked up to see whether the bomb shafts were open or closed," he recalls. "If they were open, I kept a good eye on it. When they were closed, I just biked to the baker and got my loaf of bread. It's this sort of innate existential experience that probably never quite left me. You judge your environment and others by what risk is around the corner. You don't live your life just happily along; you look over your own shoulder, you look at what's around the next corner, and what could be a threat."

Jacob eventually earned a Ph.D. in Germany. He came to Columbia in 1968, ostensibly for one year. He never left.

"Once I walked the streets of New York City, I was sold," he says. "Scientific career or not, the city just fit me absolutely."

Jacob's research has taken him all around the world, including a long stay in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1970s. He says he always loved coming back to his home in New York.

But in 2003, he and his wife moved to the small Hudson River town of Piermont, defying his own professional judgment to live on high ground and away from the shore because of rising sea levels and the possibility of storm surge.

"I said when I saw it the first day, 'It's beautiful, but I can't do this,'" he recalls. "'This is not a place I can move to because I cannot live differently than what I preach to the rest of the world.'"

Jacob dodged a bullet – until Hurricane Sandy, which flooded his first floor. While he slept that night, his wife filmed. "We're floating," she remarked in the home video footage.

For much of his career, Jacob's talks and writings didn't attract much of an audience outside of the science community, perhaps because the subject was considered too esoteric. That, he senses, is changing.

"The term 'natural disaster' is a misnomer," he recently told an NYU audience. "They are natural events. Some are extreme, but they are part of the regular natural process. So the disaster part is us."

"What I see," Jacob says, "is an opportunity for science, and in this case climate science, to really say, 'Look, there is a price to pay for ignoring us.'"

Jacob says he tried to raise his home when he moved in almost 10 years ago but local zoning laws prevented him from doing so. He did raise some first-floor appliances before Hurricane Sandy, reducing the damage to his home.

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