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NY State Prepares for Natural Disasters: A Q&A with Cynthia Rosenzweig

Flooded tunnel in NYC. Photo credit: Ruanon

In November 2012, following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo established the NYS Ready Commission to ensure that the state’s critical systems and services would be prepared for future natural disasters and emergencies. Cynthia Rosenzweig, senior research scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where she heads the Climate Impacts Group, was a key member of the Ready Commission. Rosenzweig is one of 50 scientists who had earlier worked on ClimAID, a November 2011 report that examined the state’s vulnerabilities to climate change. As the only ClimAID member on the Ready Commission, Rosenzweig’s special role was to bring the climate change perspective to everything the NYS Ready Commission did. She talks about the commission’s work here.

What did the commission hope to accomplish?

The goal of the Ready Commission was to determine how critical systems and networks in New York State should be prepared for the future. And that is a future that includes increasing climate risk due to climate change. While the commission focused on development of preparedness and resilience to increasing climate risk, we also put in the commission a statement that whatever is done in the rebuilding needs to take reduction of greenhouse gasses into account as well.

Is the commission still working?

The Ready Commission’s report has been completed. We were on a very, very fast time frame because the governor wanted the work of the commission to be ready for his State of the State address in early January.

How was the Ready Commission organized?

The Ready Commission was divided into several working groups: energy and telecommunications, improving the resiliency of buildings and other critical network systems, rapid response and recovery, health care resiliency and vulnerable populations.

Photo credit: David Shankbone

I served as a member at large, and my role was to share the risks of climate change with all the different work groups. So for example, one of the major recommendations from the Ready Commission was to update the New York State building code, not only to promote smarter resilient building performance, but to make improvements so that new construction and major renovations are better prepared for our changing climate. Climate change is explicitly mentioned throughout—that is what is so ground-breaking about the commission’s report.

What are the projected impacts of climate change on New York State?

By 2100, average annual temperatures around New York State are projected to increase by 4.0 to 10.0º F. Precipitation may increase by up to 15 percent across the state. Sea level rise could be as low as roughly 1 foot by 2100; but if the polar ice sheets increasingly melt (some melting of polar ice sheets is already occurring), the rise could potentially be as large as approximately 6 feet in New York State.

For our energy systems, climate change will increase the difficulty of ensuring adequate supply during peak demand period, and worsen conditions such as the urban heat island effect. There will be an increase in the use of air conditioning, and this can stress power supplies. Also, this will have an effect on power plants around the state, because the increased air and water temperatures will decrease the efficiency of the power plants.

Gas lines during Hurricane Sandy

And then, of course—we know this very, very well after Hurricane Sandy—transformers and distribution lines for electrical and gas supply are vulnerable to extreme weather events. Any infrastructure near the coast is also especially vulnerable because on the coast there’s increased severity and frequency of coastal flooding due to sea level rise. River valleys are also vulnerable due to increased extreme precipitation events.

Telecommunications are extremely important when there’s a disaster. We have to have robust and resilient telecommunications systems that don’t go down under high storm conditions as they did during Hurricane Sandy. The delivery of telecommunications is sensitive to power outages, and they’re vulnerable to heavy precipitation events, flooding, freezing rain and snow, which are projected to change in frequency and intensity. And so, as we saw in Sandy, there are very serious weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the telecommunications systems vis-à-vis climate extremes.

Higher temperatures can increase demand on building cooling systems in extreme heat events. Long-term planning, zoning, permitting, regulating and funding decisions for buildings, and other critical networks and systems—all of these need to have sea level rise and the associated impacts taken into account. And this is what actually is happening as we go forward, which is really very exciting. In New York City and New York State the potential for increasing climate risks posed by sea level rise due to climate change are being taken into account in the plans for rebuilding. It’s fantastic.

Flooding in Howard Beach after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Pam Andrade

A changing climate also affects people’s health very strongly. First of all, of course, loss of life was one of the commission’s key concerns. But flooding can impair the ability to deliver public health and medical services, and bring about asthma and mold-related diseases. Increasing temperatures and precipitation also affect the water supply and water quality, and could result in more water- and food-borne diseases.

We also talked a lot about vulnerable populations­­­. Climate risks don’t affect everyone equally. There are regions and sectors and social groups, households and individuals who are more vulnerable than others. Elderly, disabled and health-compromised individuals are especially vulnerable to climate hazards. And of course, as we know very, very well because of Hurricane Sandy, residents of coastal areas are vulnerable to the direct impacts of storm surge flooding. About 80 percent of the deaths that occurred in New York City were due to drowning. There are also mental health stressors related to evacuation and the trauma of the event, the destruction of homes, and then mold and toxic exposures when people return home.

What are the most important and viable recommendations that have been made by the commission?

There are three overarching themes for the recommendations. The first one is shared information: the key role of reliable and timely data, including information about climate change that must be shared across all the sectors.

The second is interconnectedness. There is an overarching need to break down the silos between and within sectors so that everything from healthcare to transportation to electricity and communications can all be connected together to serve and protect the public and their needs under climate extremes.

The final overarching theme is informed decision making, which has to do with being sure that everything is done in a transparent and clear way. This means how critical decisions are made and the clear delineation of roles between the various levels of government…municipal, state and federal and outside partners as well.

Some of the major recommendations include: In the area of organizing and coordinating preparedness, response and recovery—we have to have strong command and control systems. We have to have adequate supplies of equipment, fuel, food and water. And we have to develop and implement a resilient information system that provides a common operational structure. We need to work on ensuring the resilience of electricity and fuel networks. We have to make power outages less likely, and when they do happen, we have to restore power more quickly.

So, how do you do that?

Some specific examples are to create power islands, certain places where power can be maintained and planned, so that people can go there just for refuge and have functionality. Protect the fuel network from pipeline to pump—that was a big one that really fell apart in Sandy. Maintain the ability to communicate. Make the health care system more resilient.

Post Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Somayya Ali

Improve the resiliency of homes and other structures. Update the New York State building codes to adopt requirements for smarter resilient building performance for new construction utilizing up to date climate observations and projections. And in rebuilding, emphasize climate change mitigation and resiliency so that when people rebuild, we’re not rebuilding the same old things to the same standards from the past climate, but we’re taking into consideration the need to reduce greenhouse gasses and be resilient to climate extremes in the future.

What we tried to do throughout is to be very practical, with recommendations of measures that are doable. For preparedness, response and recovery, some other specific ideas are to implement emergency state contracts for just-in-time delivery of key supplies in case of a disaster—instead of waiting until it happens and then trying to figure out who can deliver supplies, you set that up ahead of time. You establish the contracts before.

To ensure the resiliency of the electricity and the fuel network to make power outages less likely, we need to institute flood protection in substations and power generation stations. That means moving all the elements of a substation and power generation station that are below ground above projected flood levels.

Some other recommendations are very nuts and bolts. Improve spare parts management. For the natural gas infrastructure—flood protection, more backup power, more generators. Replace leak-prone piping right now. Increase sensors to detect leaks.

In the area of communications, develop systems that can work during an emergency or disaster. Create a seal of resiliency for telecommunications service providers so that they have enhanced reliability standards. We have to line up ahead of time sustained and reliable power both for wired and wireless communications.

Then on healthcare…prevent the loss of power. You have to have your generators in place and tested ahead of time, and your source of power for them. We have to ensure that decisions to evacuate or shelter in place are made with absolute clarity and made from the best information about facility resiliency. Every facility that is in the floodplain or those in coastal floodplains have to be updated with sea level rise information and have high quality evacuation plans. There need to be plans in advance for patient relocation, and a reliable and universal system to track the relocation of patients and residents in the healthcare facilities. And you have to ensure that the medical records travel with the patients during an evaluation. Health care supply chain resiliency is also very, very important—ensuring access to pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.

New York Air National Guard after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: DVIDSHUB

The Ready Commission really focused on making sure that vulnerable populations are very well served and taken into account. For example, evacuation orders need to be in multiple languages; they have to take into account people’s different living situations in high-rise public housing, etc. And we need to acknowledge the key role that community groups—faith-based communities, environmental communities, and others—have to play. They have credibility and know their own communities, so everything that is done does not have to be “helicoptered in,” metaphorically. We need to work with the groups and the networks that are there.

Then finally improving the resiliency of homes and other buildings by building back even stronger, with climate change explicitly taken into account. The idea is to launch a smart Rebuild New York State initiative, implementing a voluntary certification for building resilience and a resilient retrofit program. Not just for new buildings…we also have to retrofit the buildings that we have. We have to modernize the New York State building codes, incorporating resilience into them and then we have to make sure that these codes are enforced. And there have to be state review processes.

We have to work on these things before the next storm. And it’s not just the one-in-a-multi-century storm like Sandy, but it’s also the one-in-10-year, one-in-50-years, one-in-100-years storm—these storms can have pockets of extreme climate effects as well.

And here’s another very, very important point that we emphasized in all of our adaptation assessment guidelines—we have to collect data and share lessons for future improvement. We call this monitor and reassessment. Everything that we do, we have to keep track of so that we can see what worked and what didn’t work. Climate change is going to being going on for decades in the future, and we need to have indicators and a monitoring system that will really be tracking not only the climate system, but also what impacts are occurring and what adaptations are being developed and how effective they are.

What is the status of the commission’s work now?

New York State and the governor are moving forward on implementing the initial round of recommendations that were released—vulnerable populations, buildings, training, coordination, communications, etc. They are also putting the final touches on the update of the full final report and will circulate it soon.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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