As Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas and headed toward the United States, like everyone else watching I thought: Could it come here and are we ready for it? In the years since Superstorm Sandy, the New York metropolitan area has done a great deal to repair infrastructure and prepare for another storm. When buildings are built anywhere near New York City’s 600 miles of coastline or on the shores of Long Island or New Jersey there is a built-in assumption that it makes sense to try to prepare for floods and winds. Con Edison has spent over a billion dollars to protect its facilities from flooding. The MTA’s Fix and Fortify Program spent billions of dollars as subway tunnels and stations were renovated to limit future flood damage. That work continues today with repairs throughout the system. The region’s beaches are being widened, jetties are being rebuilt, while storm walls and sand dunes are built and reinforced. New Yorkers understand that climate change is real and we need to do everything we can to get ready for the storms that are coming.
The problem, of course, is that to do this right, it takes time, persistence and lots of money. New York is making slow and steady progress, and there are several initiatives that are particularly positive and demonstrate the city and region’s long-term commitment to climate adaptation and enhanced resilience. The U.S. Corps of Engineers has been quietly and effectively rehabilitating the region’s beaches. Off-shore sand is being pumped in to widen beaches and build higher sand dunes and erosion control efforts are being constructed at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
In New York City there are a number of important efforts underway. The first is the 2018 “Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines,” which are slowly being utilized by developers and city agencies as they build and rehabilitate our built environment. A tremendous amount of experimentation is needed as we learn how to build a city that generates less heat and is more storm-resistant. A second effort has been a series of short-term measures to prevent flooding. According to the Earth Institute’s Renee Cho:
“Interim Flood Protection Measures are shoring up neighborhoods and critical facilities from coastal flooding until more permanent flood control measures are completed. Some of the strategies include walls of large, sand-filled containers made of permeable fabric, long tubes filled with water that serve as dams, and flood panels, stackable barriers that can close any openings into buildings when there’s a risk of flood.”
A third effort has been underway since 2013 by the Department of City Planning called “The Resilient Neighborhood Initiative.” This project focused on storm-vulnerable outer-borough communities and engaged stakeholders in understanding climate risks and zoning and building code rules that inhibited efforts at resilience. One example was building height restrictions that made it impossible to elevate homes. This past July, Jose Cardoso published a very informative piece in City Limits entitled: “Seven Years After Sandy, Slow Moves Toward Resiliency in High-Risk Nabes.” Reporting on the Resilient City Initiative he observed the initiative focused on:
“…the East Shore in Staten Island; Canarsie, Gerritsen Beach and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn; Hamilton Beach/Old Howard Beach, Broad Channel and Rockaway Park/Rockaway Beach in Queens; West Chelsea and the East Village/Lower East Side/Two Bridges in Manhattan; and Harding Park and Edgewater Park in the Bronx. Those areas were selected based on damage caused by Hurricane Sandy or potential for damage from future storms—and because they each presented issues involving land use, zoning and resiliency that could not be fixed with citywide zoning changes…. outreach was a major focus. There were 14 meetings held at Edgewater Park, 12 in Canarsie and 10 in Sheepshead Bay. In total, DCP has done 250 meetings with over 4,000 stakeholders across the city on resiliency work since Sandy.”
This type of neighborhood by neighborhood engagement is very time consuming and highlights the expense of weather-proofing homes. These costs make it difficult to reduce storm vulnerability for all but the wealthiest homeowners. But still, it provides an opportunity for planners and the public to develop an understanding of the climate issue and the boundaries for feasible resiliency responses. In contrast to this approach, we also see the Staten Island Levee project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers multi-year, $500 million effort to build a five-mile-long sea wall to protect the most vulnerable sections of Staten Island. Rather than make buildings flood-resistant, the effort here is to make the island itself less vulnerable.
The final major effort at flood control was announced last spring by Mayor de Blasio. The plan focuses on lower Manhattan, an area that was hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy. According to the city’s Economic Development Corporation:
“The recommendations include developing a plan to extend the Manhattan shoreline into the East River to protect the low-lying and highly constrained Seaport and Financial District area. In addition, the city will advance $500 million for four capital projects to reinforce Lower Manhattan’s coastal areas and provide interim flood protections for the Seaport, parts of the Financial District and Two Bridges neighborhoods, to begin construction between 2019 and 2021…The shoreline may be extended by a maximum of 500 feet, or two full city blocks. This will create a new piece of land with high points at or above 20 feet from current sea-level. The new shoreline will act as a flood barrier during storms and protect the neighborhoods against projected sea-level rise. The exact extent of the new shoreline, along with the design and construction of this innovative flood protection system, will be determined through an extensive public engagement process.”
While the vision is clear, the method of funding and implementation is more uncertain and so:
“Over the next two years, ORR and NYCEDC will complete a Financial District and Seaport Climate Resilience Master Plan, which will include a comprehensive design for the shoreline extension and establish a new public-benefit corporation to finance, construct, and manage it. To begin this process, the City will immediately procure a team of engineers and designers through a Request for Qualification RFQ later this month. The Master Planning Process will be complete in 2021 and will identify a first phase project.”
Since Sandy, New York City and the region have proceeded to do what could be done quickly to reinforce the waterfront, and taken a number of steps to plan more permanent changes that will take longer to design and construct. What is most important is the effort to educate the public and develop approaches to resiliency that would be supported by key stakeholders and the broad public. While steps are being taken to adapt to climate change and to reduce the impact of extreme weather events, the city and state are also seeking to decarbonize and modernize the energy system.
None of this will be quick and easy. For New York City climate resistance is not an option, but a matter of municipal survival. The type of investment and vision required is similar to the one that informed the construction of the city’s still magnificent water supply system. Over a century ago the people running this place had the foresight to understand that the aquifers that supplied our water were quickly becoming contaminated and we would need to go north to find a clean and renewable source of water supply and storage. Without that system, the city would never have grown. Sea level rise and extreme weather pose the same type of existential threat. In the long run, the world will need to solve the climate crisis, and I believe it will. In the short run, over the next half-century or so we will need to deal with the impacts of our already warming planet. I am confident that New York City and the entire region is up to the challenge. We always seem to do better when we have no choice. Sea level rise and extreme weather compel us to build a more climate-resilient city and region.