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What New York Can Do to Protect Itself From Future Storms

The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy is now forcing officials to consider spending billions of dollars on storm protection, including a network of surge barriers.
 
 
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A New York City Police Department truck on October 30, 2012 in the Breezy Point area of Queens in New York.
Photo Credit: AFP

 
 
 
 

The scenario might have been different: As weather reports confirmed that an incoming nor’easter would drive Hurricane Sandy inland, New York City would have begun watching the rising waters and preparing to respond. When, as predicted, the storm surge showed signs that it would begin to inundate the shorelines of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, the emergency system would have kicked in: Across the Verrazano Narrows entry to New York Harbor, across the upper East River, across the entrance to Jamaica Bay, the floodgates would have begun closing.

Like massive garage doors between pilings 10-stories high, the gates would have fallen into place. In the Verrazano Narrows at the mouth of the harbor, huge gate-like storm barriers, through which ships normally pass, would have pivoted slowly together. Within an hour, the surging seas would have been shut out. Rains and winds would cause their damage, but New York City would have been protected from the storm surge that ended up inundating its vulnerable infrastructure.

In recent years, officials have contemplated such plans as scientists increasingly warned that New York City — and densely populated areas worldwide — faced a growing threat of catastrophic damage from major storms, as sea levels rose and storms, powered by rising ocean and air temperatures, intensified.

Then, a week ago, Hurricane Sandy struck, killing 106 people on the U.S. east coast (40 in New York City), causing an estimated $50 billion in damage (roughly $17 billion in New York City alone), and flooding large parts of the region’s infrastructure, including tunnels, subways, and power stations.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City had been working on gradually protecting its infrastructure from the long-term threats of climate change, including a predicted sea level rise of more than three feet this century. But what Hurricane Sandy showed is that New York City may not have the luxury of time. The storm easily overwhelmed many of the relatively minor adaptations that New York had already put in place.

For Malcolm Bowman — an oceanographer at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and a member of the mayor’s Climate Change Adaptation Task Force — and for other scientists, the destruction wrought by Sandy demonstrates that the time has come for rethinking the city’s strategy. While gradually building resilience into the system is an admirable goal, says Bowman, it can only go so far. “It’s like a boxing match in which you get punched in the nose, return to your corner, patch it up, and get back into the ring,” said Bowman. “But now the city’s been dealt a knockout punch.”

Scientists, engineers, and public officials say that Hurricane Sandy has sparked a realization that the defenses of old are no longer adequate. Whether the “superstorm” was largely the result of the vagaries of weather, or is indicative of a new normal brought on by climate change, officials are warning that New York and other cities can expect more of the same and had better harden their defenses.

“After what has been happening in the last few years, I don’t think anyone can sit back anymore and say, ‘Well, I’m shocked at that weather pattern,’” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last Tuesday. The following day, Cuomo spoke of building sea walls or other protective structures, adding, “Climate change is a reality. Given the frequency of these extreme weather situations we have had, for us to sit here today and say this is once in a generation and is not going to happen again, I think would be shortsighted.”

And Bloomberg, a global leader in helping cities begin to adapt to climate change, said only a few days after the storm, “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

The question now is, what kind of action? And what lessons should New York City should learn from Hurricane Sandy? The mayor and the governor face a wide array of options, ranging from efforts to recreate marshes and oyster beds along the city’s 510 miles of coastline, to locally protecting infrastructure such as subway stations, to building billion-dollar networks of storm surge barriers.

 
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