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Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City, Part 1

The plans they had crafted over the past five years were only the beginning of what NYC needed. Sandy showed them they had to do much more, much faster.

By Katherine Bagley and Maria Gallucci

Nov 18, 2013

Global warming experts around the world say New York City's plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and safeguard itself from the perils of climate change are a model for other cities. But most Americans, including New Yorkers, know little or nothing about this achievement, or that it was driven by Michael Bloomberg, who next month ends his third term as New York's mayor. Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City helps fill that gap.

It is being published in five installments beginning here today, but we encourage our readers to download our ICN Books App and purchase a full copy of the e-book. The ICN Books version is enhanced with video, audio and other extras, and 70 percent of the purchase price comes back to us to support our ongoing work.

Chapter One: The Storm

On the night of Oct. 29, 2012, Mayor Michael Bloomberg hunkered down in the command room of New York City's Operations and Emergency Management headquarters, waiting for the full force of Superstorm Sandy to hit. Hurricane-force winds were ripping across the city, tearing trees from their roots and snapping utility poles in half. Surges of water turned streets into rivers, flooding subway tunnels and washing away homes, storefronts and cars. 

City, state, federal officials, utility company representatives—all were typing furiously on laptops, phones pressed against their ears, trying to figure out what was happening and where, who was in danger and how.

A vending machine cranked out cereal bars and potato chips. Dirty coffee cups piled up. Giant, flat-screen TVs on every wall flashed images of rising floodwaters and heavy winds wreaking havoc outside the command center. Phones rang incessantly. Computers hummed and whirred.

In the middle of it all was Bloomberg, absorbing the news and conferring with his top officials about what to do next, how to respond.

At 7:30 p.m., they got the news they'd been bracing for: Sandy had made landfall. 

Bloomberg and his staff knew enough about the city's vulnerability to flooding and storm surge to know that the end of this particular New York story would be bad.

Local scientists had predicted for at least 15 years that the changing climate would bring rising sea levels and more dangerous storms to the city's 520 miles of coastline. But little had been done to prepare for these dangers until 2007, during Bloomberg's second term, when his administration launched what it hoped would become the world's most comprehensive sustainability agenda, PlaNYC.

They still weren't ready for a storm like the one that was raging outside. They simply hadn't had the time or the focus or the money to do it all, to truly protect New York from the impacts of climate change.

Landfall

The storm's center struck just below Atlantic City, N.J., some 120 miles away. But it packed so much power that it felt like Sandy had slammed directly into New York.

A record 14-foot storm surge devoured the southern tip of Manhattan and entire waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens. Manhattan's glittering skyline went dark below 34th Street after the salty waters claimed an electrical substation. Nearly 100 million gallons of water rushed into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, a toll road beneath the East River.

Patients on stretchers and hooked to IV bags were being evacuated where hospital emergency generators had failed. Fire was devouring entire blocks of homes in Breezy Point, in the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens.

Scott and Stacey Nagel watched in stunned silence from the front window of their home in Rockaway's Belle Harbor neighborhood. The water raced down the streets and crept up lawns and driveways. The power was out, but the sky still glowed bright from another fire burning just six blocks away, on Beach 130th Street. A call to the fire department confirmed what the Nagels already knew: all the roads were underwater. There was no getting on, off or around the peninsula.

Bloomberg had urged people in vulnerable neighborhoods to evacuate the night before, but many stayed behind. The Nagels fled their house in 2011 when Hurricane Irene threatened to pummel the city, and nothing had happened. What was the point in leaving this time? Now, they watched the nearby flames with alarm. If the fire reached their house, where would they go?

At about 9 p.m., Bloomberg held a news conference in a small meeting room. He had traded the black jacket, white oxford shirt and purple tie he wore that morning for a crisp blue dress shirt. In his trademark monotone, he updated New Yorkers on the damage Sandy was causing. Drivers should stay off the roads, he said. People should stay away from windows. Everyone should shelter in place.

"Do not go outside. It is still very dangerous," he cautioned. He pleaded with residents to call 911 only for life-threatening emergencies. The system was fielding 10,000 calls per half hour. "These are not games. We've said from the very beginning, this is a once-in-a-long-time storm," he said from behind the podium.

Cynthia Rosenzweig watched the news from her 97-year-old mother's house near Tarrytown, a village just north of Manhattan. Rosenzweig, a senior scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was one of the first researchers to warn of the dangers climate change posed for New York.

That night she stepped outside her mother's house to check her car and was blasted by gale-force winds. At that moment, in the dark, she saw the clear link between Sandy and her life's work.

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