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Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City, Part 4

Sandy struck the city. Fory-four New Yorkers died. Thousands of homes were lost. The devastation pushed adaptation to the top of Bloomberg's priorities.

By Katherine Bagley and Maria Gallucci

Nov 21, 2013
Superstorm Sandy: Global Warming Is Here

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 on our website (read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), 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 Seven: Find Lessons in the Storm

A Shifting Forecast

On October 11, 2012 a single wave of low pressure off the west coast of Africa traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, forming a system of clouds, wind and rain. As the storm hit the Caribbean, it gathered size and strength from the area's warm waters.

On October 24, the storm developed an eye—officially making it a hurricane. The World Meteorological Organization named it Sandy. After slamming into Jamaica, Cuba and the Bahamas, Hurricane Sandy turned northeast, running parallel to the eastern shoreline of the United States. 

Scientists were conflicted about what would happen to Sandy as it moved north. European weather models showed it running straight toward New York and New Jersey. The U.S. National Weather Service projected it would move out to sea.

On the second floor of City Hall, Bloomberg met daily with his senior staff and city commissioners to discuss what to do. Representatives of the National Weather Service, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the state Department of Health were also in the room. For more than a decade, scientists had warned that New York was extremely vulnerable to a severe climate change-fueled storm. Bloomberg and his staff had taken note, but so far they'd focused primarily on lowering greenhouse gas emissions to fight global warming. They were just beginning to focus on adaptation—physically protecting the five boroughs from climate-related disasters.

If the European models were correct, the city would be hit, and hit hard. People in low-lying areas would have to be evacuated.

If the Weather Service was right, however, the storm would probably miss New York, and thousands of people would be needlessly forced from their homes, as they'd been a year earlier for Hurricane Irene. 

As Sandy rotated up the coast, it collided with a low-pressure system that energized it and pushed it toward New York. The collision also changed the structure of the storm, transforming it from a hurricane into an extratropical cyclone. It measured more than 1,000 miles in diameter, making it the largest cyclone in recorded history at that time. Instead of Hurricane Sandy it was now Superstorm Sandy.

Bracing for the Storm

The urgency of the City Hall meetings increased. What had been hypothetical questions a few days earlier were looking more and more like realities. How long would it take to evacuate people from low-lying areas? When should they shut down the transit system? Should hospitals in vulnerable locations be closed?

On Friday, October 26, Bloomberg held his first news conference about the storm, urging New Yorkers to monitor the forecasts and "prepare themselves by stocking up on basic supplies." He moved his staff, including the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, from City Hall to the Office of Emergency Management headquarters in Brooklyn. it had been built after the 9/11 attacks destroyed the previous command center near the World Trade Center and was equipped with the latest technology, including back-up generators and direct feeds to TV news channels. 

By Sunday morning, all the storm models agreed that Sandy was headed straight for the tri-state area. The mayor, flanked by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and other key members of his administration, issued mandatory evacuations for low-lying areas.

Because the storm was going to arrive at high tide, Coney Island, the Rockaways, lower Manhattan, and parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx could be hit with "a surge from six to 11 feet," Bloomberg said. "This is a serious and dangerous storm ... We'll certainly get through this, but we'd like to get through this with nobody getting hurt, and that's a lot more important than property damage." 

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