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Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City, Part 5

The Bloomberg administration has done what it can to require future mayors to deal with global warming. But will Bill de Blasio follow Bloomberg's lead?

By Katherine Bagley and Maria Gallucci

Nov 22, 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 on our website (read Part 1Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4), 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 Nine: Race to the Finish

The Team

In a high-rise a few blocks from City Hall, about 30 people gathered on Jan. 2, 2013 to begin creating the plan that would help New Yorkers rebuild homes and businesses damaged by Superstorm Sandy and prepare the city for future climate-related disasters. Some of them knew each other. Others didn't. Each had been recruited because of his or her very specific skills in energy, policy, infrastructure, the economy or climate change.

Seth Pinsky and Marc Ricks, the project's leaders, had spent a month selecting the people they wanted and persuading them to say yes. Many had to quit or take leaves of absence from high-profile, high-paying private sector jobs.

"There is a real sense of civic pride among New Yorkers," Pinsky said. "People recognize that [Sandy] was an unprecedented event in the city's history and they really wanted to contribute to the recovery."

At that first meeting, Pinsky laid out the team's strategy. Bloomberg wanted the plan to focus not just on protecting New York from the next Sandy, but from any other climate change threats that lay ahead.

The project was framed around three questions: What happened during Sandy and why? What could happen in the future because of climate change? What, specifically, should be done to prepare for those possibilities?

"It was a very simple, but very powerful way of organizing our work and our thinking," Ricks said.

Ricks tried to prepare the team for the personal sacrifices they'd have to make to get the project done on time.

"I told people you get to have work and one other thing," he said. "I said for me, it would be work and my family. That I have two small kids. For you maybe it will be work and the gym. Or work and your friends. Or work and sleep. That is all you are going to have time for. And that proved to be true."

Under Pressure

The countdown clocks prominently displayed in City Hall were constant reminders of how little time the group had. If they met their June deadline, Bloomberg could build momentum behind the report and start implementing some of its suggestions before he left office on December 31. If they didn't, the plan could easily be shelved by the next administration, possibly led by a mayor with less interest in climate change.

"We were very conscious that if we do not get this out ... then it is not going to be worth the paper it is printed on because the next team will just come in and say," never mind, said Cas Holloway, the deputy mayor for operations.

The team worked six to seven days a week from January to June. People canceled vacations, skipped family events, declined wedding invitations. They slogged through sicknesses and holiday weekends. Some weeks, workdays stretched to 15-plus hours.

Each team member was allowed one taxi ride a day, usually when working extremely late or extremely early. One employee's expense sheet was kicked back because he took two taxi rides in a single day. When asked to explain, he said he took a cab home at 4 a.m. and another back to work at 7 a.m.

"It was an incredibly intense process," Ricks said. "Everybody made sacrifices. My three-year-old learned how to say things like, 'Daddy, I don't want you to go to work. It is Sunday. You don't work on Sunday.'"

More people were added to the team as the months passed. The SIRR staffers crisscrossed the five boroughs to meet with experts in insurance, utilities, hospital management, telecommunications, transportation and other fields.

As the plan took shape, they held dozens of public forums in neighborhoods hit hardest by the storm—areas that would be most affected by the plan—to get residents' ideas and hear their concerns. At one meeting, people stressed the importance of hiring workers from the neighborhoods where sea walls or other major projects would be built. SIRR staffers took these suggestions back to their colleagues and reshaped the plan accordingly.

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