Three Years After Sandy, Is New York Prepared for the Next Big Storm?

Even a $20 billion program to brace the city for a stormy, climate-changed future has not paved the road from recovery to resilience—at least not yet.

Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York City in 2012
Hurricane Sandy's extensive damage prompted an extensive program to make New York City more storm-resilient. Credit: FEMA

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Three years after Superstorm Sandy slammed into New York City and the surrounding region, remnants of the damage can still be seen. Although boardwalks and businesses have reopened, and families have returned home after months, if not years, of upheaval, what hasn’t been restored is the confidence that New York could handle the next storm of Sandy’s size and destructive power.

In the years following Sandy’s unprecedented destruction—43 people died in New York City and the damage was estimated at $32 billion—the city has been busy implementing a $20 billion resiliency plan to safeguard its five boroughs from future climate-related impacts. It revised building codes, replenished beaches and is in the process of designing and studying walls and wetlands to stave off sea level rise and stronger coastal storms, all expected to come with future climate change.

But the question remains, is New York resilient enough?

The city is better off than it was before Sandy, scientists and environmental, policy and legal experts told InsideClimate News, but there’s still much to do.

“This stuff takes time, it is complicated work,” said Bill Ulfelder, New York State executive director for The Nature Conservancy. “The needle is moving in the right direction, but we need to be moving faster. We are not above any resiliency threshold to be able to sit back and say we are ready for the next storm.”

Vulnerable Now, with Risks Growing

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in 2014, has overseen the replenishment of 4.2 million cubic yards of sand in Coney Island and on the Rockaway peninsula and the rebuilding of 9.8 miles of dunes across the peninsula and on Staten Island. In addition, 10,500 linear feet of bulkheads have been installed across the city to keep floodwaters back.

InsideClimate News requested comment from the city’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, but the Mayor’s office said it would respond to questions only via email.

“Sandy made clear: climate change is not some risk 100 years down the road,” Amy Spitalnick, a spokesperson for de Blasio, said in an email. “New York City is vulnerable now and the risks are only growing—and that is why we are moving quickly now to reduce those risks, using the best available science through the New York City Panel on Climate Change.”

New York began implementing a sustainability agenda, much of it focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight global warming, in 2006. However, it hadn’t really begun safeguarding itself from future climate-related impacts when Sandy hit. In June 2013, six months after the storm, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the $20 billion citywide rebuilding and climate resiliency strategy, and his staff completed or started dozens of the initiatives in their final months in office. The de Blasio administration has continued and expanded on that work. Several dozen of the 257 climate resiliency projects proposed after Sandy have been completed. Most of the rest have been started or at least preliminarily studied.

The largest improvement, several experts said, has been updates to the city’s building code. New buildings or existing structures undergoing significant renovation are now required to be elevated one to two feet above predicted flood levels. The added height builds in a buffer against future sea level rise. There are currently an estimated 400,000 residents and 71,500 buildings in the city’s 100-year floodplain. By the 2050s, however, that floodplain is projected to expand to include 808,900 residents and 118,000 buildings. Developers and building owners have also been required to move their electrical and mechanical systems from basements to upper floors.

“These are core resiliency principles,” said Michael Bogin, a lawyer at the New York-based firm Sive, Paget & Riesel and an expert in environmental regulation and permitting. “They look at not just what happened, but what could happen. They’re building in a margin of safety. They are critical updates.”

“But it is important to remember these are mostly for new buildings,” he added. “For a building that is 40, 50 or 60 years old, there’s no incentive or rule to retrofit.”

The de Blasio administration this summer reconvened the Climate Change Adaptation Task Force––a coalition of city and state agencies, utilities and private companies, advised by scientists, engineers, lawyers and insurance experts. The group aims to keep government efforts to prepare for climate change synched up with what private companies are doing, and vice versa. De Blasio also reconvened the New York City Panel on Climate Change, a collection of scientists tasked with creating hyper-local global warming predictions that can be used to ensure the effectiveness of proposed resiliency projects. Historically made up of mostly climate scientists, the NPCC has expanded to include experts in equity and environmental justice. It is currently studying what impact climate change will have on the social, economic and environmental aspects of neighborhoods—mirroring de Blasio’s focus on income equality.

“New York City leadership has increasingly been taking climate risks seriously since Sandy,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and co-chair of the NPCC. “We really learned a lot from the storm, and we are continuing to learn every day.”

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, New York City’s public transit agency, has been hardening its electrical systems against saltwater corrosion, as well as reengineering vent shafts and subway entrances to prevent street-level floodwaters from entering the system as they did during Sandy. The storm shut down the system for three days and caused $5 billion in damage. The MTA has also been experimenting with tunnel plugs, essentially giant balloons that can seal off portions of the subway system in an emergency.

‘Far from … a good roadmap’

According to Klaus Jacob, a Columbia University geophysicist who studies climate change’s impact on infrastructure, the stopgap measures are not enough. Jacob is also a member of the NPCC.

“There are just too many openings in the subway system through which water can go, entrances and sidewalk vent grids,” Jacob said. “We have to really start thinking how can we make the system not only flood resilient now, but also longer term, when sea level rise starts to accelerate. Right now, we are far from having a good roadmap that leads us into a safer future.”

For all the work that’s been done, however, experts said the city is far from ready for another storm. Most of the city’s biggest climate resiliency projects have yet to break ground. This includes floodwalls and levees along Battery Park City in lower Manhattan, a new park along Manhattan’s east side to act as a storm surge barrier, restored wetlands in Jamaica Bay, and flood gates in Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn. Construction will begin on a few projects in 2017 or later. Most, however, have yet to get even potential start dates.

Overall, less than half of the $20 billion designed for Sandy rebuilding and resiliency work in New York City has been spent, said Ulfelder of The Nature Conservancy.

Ulfelder said he admires the de Blasio administration for maintaining its commitment to carbon dioxide reductions (the city pledged last September to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050) while still aggressively pursuing resiliency projects; for acknowledging that some parts of the city are more vulnerable to climate change than others; and for not completely dismantling the environmental and climate change work done by Bloomberg.

“The debate about climate change in New York is over, and the city recognizes it needs to improve its resiliency,” Ulfelder said. “With all that said, we have to pick up the pace. If we wanted a wakeup call, look at Hurricane Patricia. The most powerful storm in the history of the world was just last week…. There are clearly resources that have been designated, but haven’t been spent. I don’t know where that money is.”

Spitalnick said in an email that the city “has built on the Bloomberg administration’s strong resiliency foundation, not only securing more funds than originally anticipated and moving projects forward, but also adding new projects, targets and investments.”

This includes, she said, “$100 million in city dollars recently allocated for Lower Manhattan integrated flood protection, an expanded focus on social and economic resiliency, including through heat mitigation and green infrastructure, and other new goals outlined in OneNYC.” OneNYC is de Blasio’s strategy to tackle equality, growth and environmental issues.

Bogin said it is “unquestionable” that New York City is more prepared today to deal with and respond to a storm like Sandy, which measured as a Category 3 hurricane just before it hit. “But if a Category 4 or 5 hurricane came in with high wind velocity, would it be ready? I think that is questionable,” he said.