Hurricane Sandy has become a gauge of the New York region's new fragility. Rebounding in the face of climate change is presenting government — and the public — with some overwhelming choices.
NEW YORK — First, life has to be rewound to Friday, Oct. 26 — the last weekday before Hurricane Sandy crippled and disoriented the New York region. To make that happen, repairs to damaged power grids, transportation networks and housing will grind on for weeks, if not months, at a staggering cost.
But the bigger question is what occurs after that.
Basic restoration leaves everything just as vulnerable to the next monster storm. Hurricane Sandy — which killed at least 107 people in the U.S., and caused blackouts and gas shortages that persisted Saturday — is a gauge of the region’s new fragility. Climate change is presenting government — and the public — with some overwhelming choices.
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The authorities must not only reopen the Queens-Midtown Tunnel but also ponder whether to put up sea gates or install inflatable plugs to protect it.
Shorted-out circuits in Consolidated Edison’s flooded substation in the East Village stand a foot off the ground in metal sheds. They always seemed impervious to flooding but no longer are. In New Jersey, the historic Hoboken train terminal had 5 feet of water sloshing in the waiting room and switches and power substations exposed to saltwater. Will it do just to dry them out?
More broadly, officials must ask whether it is sensible to replace buildings on the Manhattan waterfront, the Jersey Shore or the Long Island coast — and continue to dare nature. After all, the waters surrounding New York have been rising an inch a decade, and the pace is picking up.
In recent days, elected officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, have warned that to simply mop up is a fool’s errand. Experts agree.
“It’s a no-brainer for New York,” said J. David Rogers, a professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. “You’ve got such enormous assets and infrastructure that you want to protect.”
Some experts also say that after rhythms return to normal, a no longer frazzled public may rebel if taxes and fees rise sharply to pay for better defenses.
The cost of the repairs alone will certainly reach tens of billions of dollars. Far-reaching solutions will cost many billions more. And the cost of not doing them, Rogers said, includes the threat that disrupted businesses might abandon an environment that feels unsafe. New Orleans, he noted, was the banking and insurance capital of the South until the great flood of 1927.
There is evidence of what is possible. The Netherlands, one of the world’s lowest-lying countries, has made storm protection a function of national security.
After the severe flooding in 1953 that killed more than 1,800 people in the Netherlands, the Dutch strengthened their oceanfront defenses to what is known as 10,000-year protection, something that will repel a menace that has an 0.0001 percent chance of occurring in a given year. With climate change rejiggering storm calculations, there is talk of elevating that protection to the 100,000-year level.
Not that the Dutch system has an unblemished record of success. Environmental experts point out that by the 1970s, the large-scale building projects had caused environmental damage.
More recent efforts to harmonize the defenses with nature leave enormous gates open to allow water to flow. The gates can be shut in the face of a storm.
In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers erected 100-year protection after Hurricane Katrina. Already, most experts say it is inadequate; efforts are under way to imagine a 500-year defense system, though such an undertaking remains years away.
While New York building codes generally set standards to account for 100-year protection, Rogers said he believed the city should consider nothing less than 500-year protection.
Few simple solutions
Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, an independent urban-research group, said the region should consider measures such as storm barriers and sea gates, and better ways to seal transit stations, tunnels and utility plants against water.
Power companies, he said, need to rethink continually putting wires back on telephone poles — when winds knock them down — rather than burying them, as costly as that can be.
Robert Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said he was unimpressed by the aggressive plans trumpeted by some politicians, including those that call for a levee around New York.
Some solutions could end up causing more problems, Bea said.
He said tightening and improving the current system might be more sensible than an enormous new system. “At least with the current system, you know where it’s weak,” he said.
In New Jersey, the storm surge swamped the electric switch yards and substations of Public Service Electric and Gas. But Ralph LaRossa, the utility’s president, expressed skepticism about the need for making all of its equipment stormproof.
“If we moved them back, we’d have to condemn property that people are living on,” LaRossa said. “Some people say, ‘Why don’t they raise them up?’ We’ll raise them up 8 feet and the next storm will be 9 feet.”
LaRossa, an engineer, said he would opt to build in more redundancy, so that when one path was interrupted, electricity could be rerouted.
“A different world”
In the days since the storm, landlords in New York City have begun to evaluate whether they should move electrical-distribution systems or backup generators from basements to higher levels. One issue is that the city requires that fuel tanks for generators stay in basements. Nearly every building near the Hudson or East rivers experienced flooding and power failures, though newer towers fared far better.
William Rudin of the Rudin real-estate family, which owns buildings across Manhattan, said he was weighing moving generators. The Rudin data-center building on the Avenue of the Americas has rooftop generators and remained open.
Most new skyscrapers, such as 1 Bryant Park, have generators and electrical panels on higher floors. But because Con Ed connected 1 Bryant Park to a downtown substation, it is the only office building in Midtown without electricity.
Many older buildings have sump pumps to expunge intrusion from the streams beneath Manhattan. They can handle 100 to 200 gallons a minute, but not a tidal surge of tens of thousands of gallons. During the hurricane, they burned out.
“Our buildings downtown were all built in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when 11 feet was the surge level, not 13 or 14 feet,” Rudin said. “We’re living in a different world.”
Some downtown building owners privately expressed fears that in places like Lower Manhattan — which has blossomed over the past decade and where the World Trade Center site is being rebuilt — insurance rates will climb and bankers will impose more stringent requirements for construction loans.
In the most flood-prone areas, the question is what should and should not be rebuilt. In recent years, the Bloomberg administration has aggressively promoted waterfront development.
Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said: “We shouldn’t stop building on the waterfront. People want to live on the waterfront.”
When Hurricane Sandy made landfall, Vishaan Chakrabarti, a former city planner who is director of the Real Estate Development Program at Columbia University, was in Rotterdam, Netherlands, where sea gates twice the height of the Eiffel Tower protect the port.
“I don’t think the question is whether we should develop the waterfront,” he said. “That ship has sailed. To me, the question is: ‘How do we protect the harbor.’ “
He suggested the formation of a harbor-protection commission made up of city, state and federal officials.
New Jersey dilemma
As he toured his state’s wreckage, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, emphasized the charms of the Jersey Shore and said people do not “just pick up and walk away.” At the same time, Christie said it was up to homeowners with ruined homes, not the government, to decide whether to rebuild or sell their property to the state for conservation.
Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who is president of the New Jersey Senate, said: “We just can’t rebuild it the way it was. The worst thing to do is to have this experience and not learn from it.”
While acknowledging the Jersey Shore’s importance as a tourist magnet, he said rebuilding should focus mainly on full-time residents. The same mentality, he said, should apply to flood-prone areas inland near rivers, such as Sayreville, in central New Jersey.
“We’ve spent a lot of money putting back their houses; that’s chasing good money after bad,” said Sweeney, who toured Sayreville on Thursday. “It was $62 million to put everybody back last year, and this year it’s going to cost way more.”
Building public support
Bold solutions wither without public will behind them. In the immediacy of a disaster, people may demand that it never be allowed to happen again. But memory recedes.
The sun is shining. The refrigerator cools. The trains are running. Aren’t electric bills high enough? Don’t we pay enough to ride the subway?
Virtually all of Con Edison’s network in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn sits underground. John Miksad, the company’s senior vice president for electric operations, said the big issue for its ratepayers was whether to invest the huge sums necessary to waterproof it.
“We’re so focused on customers’ bills, especially with this economy,” Miksad said. “To take this system to a different level of protection is not going to be a $1 million or a $100 million exercise; it’s going to take billions.”
With this storm arriving so close after Tropical Storm Irene last summer, some experts said the moment might be right.
“It takes two catastrophic events of this kind within a generation to build political support to make investments of this sort,” said Yaro, of the Regional Plan Association. “I’m hoping that Irene was the wake-up call and Sandy is the hammer coming down.”
Yaro lives in Stamford, Conn., which was flooded in 1938 and the mid-1950s. In the early 1960s, he pointed out, the city erected hurricane barriers and has not flooded since.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the public would see the virtue in long-term projects to protect itself, in much the way the country built the interstate highway system.
Hurricane Sandy, he said, should lead to a “massive reordering of priorities.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.