Eight months after Hurricane Sandy caused an estimated US$65 billion in property damage and took more than 150 lives in New York and New Jersey, a report from New York City's Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) issued a 440-page report with 257 recommendations for improving citywide infrastructure and building resilience. City officials set a goal to complete 57 of the recommendations by the end of 2013, but by the end of October that year they reported that only 20 were complete. Even a year after Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, people remained displaced, and Lower Manhattan’s ground-level retailers only started to re-open in the second half of 2013.
The slow pace of recovery was due to many factors. In terms of shoreline protection, a dozen city, state and federal agencies play roles in regulating New York City's waterways, and the SIRR report notes that "efforts by these agencies are not completely aligned". Funding major improvements is a challenge, with debates over what should be done and who should pay for it.
Logistical issues are just as important. The wisdom of issuing permits for the rebuilding of destroyed homes in low-lying areas must be questioned, especially when partial government subsidies are involved. The two years before Sandy saw storm surges in excess of nine feet (well below Sandy’s 14-foot surge), but high enough and frequent enough to convince city leaders of the threat of rising sea levels and unpredictable weather extremes.
New York's goal is "not just to bounce back, but to bounce forward wherever possible," said John McIlwain, Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute and chair of ULI's Hurricane Sandy Task Force, which assisted municipal officials in real estate and land planning strategies. "Strategies that make it easier to bounce back can be great, but we also want to learn the lessons of the last catastrophe, consider the possibility of future similar events, and create a rebuilding plan that will be safer and more sustainable".
One example can be taken from Verizon’s main phone distribution vault in Lower Manhattan – the place where the infrastructure from homes and commercial buildings come together. The building is just 5.5 feet above sea level and was under 12 feet of water for two days after the storm, knocking out phone, cable and internet services throughout the region. Emergency back-up generators were safely on the tenth floor – but the fuel pumps that supplied them were in a poorly waterproofed sub-basement. When the pumps failed, the whole system failed. In the rebuilding process, the fuel pumps were moved into a waterproof room with a submarine door. Also, rather than restoring the obsolete copper cable infrastructure, Verizon has replaced it with fiber optic systems that will improve speeds and flood resistance.
Previous efforts to ‘bounce forward’ paid off in the aftermath of Sandy - "for instance, a trigeneration microgrid system - electricity, heating and cooling from one single local power plant - located in the northern part of New York City continued to provide power to 14,000 apartments in 35 towers while much of the city was in darkness."
The real appeal of such a system, however, lies in its quick payback period – the upfront cost was repaid within five years, partly due to a program of selling surplus power to other utilities.
The SIRR report included suggestions for improving resiliency with a wide range of strategies, covering coastline protection, building infrastructure, electrical grids, healthcare, transportation, water and waste. The SIRR performed a cost-benefit analysis of each suggested initiative and placed them within three categories depending on the ratio. The report estimates that New York spends on average US$1.7 billion on disaster losses every year, with the annual cost expected to rise by US$4.4 billion by 2050 due to rising sea levels and increasing hurricane frequency. These problems are not just restricted to the US East Coast, but affect coastal areas across the globe.
Originally published : November 2013