A Stronger, Resilient New York

Here’s how New York City is planning to withstand the next Hurricane – and its aftermath.

New York’s Resilience Plan

• The Climate Resilience Design Guidelines established citywide guidance on incorporating impacts from climate change into the planning, engineering, construction and renovation of New York City facilities.
• Its goal is making “resiliency” into a corporate principle in the design of city buildings and infrastructure.
• The Resilient Infrastructure Plan identifies the area hardest hit in the city and tries to make sure they won’t be struck again.
• But the major issue is funding the $20 billion necessary to fund the place. Can the city devise a plan to generate this funds is the question that must be addressed?

When Hurricane Sandy rocked New York City on October 29, 2012, it left a path of destruction.  Coastal areas like the Rockaway’s, Breezy Point and Staten Island received devastating blows as did parts of Lower Manhattan, and some areas are still recovering six years later.

But the hurricane’s after-effect also sent an indelible message: New York had to alter its infrastructure including its coastline, subway system and power sources to minimize any future damage.

Goals of resilience are complex and multi-faceted

The initial post-hurricane plan was laid out by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in June 2013 and proposed raising $20 billion to fortify the city against hurricanes, strengthen the power grid and renovate buildings to protect against storms.  It was never quite clear, however, exactly where the money to support the plan was coming from.

Amplifying that plan, Mayor Bill DeBlasio developed a multi-pronged approach that included Climate Resilience Design Guidelines and a Resilience Infrastructure Plan.  Those plans entailed strengthening flood plains, developing a new Rockaway Beach boardwalk, and creating living breakwaters to toughen coasts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio

In fact, the Climate Resilience Design Guidelines established citywide guidance on incorporating impacts from climate change into the planning, engineering, construction and renovation of New York City facilities.  It’s aiming to turn “resiliency” into a corporate principle in the design of city buildings and infrastructure.

Hurricane Sandy left a “combination of infrastructure damage and community destruction.  Given that New York City is such as built-up environment, when water gets into our system that is not meant to be there, it messes it up,” explains Robert Freudenberg, vice president of Energy & Environment at the non-profit Regional Plan Association.   To minimize damage in the future, New York City introduced its Resilient Infrastructure Plan, which centers on adaptation, affirms Freudenberg.

“We can’t keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing. We’re going to see more storms or worse storms, because of the sea level rising. Therefore, we have to change or adapt what our land looks like. We have to respond by changing ourselves,” says Robert Freudenberg, vice president of Energy & Environment at the non-profit Regional Plan Association.

What the Resilient Infrastructure Plan does is to “identify those places that were hit the hardest in the city and then try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  They’ve identified the greatest risks and worst impact and developed a plan that they’re trying to implement that those places are protected,” Freudenberg asserts.  As the climate changes and sea levels rise along the coast, Freudenberg acknowledges that “We’re racing the clock.”

The city has developed a myriad of programs that addresses specific areas to improve.  For example, post-Sandy, the city has invested over $54 million in more than 350 businesses through the Hurricane Sandy Business Loan and Grant program to aid businesses damaged by the storm in all five boroughs.  Through its RISE: NYC program, the city is offering eleven resiliency solutions, which include energy technologies, building systems, and resilient telecommunication networks.  Moreover, its Cool Neighborhood NYC program provides $106 million to address the worst effects of rising temperatures from climate change.  FEMA also provided a $1.7 billion grant for resiliency investments in public hospitals, said a spokesman from the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

Con Edison, explains Michael Porto, its manager of City Government affairs, has invested $1 billion in its fortification plan that it established after Hurricane Sandy.  He describes it as a “multi-year effort to harden our infrastructure including substations, elevating equipment, establishing new guidelines that meet FEMA standards.”  It also strengthened and flood-proofed the East 13th Substation, which supplies power to 250,000 New Yorkers.

Porto added that Con Edison is “improving how we interact with customers since we saw with Sandy that there were places we needed to improve” and striking partnerships with many public officials.

Patrick Wilkinson, vice president at Siemens Digital Grid, worked with Con Edison on some of the post-hurricanes repairs.  He said Con Edison’s goal was to “minimize disruption caused by extreme weather events.  It sought to implement a much improved network partitioning system to accomplish this.”  The complicated system required an “unprecedented coordination and simultaneous operation of substation breakers and underground switches with extreme reliability in flooded conditions,” he noted.

He added that the Siemens solution “will perform synchronous switching of up to 24 breakers and switches within roughly 30 milliseconds.”

As part of broader resiliency upgrades at the Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant, DEP will seal and protect this switchgear room with a flooding barrier.
Managed retreat:  moving people out of the danger zone

One strategy from the city’s infrastructure plan has been “managed retreat,” notes Amy Plitt, editor of Curbed New York, a website that has covered the after effects of Hurricane Sandy.  Instead of building new homes in the communities most damaged by the storm, such as Far Rockaway and Breezy Point in Queens and Oakwood Beach in Staten Island, the city has been turning these sites into parkland or barriers.  Plitt says there’s been resistance from some home-owners that would prefer to rebuild, but the city has held steadfast in its efforts to minimize housing damage in the future.

Based on the city’s infrastructure plan, Plitt suggests that design in the city’s parks has been altered to take hurricanes into consideration.  Domino Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, part of a new housing development replacing the old Domino’s sugar factory, is “built 100 feet from the flood plains,” she says, to minimize any flooding damage.

Changes are also taking place in the New York City subway, which was damaged by flooding.  For example, the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority has done an effective job of “retrofitting, putting new grates on the sidewalks, and elevating them” to minimize the damage that flooded and paralyzed subway stations and tunnels, Freudenberg notes.

New York City also introduced a design competition, Rebuild by Design, that led to developing a big U design that builds walls around Lower Manhattan coastal areas like the Lower East Side.  This design raises the elevation of several parks that line the East Side of Manhattan along the FDR Drive, developing a berm (or levees) or raising the land in the parkland that restrains the water from overflowing.  But Freudenberg adds that there’s only been enough money in place to finance one section of the Lower East Side called the East Coast Resiliency Project near the Williamsburg Bridge and the rest of the Lower East Side will have to wait for further funding.

The city, in concert with the Army Corps of Engineers, has been building walls in the Jamaica Bay area in Queens and Tottenville, Staten Island to strengthen those areas and minimize the impact from flooding.  “They’re trying to create a surge barrier to cut off the bay,” Freudenberg notes.

Providing sufficient funding for this massive infrastructure project is the big question mark.  Freudenberg estimates that it may require as much as $20 billion to execute and so far New York City has invested approximately $600 million into the Resiliency Plan, which is sizable from a budgetary viewpoint but only scratches the surface.  Congress passed legislation that approves funding for disaster recovery, but Freudenberg laments that “the only way the city gets money is to help rebuild from a disaster,” hinting that federal funding that anticipates these issues would be money well spent.  New York Rising is a state funding program that also contributes money to disaster recovery.

Here’s what needed: A steady, replenishing budget, not just emergency funds

Despite the incipient progress that has been accomplished, what is needed, most of all, Freudenberg says is establishing a “dedicated source of funding to pay” for these infrastructure changes.  He recommends setting up a fund that gets replenished every year and doesn’t depend on emergency legislature but creates a sustained flow of funding.  For example, the Regional Planning Association has suggested a $1 to $4 surcharge on every property and casualty insurance premium in New York that would affect residences and businesses and could raise a healthy $2 billion.  If the federal government offered no interest loans, those funds would spike the budget even more, he suggests.

And a spokesman from New York City concurs, “To adequately address climate change, we’ll need more investments from our state and federal partners as well as the private sector.”

“We’ve made some good progress toward addressing damage related to hurricanes.  But we haven’t done enough.  If another Sandy hits, we’ll still see communities flood, but less infrastructure will be affected.  We still have a long way to go,” Freudenberg concludes.

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