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Robert Sullivan, Could New York City Subways Survive Another Hurricane?
Buried in this paean to the generally unloved transit workers is the stark reality that a jury-rigged plywood dam (extended at the 11th hour from 3 feet high to eight and a half feet high) saved hundreds of millions of dollars and weeks — if not months — of subway closure. But at the flood’s peak the water level was only a few inches below the top:
Joe Valentino, a carpenter who for decades has made concrete forms, walls, all kinds of temporary structures for the subway system, recalls the 148th Street dam as imperfectly done — it was made in two phases when he would have preferred one — but good enough: “Is there something we could have done that would have worked 10 times better? I would say yes. Under the circumstances, it obviously worked pretty damn good.”
It endured, with about three inches to spare. The triumph might seem like a small one in the face of Sandy’s destruction, but it wasn’t. Here’s what it prevented from happening: After flooding the No. 3 line tracks to the south, and destroying millions of dollars worth of equipment, the Harlem River would have continued south, following Lenox Avenue to about 142nd Street, a junction where the 3 line joins the 2 line, which runs to and from the Bronx. By consulting both the Slosh maps and its own topographical maps, the transit authority determined the water would have flowed toward the Bronx, via what’s called the Harlem River-Lenox tunnel, and then east to 149th Street on the Grand Concourse. Then, in the worst case, the water would have moved through a connecting track, and like liquid moving through a Krazy Straw, the Harlem River would have flowed south through another under-river crossing, the Harlem River-Jerome tunnel, to 125th Street in Manhattan. From there, it would have flooded the downhill Lexington Avenue line — which happens to be the busiest one in the city, carrying more people every day, 1.8 million of them, than any other American subway system — to about 103rd Street, where the tracks rise, up toward Carnegie Hill.
“It’s all downhill — the Harlem River never breaks a sweat,” Jezycki says. “That’s all based on the elevations.
A multibillion dollar transit system that keeps New York City viable was only inches away from a catastrophic failure. There is no reason to believe that the tweaks being made to the system are going to stop the next Sandy — one only a few feet higher in the largest surge — because wholesale change will require billions and enormous disruption to the current system.
Prepare for the worst.
In 2004, [Rep. Earl] Blumenauer [D-Oregon] did push through a major overhaul of the insurance program, including incentives to raise or buy out houses that had been damaged multiple times. But it took hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and a more deficit-minded Congress, to pass another flood insurance reform bill last year that finally limited subsidies for second homes and for properties that were damaged repeatedly.
Under that 2012 reform, such homes will see premiums rise dramatically over the next five years, eventually bringing 400,000 of the most heavily subsidized properties up to market rates. The new law also lets FEMA buy homes that are considered “severe repetitive losses” at their full pre-disaster price, rather than the 75 percent it offered before.
But perhaps the most significant change in the reform involved maps—specifically, FEMA’s floodplain maps, which determine who must buy flood insurance. Those maps can now for the first time include “future changes in sea levels, precipitation, and intensity of hurricanes.” But there’s a catch: Those changes don’t affect the new flood maps FEMA is currently releasing, the first in 30 years. Floodplain maps issued for New York City and coastal New Jersey in late 2012 and early 2013, for example, don’t account for sea level rise. Maps for the rest of the country are rolling out slowly, and it’s unclear when they will start including sea level projections.
Back during the Bush administration, in 2007, FEMA began a major assessment of how climate change would affect the flood insurance program, with a projected completion date of 2010. When FEMA finally released the report in June 2013, it included a number of alarming findings. Rising seas and severe weather are expected to increase the area of the United States at risk of floods by up to 45 percent by 2100, doubling the number of people insured by an already insolvent program.
It will take another cluster of major storms before the US moves people off the coasts (see this on tail risk).
The American cult of individualism, the doctrine of private property, and human short-sightedness are combining to set the stage for a vast, wholesale tragedy in New York Harbor:
Thomas Kaplan, New York’s Storm Recovery Plan Gets Federal Approval
A proposal to buy the damaged homes of New Yorkers who want to relocate after Hurricane Sandy is finding few takers, as most residents opt to rebuild, state officials said on Friday.
“It’s up to the homeowner, and the vast bulk of homeowners are deciding to stay right where they are and rebuild,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at a news conference in Albany.
Why is it up to the homeowner when it is the government spending billions of our money to stupidly rebuild provate homes in neighborhoods that will undoubtedly be swept by hurricanes again in the near future? Will Cuomo say the same, then? Of course, he may be out of the Governor’s mansion then, and off doing other things.
We are in the postnormal, and this is the sort of result we can expect. We’re confronted with an existential threat — the increasing violence and frequency of ocean storms, rising sea levels — and we respond as if this is still 1950, or 1850. We are unwilling to adopt new responses to new problems, and the first barrier is our understanding: we don’t realize we aren’t in Kansas anymore, but on the other side of the rainbow.
People are over Sandy now. We’re on to the next tragedy. Done. Forgotten.
Here’s the map of NYC with FEMA’s 1983 100 year and 500 year floods:
And here’s Sandy’s flooding:
So, we are having 1000 year storms how often these days? What if we have another storm, even larger than Sandy? One that causes a storm surge up Long Island Sound, which is generally considered the worst case?
Meanwhile, Hizzoner Bloomberg stated — in the same meeting where they showed these maps to the gasps of those that were there — that the city can’t afford to undertake Netherlands-style protection of the city.
What should be done? Retreat from the shore. However, that is still politically impossible. So, they will temporize, weatherize, and harden the coastlines. But this is just a disaster waiting to happen. Again.
A Bloomberg essay by the urban doyen Edward Glaeser makes a poor case as to why proposed New York City sea walls should be paid for locally, without federal government support:
New York Can Protect Itself Without Federal Aid - Edward Glaeser
Sea walls are expensive. One recent estimate is that they cost $35 million per mile and require maintenance that costs from 5 to 10 percent of that amount per year. At such a price, protecting the entire mid-Atlantic region would be prohibitively expensive, yet defending New York City would be affordable. A great wall running from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to the Far Rockaways would cost less than $500 million based on that estimate.
Nothing in New York comes cheaply, however, and I suspect that the estimate by the Dutch water-risk expert Jeroen Aerts that it would cost $10 billion to build two barriers — one between Sandy Hook and the Rockaways and a second at the north end of the East River — is far closer to the mark. Aerts himself suggests a $17 billion solution with three great walls, and says that an extra $15 billion might be required in added coastline protection.
Aerts’s total of $32 billion would be roughly half the city’s annual budget. But the costs of Hurricane Sandy also ran in the tens of billions. If the alternative is giving up on lower Manhattan, which has hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of property and infrastructure, the price looks downright cheap. If the Netherlands can build a wall system that protects an entire country that lies below sea level, then New York City can protect itself.
Who should pay for these defenses? The protected property owners, of course. There is no reason why New York should look to the federal government in Washington for this spending.
The city has the money to pay the bill, and it should champion the principle that we only build sea walls or other barriers when the people who are protected pay for them. This helps ensure that the benefits justify the costs. We don’t want to go further down a path where every hamlet on the Eastern seaboard feels it has a right to federally financed storm protection.
Sea walls may not be the answer, but any solution is sure to require huge public expenditures. This highlights another central point about cities: They need strong, effective governments.
Exit polls found that Mitt Romney, an advocate of laissez- faire economics, received only 29 percent of the votes in big cities, while President Barack Obama, who believes in big government, won 69 percent of urbanites’ votes. That pattern makes sense, since people in vulnerable cities need government more than people in far-flung rural areas do (even though the latter often get more per capita in federal subsidies).
Economist Matthew Kahn of UCLA has studied the death tolls from natural disasters. He found that where governments are more capable, fewer people die. This makes me worry about the fate of cities in the developing world that are just as subject to natural disasters as New York is but have governments far less capable of taking effective precautionary measures. Kahn has predicted that cities will be able to defend themselves against the changes associated with climate change. While I am far less certain about Karachi, I am optimistic enough to think he is right about New York.
For my confidence to be validated, however, New York needs to spend billions to defend its vulnerable real estate. We have to stop denigrating mega-projects and resurrect the spirit of the city’s master builder, Robert Moses. If it does this right, New York can again provide a model of safety amid threatening storms for the cities of America and the rest of the world.
First of all, let’s start by simply accepting Aerts’s numbers for the sake of argument (although my bet is that they are far too optimistic, by half). The argument Glaeser is making is that those that benefit from something — even when it is a large scale regional infrastructure investment — should be the ones that pay for it.
But, who in fact benefits from the protection of New York City? Is it limited to those owning property there? Does it include those living there, but only renting? What about those that only work in the city, who currently are taxed on their income by the city: they would surely be included? And of course, we already accept the premise that visitors to New York pay taxes for hotels and airport fees, and tools to enter or pass through the city on its bridges and tunnels. So we already have a systems where a great number of people — not just landowners — pay for New York’s infrastructure and operations.
Glaeser seems to generalize from the notion that property owners should pay for their own insurance, and winds up thinking of the city as a collection of individually-owned buildings and property. But a city like New York has an enormous civic side, involving streets, parks, infrastructure, transportation, and municipal and regional operations: it is much more than the sum of its properties. We shouldn’t consider NYC just another ‘hamlet’ on the coast. And I don’t quite understand the Romney v Obama dimension of his argument: is he suggesting that protecting NYC is one of Romney’s ‘gifts’ to the urban voters?
I have argued elsewhere that we need to retreat — in general — from the coast, even in southern Manhattan. But I still believe that the benefits of major urban centers on the coast, especially at the mouth of major rivers, will continue to justify us living and working there.
In the final analysis, the value of New York City is non-linear relative to the population and cash flow streaming in: much more comes out of a productive, creative, and growing metropolis than goes in. And those outputs are not just financial, and they are not held only by the property owners. The region, and by extension the entire United States, is enriched by a working New York City.
Basically, I reject Glaeser’s core argument because he — of all people! — simply does not factor in the miracle of cities’ non-linear productivity. Or perhaps he assumes that these returns aren’t shared widely.
So, any solution for protecting New York City from future superstorms should be a regional one, in which New York City, New York, New Jersey, and the United States all participate, sharing risks, costs, and eventual benefits when the next superstorm’s damage is averted.
What sort of changes in planning should we expect for New York City following Hurricane Sandy? Buildings with higher foundations, electrical systems moved from the basement to above the first floor, and watertight first floor doorways. But no retreat from the water’s edge is likely, in the near term.
New York Reassessing Building Code to Limit Storm Damage - Mireya Navarro
Some architects and building experts say the city should widen its efforts to plant more wetlands and parks that can serve as natural buffers to floods. “All the little blades of grass actually makes the flow of the water lower,” said Susannah C. Drake, associate director of the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design and the principal architect at dlandstudio.
What does not seem to be getting consideration, at least for now, is banning development altogether in the city’s flood zones, humble or affluent.
“This is not a viable policy option in New York City, and to be honest, nor is it in any other major coastal city I’ve been working,” said Jeroen Aerts, a water risk expert from the Free University in Amsterdam who has been hired by the mayor’s office to assess flood protections. “The stakes of developers and general economic activities in the waterfront are too high.”
In Mr. Aerts’s view, the most realistic options for New York are to build levees and surge barriers, and elevate and floodproof buildings.
Ms. Quinn, a likely candidate for mayor when Mr. Bloomberg’s term expires at the end of 2013, said changes in the building code were a far higher priority than rethinking zoning rules. But she said that nothing was off the table.
“I don’t think there’s anything that’s taboo to discuss at this point,” she said.
We’ll see what happens after the next storm leads to $30B in damages.
Mayor Bloomberg has gained a great deal of praise for his handling of the emergency aspect of hurricane Sandy, but he — and all of us — need to move past thinking about preparedness to emergencies that come and go. We are living in the postnormal, and we are not going to revert to some stable, predictable weather patterns. We are going to live in the eye of the storm for the rest of our lives.
Despite the potential hurdles Irwin Redlener, a public health professor, cautioned against complacency and argued that the United States shouldn’t wait any longer for meaningful policy.
"We keep on thinking about these big events like wake up calls," said Redlener. “But really they’re more like snooze alarms. I’m hoping that won’t be the case here".
To decide on and push through these reforms Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior scientist at Columbia’s Nasa-Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that cities were providing the best examples of leadership. Rosenzweig specifically lauded New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg who in 2008 created the New York City Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which brought together all the managers of critical infrastructure in New York’s metropolitan region, including cell phone companies and utilities. Rosenzweig praised Bloomberg for his willingness to include scientists in the discussions and his ability to bring different groups together.
Redlener, however, stressed that leadership also meant getting tough with climate denial. “It’s more than just gathering people in groups to talk about what the issues are,” said Redlener. “This has to do with the real hardcore bully pulpit leadership where the president of the United States says: ‘I’m committed to taking this on.’”
The group was formed in 2008, but think of the things that went undone, like having no solution in place to stop the flooding of the subways. The storm led to widespread loss of power because of antiquated electrical systems and the almost universal practice of electric lines on poles, instead of buried lines. Leave aside the challenges of building on high risk areas near the shore.
So, while putting together a task force is praiseworthy, the fact is that nothing of the scale necessary to contend with storms like Sandy was done.
And now, I am betting that the snooze alarm is already being hit.
I wrote earlier today about Taleb’s new book, Antifragile. We need to shift our thinking toward making cities — regions — antifragile rather than working on disaster response. In this regard, we need to take what are going to be politically challenging actions, like
This is true in densely populated New York City, which will have to — over the next decades — depopulate.
Evan Soltas, Hurricane Sandy’s Dangerous Tail via Bloomberg
Must read. Quotes Martin Weitzman, William Nordhaus, and Richard Tol, who concur that even with small chance of large climate change downside — the tail risk — we should take immediate and significant actions to counter climate change.
Will our leaders listen?
Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?
- Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek visited Occupy Wallstreet, and wondered if any lasting change was going to come from it.
Now that Sandy has resurfaced climate change into the American discourse after being disregarded for the election season, its time to ask: Will we actually do something about climate change after Sandy? And I am not just talking about better preparedness in the mid-Atlantic region for the inevitable hundred-year-storm next season.
Are we going to see any nation-wide action taken by our leaders? Or will ‘It’s Global Warming, Stupid.’ recede from our political and societal consciousness as the lights come back on and the water is pumped out of the tunnels, and the carnival atmosphere yields to everyday life?