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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Saying that strengthening New York City’s defenses to withstand the impacts of future Sandy-strength storms is “the single most important infrastructure challenge of our time,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is offering a sweeping blueprint for critical planning and preparation in an era of global warming.
Her package of proposals to combat flooding ranges from massive, harbor-spanning storm surge barriers to sponge-like, water-absorbent sidewalks.
In backing the barriers, which Quinn wants federally funded, she is clearly breaking with Mayor Bloomberg, who deems it impossible to secure the necessary money for the project. But on Tues., Nov. 13, Quinn announced she now has a more powerful ally in U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, who has pledged to ask the federal Army Corps of Engineers to study the idea — the first required step in the process.
“Two weeks ago we were reminded that our city is vulnerable to the forces of nature,” Quinn said, “that the reality of climate change puts our homes and our safety at risk. What we do in this moment will determine whether we allow that reality to define us, to hold us back — or to inspire us, to push us to do what we know is hard.”
Not only hard — but expensive. It could cost up to $20 billion to surge-proof the city, under Quinn’s proposals. That price estimate includes one big-ticket item, she said, namely a storm surge barrier — strategically sited sea gates intended to hold back hurricane-force waters.
“If we decide to install a storm surge barrier, it could cost roughly $16 billion alone,” she noted.
However, Quinn said, evaluating the response to Hurricane Katrina gives some sense of the scope of federal investment that must follow a storm as destructive as Sandy. At the time, Congress authorized more than $110 billion in spending for the Gulf Coast, including $25 billion for New Orleans.
While acknowledging that Sandy was “a different storm than Katrina,” the speaker said that to many New Yorkers it was just as devastating.
“And just to put things in perspective, there are 360,000 people in New Orleans,” she said. “We have nearly half a million residents in Staten Island alone. We need the federal government to invest in our citizens, to help us rebuild New York safer than [it was] before. New York City suffered an estimated $26 billion in economic damage and losses. That doesn’t even take into account the losses we will suffer if we don’t rebuild correctly, if businesses flee our city because they think Lower Manhattan is too risky a place to invest.”
With much of the city’s population living right near the water, New York ranks number five among 140 port cities around the world in terms of vulnerability to flooding from storm surges. Forward-thinking London, for one, already has 10 enormous surge barriers in place in the River Thames.
“In the last 100 years, New York Harbor has already gone up 12 inches,” she continued. “According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, sea levels are projected to increase roughly 1 to 2 feet by 2050 and 3 to 4 feet by 2080. So if we don’t act now…flooding will be even more common…and places that never had to worry about serious flooding will suddenly find themselves vulnerable in major storms.”
Quinn, an expected candidate for mayor in 2013, presented her vision in a speech in Midtown before the Association for a Better New York, a coalition of the city’s most influential businesses, nonprofits, arts and cultural organizations, educational institutions, labor unions and entrepreneurs.
Specifically, in her remarks, the Council speaker announced an agreement with the Bloomberg administration to accelerate the completion of two studies that analyze the flooding risks facing the city and that recommend protections. Both studies are slated for completion by April 2013.
Quinn also reported that Schumer would lead the effort in Congress — working with the Obama administration — to obtain an Army Corps of Engineers study that conclusively assesses whether or not to build storm surge barriers or other flood-protection structures around the city.
The time for “casual debates” about surge barriers is over, according to Quinn. “It’s now crystal clear that we need to build protective structures,” she said. “This will include both hard infrastructure, like sea walls, bulkheads or floodgates, and more natural defenses, like sand dunes, wetlands and embankments. And there are places where the best solution may be to raise the land above the flood plain.” Quinn said the work of building and strengthening these defenses would take years, if not decades.
However, in responding to Quinn’s advocacy for surge barriers the day of the speaker’s speech, Bloomberg said he didn’t know where the money would come from. “It would take billions and billions of dollars,” he said. “Before the federal government would get involved, you’d be doing it from the Florida Keys to the southern edge of Maine…People just can’t do that.”
In addition to the cost, the mayor has questioned surge barriers’ feasibility in a harbor as large as New York’s. In addition, Quinn said, all utility companies should erect structures around power plants and substations in at-risk locations to protect from storm surges of at least 20 feet. Sandy’s surge was 14 feet — 2 feet higher than Con Ed was prepared to deal with at its East 14th Street power plant, resulting in Lower Manhattan’s four-to-five-day blackout from the East 30s south.
In addition, the city’s sewer system needs to be improved to be able to handle massive flooding conditions, the speaker said. Currently, the city’s combined sewer system — for rainwater and wastewater — often becomes overloaded, causing sewage to be dumped into the city’s waterways, she said. During Sandy, the entire system backed up, which in some cases led to sewage coming out of the drains of sinks and bathtubs.
To help combat storm surges, the city also needs to speed up the installation of “soft infrastructure,” Quinn said, including green streets and green roofs.“And we’re going to pass legislation requiring the city to use new pavement materials that absorb rainwater and prevent sewer overflows,” she added.
The transit system — above all, the subways — must be safeguarded against swamping, Quinn stressed. This can be done, she said, by installing raised buffers around subway grates and elevating station entrances a few feet off the ground. New technologies such as industrial balloons can be used to seal off subway or car tunnels from flooding.Also, the city will need to modify building codes, she said.
Quinn said the City Council will be holding a series of hearings in the coming weeks and months on all aspects of how the storm was handled, from public safety and medical care to Con Ed’s management of the city’s electricity and heat.“Our greatest danger is inaction,” the speaker warned. “We stand in a unique moment that carries with it a unique opportunity. The future of our planet, the world our grandchildren inherit, depends on what we do in the months and years ahead.”
Chelsea community activist and former Downtown Express publisher Bob Trentlyon — a leading advocate for storm surge barriers in New York City — felt a surge of elation at Quinn’s speech. Minutes after her office sent out a press release on her remarks at ABNY, Trentlyon forwarded it to his e-mail list with the tag line, “This is really a giant step forward!”
For the past three years, Trentlyon, 83, has almost singlehandedly sounded the alarm over rising water levels’ threat to Gotham, lobbying everyone from community boards to local politicians to Governor Cuomo.
“It’s just wonderful news,” Trentlyon said the day of Quinn’s talk. “Getting Schumer to come along was a good move, because he has a good relationship with Wall Street — and Wall Street doesn’t want to get drowned out [by another storm surge]. Chris Quinn is aware that this is probably the most important issue in a generation — and I would say, in the 21st century — for people living in New York City. It’s a wake-up call to all of us, that there’s probably going to be a lot more storms like this and we have to protect ourselves. And building storm surge barriers is a part of it.”