Hurricane Sandy and Our City’s Future


As I start to write this, I am sitting in my darkened office on lower Broadway two days after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on our city. There is no power in Lower Manhattan, the subways are not running, and my staff is scrambling to take a computer offsite. I am grateful for the battery power stored in my laptop.

My wife, two sons, and I walked down to the Gowanus Canal the day after the hurricane swept across our city to survey the storm’s aftermath. Though the waters had receded slightly, there was ample evidence marking where the canal’s waters had reached across Bond Street the night before. A friend of mine who lives on 2nd Street near the canal was busy pumping out five feet of water from his basement that had come through the walls. His family lives across the street from the site of a proposed 700-unit development on the banks of the canal that is being presented to the City Planning Commission for final approval in November.

We walked over to Red Hook where the water had reached inland several blocks and almost every homeowner and proprietor within a half mile of the harbor was pushing water out their first floors or pumping water out of their basements. We saw massive trees that had fallen, lifting sidewalk flags and dragging down power lines.

The city is in the midst of calculating the damage (current estimate: $50 billion) and how long it will take to restore the city to normal. Over 100 people have died across nine states. Pundits are already weighing in on long-term solutions, such as floodgates in the East River, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and in Arthur Kill between Staten Island and New Jersey to prevent or minimize future flooding; they estimate these will cost $10 billion and will not protect the exposed southern shores of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Ironically, this catastrophe comes on the eve of a presidential election. Neither party has done much to truly address the long-term consequences of global warming. In all likelihood, regardless of who is elected, not much will change at the federal level since the partisan bickering will result in maintaining the status quo.

Building flood defenses and shoring up our bulkheads are good ideas, but our leaders must start thinking about how to design a city that is better prepared for catastrophic events. As anybody who lives or works in New York City can confirm, our power and mass transit systems are highly vulnerable to storm systems that are becoming more powerful as they draw on the increased energy stored in warmer waters. In the last seven years, we have witnessed Hurricane Katrina, a 400-year storm; Hurricane Irene, a 100-year storm; and Hurricane Sandy, another 100-year storm. Hurricane Sandy, the most devastating of the three to hit New York, was a Category 1 storm. Imagine the devastation if a stronger hurricane pushes a storm surge into the city’s waterways.

According to the Mayor’s office, our population is projected to be 9.1 million residents by 2030, an increase of 1 million since 2000. We are a city surrounded by water with limited space for development, but housing and schools will have to be built and our commerce network, currently clustered in Manhattan, should spread across the five boroughs. New York City was the greatest urban center of the 20th century, but the world’s legacy of myopic ambition has left us exposed to the consequences of industry and human settlement. If we are to thrive in the 21st century, we must start facing the daunting challenges ahead.

posted by David Briggs