After Sandy, a new reality

N.Y. area thinks on how to rebuild after the storm

New York TimesNovember 3, 2012 


Residents stand guard against looters in Long Beach, N.Y., Nov. 2, 2012. With lines at Northeast gas stations persisting, the government turned to the Defense Department to send 24 million gallons of extra fuel to the region and ease limits on foreign tankers. (Kirsten Luce/The New York Times)


— First, life has to be rewound to Friday, Oct. 26 – the last weekday before Hurricane Sandy crippled and disoriented the New York area. To make that happen, repairs to damaged power grids, transportation networks and housing will grind on for weeks, if not months, at a staggering cost.

But the bigger question is what occurs after that.

Basic restoration leaves everything just as vulnerable to the next storm. Hurricane Sandy is now a gauge of the region’s new fragility. Climate change is presenting government – and the public – with some overwhelming choices.

Officials must ask whether it is sensible to replace buildings on the Manhattan waterfront, the Jersey Shore or the Long Island coast – and continue to dare nature. After all, the waters surrounding New York have been rising an inch a decade, and the pace is picking up.

In recent days, elected officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, have warned that bold steps are needed, that to simply mop up is a fool’s errand. Experts agree.

“It’s a no-brainer for New York,” said J. David Rogers, a professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. “You’ve got such enormous assets and infrastructure that you want to protect.”

But, some experts also say that after rhythms return to normal, a no-longer-frazzled public may rebel if taxes and fees rise sharply to pay for better defenses.

The cost of the repairs alone will certainly reach tens of billions of dollars. Far-reaching solutions will cost many billions more. And the cost of not doing them, Rogers said, includes the threat that disrupted businesses might abandon an environment that feels unsafe. New Orleans, he noted, was the banking and insurance capital of the South until the great flood of 1927.

Few simple solutions

Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, an independent urban research group, said the region should consider measures like storm barriers and sea gates, as well as better ways to seal transit stations, tunnels and utility plants against water.

Power companies, he said, need to rethink continually putting wires back on telephone poles – when winds knock them down – rather than burying them, as costly as that can be. Robert G. Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said he was unimpressed by the aggressive plans trumpeted by some politicians, including those that call for a levee around New York. Some solutions could end up causing more problems, Bea said.

He said tightening and improving the current system might be more sensible than an enormous new system. “At least with the current system, you know where it’s weak,” he said.

“It takes two catastrophic events of this kind within a generation to build political support to make investments of this sort,” said Yaro of the Regional Plan Association. “I’m hoping that Irene was the wake-up call and Sandy is the hammer coming down.”

Yaro lives in Stamford, Conn., which was flooded during storms in 1938 and the mid-1950s. In the early 1960s, he pointed out, the city erected hurricane barriers and has not flooded since.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-Manhattan, who was instrumental in the rebuilding of ground zero in his district, said the public would see the virtue in long-term projects to protect itself, in much the way the country built the interstate system and helped develop technology for weather and other satellite systems.

Hurricane Sandy, he said, should lead to a “massive reordering of priorities.”

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