One year after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on Lower Manhattan and parts of the outer boroughs, Columbia researchers still believe that New York City has yet to make its infrastructure more secure against storms.
“Band-aid solutions are low-hanging fruit. But that fruit will rot pretty soon,” said Klaus Jacob, a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and Earth Institute researcher who studies climate change. “We should spend only as much money as necessary on low-hanging fruit. We need to go on and focus on the long-term vulnerabilities to reduce those and make us more resilient.”
In June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, a $20 billion long-term plan that would install flood walls and other protective measures in the areas where Sandy hit hardest.
But questions of funding and the contents of the plan have concerned some researchers. Jacob said that a long-term plan needs to account for protection and accommodation as well as strategic retreat away from the coastline, but Bloomberg’s plan over-emphasizes some of these components.
“A real, comprehensive plan needs to take into account all three options,” Jacob said. “The SIRR plan uses only the first and the second. This is loaded with fallacies in the long run.”
Jacob said that with a sea-levee rise of five feet, it becomes tricky to protect low-lying areas in the long run—especially since there has been mass development along the shoreline during Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor.
“Future mayors will need to include retreating from the waterfront as a completely valid component of an overall adaptation plan,” Jacob said. “When we talk about resettlement and retreat it must be done in an extremely circumspect manner. You cannot just tell people in the Rockaways to leave the beach. You have to set a framework in which people can make gradual but meaningful decisions but have the public support and the financial support to do that.”
SIPA professor Benjamin Orlove, whose work focuses on climate change, said that Bloomberg’s plan was an important statement, but added that there needs to be more discussion about moving people away from the coastline.
“I do see some people putting themselves back in harm’s way,” Orlove said. “They’re returning to a situation of vulnerability.”
Jacob added that making a dent in the city’s resilience to storms would involve a plan costing upwards of $100 billion—a difficult feat given the political stagnation in Washington.
“In a political climate where Washington quibbles about every federal dollar in an indecisive way, there is a very unfortunate juxtaposition between needs and really being able to move forward on this,” Jacob said.
The difficulty of securing funding from the government has also made the situation harder on lower-income people, Elliot Sclar, a professor of urban planning who is studying Hurricane Sandy’s socioeconomic effects, said.
“What has happened is that better-off people have come up with solutions to their problems and, unfortunately, poorer people, more vulnerable people, are in much worse shape now a year later because of Sandy,” Sclar said. “The social cohesion never quite materialized because too many people thought of it as a one off event.”
“In the long term, the city does have a plan,” Adam Sobel, a professor of applied physics and math, said. “There’s a lot in there that’s good. I’m most concerned that none of it will happen.”
Sobel, who is working on a book that focuses primarily on Sandy’s unusual path and the storm’s rarity, expressed concern that once Bloomberg leaves office, the plan won’t be a priority for the next mayor and that “even if Bloomberg was still in, it’s a lot of money.”
“The subways are still pretty vulnerable,” Sobel said, pointing out that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is chronically underfunded by the state.
“I think the MTA needs a bit more of a serious plan,” he said. “But, the fact is that it wasn’t designed to handle a flood. They did everything they could in the short term, but in the long term, the system was built in a very vulnerable way, especially the South Ferry station—a $500 million station, built in a flood-zone, totally closed now. It’s just sad.”
David Abramson, a professor at the School of Public Health and deputy director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said that a long-term recovery plan must account for rebuilding the affected communities.
“It’s going to take a long time—this is true for major disasters. ... It often takes at least five years to get the housing and community back in reasonable shape. It can often take up to 10 years,” he said. “We’re only at the one year mark. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Elizabeth Sedran contributed reporting.