Five Years After Sandy, New York’s Hurricane Defenses Are MIA
Multimillion-dollar flood protection systems for New York City were supposed to be in place by 2016. Take a guess at how many are finished.
“This is urgent work, and it must begin now.”
New York was still lurching from its worst natural disaster when Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke those words. The date was June 11, 2013, and his backdrop at the Brooklyn Navy Yard was deliberate: It was where ships were made for battle.
About seven-and-a-half months after Sandy, the enemy this time was a changing, warming planet. Scientists say it exacerbated the storm, which left 44 dead and caused $19 billion in damage and lost economic activity.
Now, as the city marks Sandy’s five-year anniversary, it feels the urgency Bloomberg demanded has faded when it comes to completing the 438-page resiliency plan the mayor unveiled at the Navy Yard that day.
It called for five multimillion-dollar “flood protection systems”—engineered projects to block or divert water surge—either with movable panels, or something more permanent. City planners chose the locations for their vulnerability to higher sea levels: Lower Manhattan, Hospital Row (Manhattan), East Harlem, Red Hook in Brooklyn, and the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.
The deadlines for all? Completion by 2016.
Are they built? Not even close.
As my reporting for NY1 this week shows, the farthest along is just a section of the Lower Manhattan barrier along the East River. Slowly winding its way through permitting and environmental review, expected completion has been pushed back twice.
It’s now pegged at 2024, a full eight years after its target—and that, for only a section. It used to be called the Big U, but that stage doesn’t cover the West Side, Battery Park, or the Financial District, much of which was underwater five years ago. (When Sandy hit, the New York Stock Exchange closed for two days—the first time a weather emergency halted trading for consecutive days since 1888.)
Rounding out the depressing tableau of the other spots: a study—not shovels—is called for this year in East Harlem. Along Hospital Row, the (private) NYU Langone hospital has much more advanced flood technology than (public) Bellevue. In Red Hook, we are waiting for federal approval of a $100 million project. (The original plan called for up to $200 million.) Meanwhile, take a walk past the cool bars on Van Brunt Street to the massive public housing complex and you can spot the trailers that five years later still house “temporary” hot water boilers.
And then Hunts Point, in the South Bronx. There’s a decent chance the last salad you ate came through there: Produce trucked to the waterfront market feeds 9 percent of the U.S.—and stores 60 percent of the fruit and vegetables for the five boroughs. A weather miracle spared it five years ago. Now instead of the $150 to $175 million that first report assumed, City Hall is spending $45 million for backup electricity that’s on track for 2022.
Building big in New York is often a depressingly delayed affair, requiring deft navigation through an alphabet soup of agencies. To be fair, Bloomberg didn’t spell out how to fund $4.5 billion worth of projects. Type in “subject to available funding” in his report, and it pops up more than 100 times.
His team suggested strategies to fill the gap, hoping Congress would give much more through the Army Corps of Engineers. It didn’t. Here’s a maddeningly under-reported fact: Washington routinely stiffs us. New York gives far more in taxes to Washington than we get back (84 cents on the dollar), and a Queens-born president seems nonchalant at best about tax proposals that would only exacerbate the unfair formula.
That said, Bloomberg’s successor Bill de Blasio could have devoted more money from an adopted budget that grew more than 20 percent since taking office.
Critics also note de Blasio, running now for re-election, changed what had been a strictly environmental/resilience agenda. His 332-page follow-up to Bloomberg, announced on Earth Day 2015, scaled back the projects, and added them to other goals like affordable housing, early childhood education, and criminal justice reform (PDF).
“You can’t have environmental sustainability without economic sustainability,” de Blasio said at the time. “Nor can you have economic sustainability without environmental sustainability.”
Seth Pinsky, who led Bloomberg’s resiliency plan, praises de Blasio’s environmental agenda, which reduces greenhouse gas emission and commits the city to the Paris climate accords the president says he may abandon if there aren’t changes.
And Pinsky calls this mayor’s goals regarding early childhood education and income inequality “very, very important.” At the same time, he expresses concern that they will divert City Hall’s attention from issues that cut to very survivability of a city with 520 miles of coastline.
“There are issues that are existential in nature,” Pinsky told me. “And I would argue that climate change is one of a very, very small handful of issues that are truly existential when it comes to the future of New York City.”
I asked Dan Zarrilli, de Blasio’s chief resilience officer, for response. A Bloomberg holdover, we met at a bright spot in the post-Sandy recovery: the newly refurbished Rockaway Boardwalk, built far stronger, relatively quickly, after the hurricane pummeled it.
“The focus on equity while we’re delivering climate action is absolutely essential to make sure that we’re building a city that works for all New Yorkers,” he insists.
Noting the complexity of city building and delayed funding from Washington, Zarrilli stressed that “we’ve been moving projects and hitting milestones to get them done.”
But those milestones are repeatedly pushed back—just as sea levels are rising.
De Blasio and his team are handling one side. They’re trimming emissions (although City Hall seems strangely reluctant to ask more of those wealthy enough to drive their own cars into Manhattan). If re-elected as most expect, he should redouble his focus to simultaneously build what’s required to keep our city dry.
Sources with knowledge of the process tell me administration infighting is slowing things. There are also mind-numbing regulations and rules, some local and others state and federal. It doesn’t seem like the feds will be much help, not with a president who tweeted climate change is a Chinese-manufactured hoax.
The mayor and Gov. Andrew Cuomo don’t get along. If only for the sake of their children’s future, the pair should call a truce and lock themselves in a conference room, with no bathroom and plenty of coffee until they come up with a streamlined public works process, at least on these items. (And they may as well come up with a fix for our subways while they’re together.)
I think the city is safer than we were five years ago. Emergency responders repeatedly train; supplies are stockpiled; most importantly, perhaps, New Yorkers know how bad it can be.
But we are not nearly safe enough unless there is more infrastructure to keep the city dry. The mayor seems to get that. “We just got to keep moving, every day. Just building more and more,” he said on my channel the other day.
It can feel debilitating, this climate change thing. The perceived futility of reversing it. I get it. I feel it, too.
But we need to keep up the pressure on him and other elected officials amid this existential struggle. Maybe we’ll even finding inspiration in this new battle.