Can we grow the economy and be ready for the next Sandy?
A week before Election Day in 2012, Hurricane Sandy claimed the lives of more than 100 Americans, many of them in New York state. Dozens were drowned in their homes by the massive storm surge from the Atlantic and inland waterways.
Sandy caused unprecedented devastation, leaving hundreds of homes destroyed and neighborhoods like Breezy Point in Queens looking like war zones. Thousands were left stranded in high rises without power.
Tens of thousands of people were left homeless. Gasoline had to be rationed for 15 days. The region’s transportation network, power grid, water, sewer and communications systems were all dealt major body blows.
To this day, maintenance work on subway and rail tunnels, which were flooded with seawater, continues to cause headaches for commuters. In New York state alone, the storm did close to $20 billion in damage and cost the entire region $25 billion in lost business.
For years scientists had been predicting a sea level rise and Sandy-like events that they said were a consequence of global warming. In 2010, almost two years before Sandy, the New York State Sea level Rise Task Force warned that flooding would “increasingly affect New York’s entire ocean and estuarine coastline from Montauk Point to the Battery and up the Hudson River to the federal dam at Troy.”
The panel, led by Peter Grannis, then the commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, predicted the likelihood that “powerful storms” would hit New York’s coastline would be “very high,” posing a major risk “to human life and coastal infrastructure” – a vulnerability that will “increase in area and magnitude over time.”
The panel that generated the report also warned that there would have to be a major shift in the land-use policies for waterfront and low-lying lands already vulnerable to flooding. “Current investment and land-use planning practices by both New York State and local governments are encouraging development in areas at high risk of coastal flooding and erosion,” the task force concluded.
At the time, those warnings went unheeded and waterfront development accelerated. In 2010 Gov. David Paterson fired Grannis after an unsigned memo surfaced complaining that cuts by Paterson to the DEC put the agency at risk and left it in “the weakest position that it has been in since it was created 40 years ago.”
In the aftermath of Sandy, the questions of whether and where to rebuild were front and center. Even popular programs like the federal flood insurance program were getting more scrutiny. Could it be that bad land-use choices were being subsidized by insuring homes in places especially vulnerable to Sandy-like events? Should human beings just throw in the towel on trying to live in high-risk zones where the ocean clearly wanted the land back?
Unlike his New Jersey counterpart, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Andrew Cuomo cited Sandy’s devastation as a consequence of climate change and the planet’s burning of fossil fuels.
“In the case of climate change, denial is not a survival strategy,” Cuomo told a Columbia University audience in 2015 when he was joined by former Vice President Al Gore to announce several initiatives to reduce the state’s carbon footprint.
The real-world consequences of such an admission meant that Cuomo had to integrate his emphasis on economic development while facing up to the consequences of climate change, such as rising sea levels and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events like Sandy.
Since then, Cuomo has made ambitious commitments to reduce the state’s carbon footprint by 40 percent and to increase the amount of electricity from renewable sources by 50 percent all by 2030.
In 2014, Cuomo also supported state experts who called for a ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, replacing the state’s temporary moratorium. “I think it’s our responsibility to develop an alternative … for clean, safe economic development,” said Cuomo at the time.
Cuomo has been a successful champion of economic development rooted in industries like agriculture and tourism in which the state’s natural resource base is a key asset. The significant expansion of the state’s Greek yogurt industry, along with the growth of wine and beer making, are just a few examples of the broader strategy that includes globally branding agricultural products produced in New York.
In his most recent State of the State address, Cuomo committed nearly $50 billion to bringing the region’s mass transit into the 21st century. Such a massive investment would both promote economic growth and reduce the state’s carbon emissions.
But despite Cuomo’s high-profile and consistent commitment to confronting climate change and preparing for the next Sandy, experts warn that the sense of urgency has been dissipating over time.
Further complicating Cuomo’s major push is the reality that control of the waterfront and coastline is balkanized by dozens of local boundaries and independent authorities like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Hudson River Park Trust.
“Who’s looking at the big picture?’”asked Debbie Mans, the executive director of the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper.“You have authorities like the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission building a wall around its facility so it can withstand another Sandy-like event, but who’s looking at the broader impact?”
“We are dealing with one port, one harbor, so in the end you can’t segment your response by political subdivisions in how you respond to a resiliency plan that aims to protect the entire coast,” Mans added.
Like Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has followed up with specific post-Sandy projects and worked to tie his economic development strategy into his plans for protecting the environment and fighting climate change. Last year, the mayor announced plans to spend $100 million on levees, floodwalls and additional parkland to act as a buffer to protect lower Manhattan.
This week de Blasio announced that an additional $100 million was moving through the pipeline to prepare vulnerable neighborhoods and infrastructure to withstand the impacts of climate change like sea level rise in all five boroughs. In 2013 after Sandy, the Bloomberg administration identified close to $20 billion in climate change related projects. A de Blasio spokesperson said the administration secured well over $20 billion, but that not all of the projects flagged in 2013 have been fully funded.
De Blasio spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick told City & State that the mayor has delivered on his commitment to integrate his goals for the environment and the economy, including tackling poverty, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and landfill waste and achieving the cleanest air of any large U.S. city. Meeting those goals ensures “those on the front lines of climate change – who are often the most vulnerable New Yorkers – are protected against its risks,” she said.
“OneNYC is premised on the idea that environmental and economic sustainability must go hand in hand, and it sets forth a comprehensive blueprint to achieve just that,” Spitalnick said in a statement. “A stronger, more equitable city is also a more sustainable and more resilient city – and vice versa.”
Following Sandy, with the sense of crisis felt in its aftermath, elected officials vowed to spend billions to harden the region’s critical infrastructure and make the coastline less vulnerable to another Sandy-like event. In some places, this could mean actually retreating from the waterfront and even offering buyouts to homeowners in harm’s way.
But experts warn that despite some instances of voluntary buyouts, the resolve to make tough decisions about waterfront land use may be waning – even as the era of more intense, frequent and unpredictable storms is just beginning.
“On the entire resiliency effort in general, perhaps the biggest challenge of all is retaining governmental momentum for resiliency planning, implementation and funding,” said Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “In the political world, memories often fade quickly. And it is essential that the resiliency issue not slip off the priority list of our elected officials, just because memories of Hurricane Sandy recede. “
Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the advocacy group Waterfront Alliance, said that while retreating from vulnerable barrier islands like the Rockaways would make the most sense, so much time has elapsed since Sandy that it would be hard to now mandate.
“They are called barrier islands for a reason. These are the only barriers between us and the Atlantic Ocean,” Lewis said. “But retreat is politically hard, perhaps impossible.”
Lewis noted that Michael Bloomberg, who was mayor when Sandy struck, had long prioritized climate change and would have been in a strong position to “make the case for a retreat from these high-risk low-lying waterfront zones,” but he chose not to.
"This is also a federal issue because it transcends state lines,” Lewis said. “All these years after Sandy, even with sea level rise already underway, we still don't have a final estimate of what it will cost to protect our shoreline.”
To some observers, plans by the Hudson River Park Trust for commercial development along the waterfront, and in the Hudson River itself, are a clear sign that both the city and state have failed to learn the essential lessons of Sandy.
Marcy Benstock, director of the Clean Air Campaign's Open Rivers Project, said one of the most egregious examples of bad planning by HRPT is a $170 million plan to build a live performance park venue in the Hudson. The performance space will be built in a park-like setting on a nearly 3-acre platform jutting in the river, with a 186-foot bridge connecting the venue to the shoreline. The project, dubbed Pier 55, is at 14th Street and will replace the existing Pier 54.
Benstock says Pier 55, which will accommodate up to 3,500 people, will put both the public and first responders at risk of injury or death in the event of a major storm surge.
“This is a non-water dependent use in a No. 1 hurricane evacuation zone,” Benstock told City & State. “And this part of the lower Hudson is the highest risk hurricane evacuation zone.”
The project’s patron is Barry Diller, the former head of Fox and Paramount Pictures and chairman of IAC, a media and internet company. Diller, along with his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, have pledged $130 million through a family foundation that will also fund the venue’s operating expenses for 20 years. Nearly $40 million for the project will come from the the city, state and the HRPT, according to The New York Times.
The Hudson River Park Trust is a partnership between the city and the state, with board members selected by both the governor and the mayor.
“I have always loved public spaces,” Diller told the Times in 2014 when the project was announced. “It’s entirely my fault that this has become so ambitious. We will fail in our ambition, outsized or whatever it may be, if this doesn’t feel completely like a park and completely like a performance space.”
But Mans, of New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, said the Diller project has to be considered in a wider context. “You have to ask if this makes sense to spend all this money to build a park out in the river when you have so many existing places in the city that need uplifting,” she said.
According to a fact sheet provided to City & State by Pier 55 Inc., the nonprofit handling the project, the design of the project accounts for any potential weather event. “Based on the devastating lessons learned through Hurricane Sandy the pier will be at least 15 feet above the water to protect the park from weather events and rising water in the Hudson,” the fact sheet says.
“New York State law created Hudson River Park and defined its location as being within and adjacent to the Hudson River,” said Hudson River Park Trust spokesperson James Yolles. “It also expressly contemplated construction of public piers within the river. Pier55 was designed in a post-Sandy world. Its elevation and design, including its two ADA-accessible ramps, were created with resiliency and future flooding in mind.”
The project’s supporters won a recent court battle when a state judge rejected critics’ argument that additional environmental review and a vote by the state Legislature should be required. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has issued state permits, and the Army Corps of Engineers is still reviewing the project. The plaintiffs are considering an appeal.
Boosters of the Diller plan say it provides the public with a major amenity that the government could not afford to construct or operate on its own.
Critics counter these kinds of deals lack transparency and give too much leverage to corporations and wealthy individuals in shaping the fate of what started out as a publicly held asset. In this case the public asset is the Hudson River and its waterfront, which is at the heart of a major environmental debate about how best to prepare for the next Sandy.
As the controversy over the Diller project illustrates, even after Sandy, finding consensus about how to balance commercial interests and doing what’s right in the long run for the planet and our own survival is fraught with difficulties.
Pete Grannis, the former DEC commissioner, who now serves as first deputy for state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, told City & State that New York needs to embrace the fact that “growing the economy and addressing the looming crisis of climate change are not incompatible.”
Grannis said that while officials have focused on revitalizing the upstate economy, protecting businesses and communities on Long Island and the Hudson that are at risk of flooding has been overlooked. Without sufficient support from the federal and state government, local officials have a very heavy lift.
"At the local level, officials have few if any viable political or financial options,” Grannis said. "What local mayor is going to embark on a program to move residential and commercial development away from shorefront and low-lying coastal properties or raise the huge sums needed to fortify or relocate vital infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and public utilities?”