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The Big Apple's Small Response to Hurricane Sandy

Two years after Hurricane Sandy flooded much of New York City, the city's response to climate change and rising sea levels is missing the opportunity to think big.
Photo via Flickr

There has been a notable shift in the public conversation about what needs to be done in order to protect the greater New York City region from the threats posed by climate change in the two years since Hurricane Sandy.

Just two days after the storm struck, Governor Andrew Cuomo raised the possibility of building a sea wall that would extend from Staten Island to the Rockaways. Christine Quinn, a Cuomo ally and mayoral frontrunner at the time, declared her support for the massive flood prevention project two weeks later.


Quinn's position angered her other key supporter, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who argued against sea walls and comparable large public works projects due to cost and feasibility.

The Red Cross on Hurricane Sandy funding: It's a 'trade secret.' Read more here.

Today, few politicians and civic leaders are placing large-scale initiatives on the agenda, preferring instead to focus on more immediately attainable safeguards. Rather than flood prevention, the focus is now on resiliency — preparing for future storms and rising sea levels through new zoning regulations and building codes, as well as upgrades in infrastructure.

But does New York's response to the largest threat it faces risk missing the opportunity to think big?

Cuomo is no longer championing large new projects like sea walls in his re-election campaign. The governor's newest policy book, released last week, mainly highlights the work of state agencies in making infrastructure upgrades (e.g., repairing and improving MTA subway tunnels) as well as the efforts of various Cuomo-created commissions to provide homeowner relief.

The nearly 250-page book does note that Cuomo has "boldly advocated" one sizable climate change-protection initiative — the Army Corps of Engineers' Fire Island to Montauk Point dune restoration project — but it offers little discussion of what's being done to protect New York City.

As ocean levels rise, so should our efforts to face the challenges.


In his final two years in office, Bloomberg made resiliency the primary focus of the city's climate change planning, redrawing flood zone maps and imposing more stringent building codes. Mayor Bill de Blasio has since followed suit, focusing on infrastructure upgrades in public housing projects while also trying to rectify bureaucratic delays in Bloomberg's Build It Back program, which promised money to help homeowners rebuild.

Many homes rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy are likely headed back underwater. Read more here.

Whether low-lying areas should see residential growth is currently unquestioned. In his administration's June 2013 report, "A Stronger, More Resilient New York," Bloomberg insisted that "we are a coastal city — and we cannot, and will not, abandon our waterfront." Yet absent large storm-surge protections like a sea wall, many areas remain vulnerable to flooding.

The Lower East Side, however, stands to be protected in the coming years by the Bridging Berm project, a nine-foot high barrier that will double as a storm barrier and parkland. In June the $335 million project won the Rebuild by Design competition sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which at the time was under the direction of Bloomberg ally and former New York City housing commissioner Shaun Donovan. Similar projects in the Bronx, Staten Island, and Hoboken also received funding.


At least one political figure is currently making climate change-related projects a central issue this election season. Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for governor, has won attention for promoting a Green New Deal in his campaign against Cuomo.

Hawkins recently told VICE News that "we must redesign NYC" in the face of rising sea levels. He envisioned a wide variety of public works projects, including wetlands restoration, the relocation of water and sewage plants and electrical stations from flood zones, and the creation of an innovative statewide electrical grid.

This new "smart grid" forms the centerpiece of Hawkins's Green New Deal. It would differ from other systems by consisting entirely of renewable sources of energy, like solar and wind power. Hawkins said that constructing the grid would provide "millions of new jobs and make New York a leader in climate action." Connecting the state on a single grid would also enable the swift redistribution of power to areas that are hit hard by storms, such as Red Hook and the Rockaways during Sandy or the Catskills during Hurricane Irene.

FEMA is trying to get back $5.8m in Hurricane Sandy aid money. Read more here.

Meanwhile, Columbia University's Klaus Jacob, a seismologist and specialist on climate change planning in New York City, is also calling for a redesign of NYC. Rather than prevention or resiliency, Jacob stresses adaptation as the goal, which in practice would mean departing from the city's current direction of rebuilding and expanding residential neighborhoods along waterfronts.

Jacob believes that the city should consider "strategic resettlement" of residential areas to higher ground. Whether the city's current borders contain enough existing open space to accommodate a sizable population shift seems doubtful, however. Cuomo actually tried to initiate a shift away from the water with a homeowner buyout initiative in low-lying Staten Island communities, but the program proved difficult to manage.

Because ocean levels will keep rising, sea walls and other flood barriers create a "false sense of long-term security," Jacob says. Citing the High Line as a model, he envisions a new streetscape for downtown, in which buildings are connected via elevated roads and walkways. Such a design calls for utilities to be submerged and for transportation to move above ground level. Rather than steer post-Sandy funding to projects aimed at preventing the water from coming in, Jacob wants planners to look upward.

Skeptics of course will raise questions regarding the cost-benefit of any major public investment project, whether it involves a sea wall, a renewable smart grid, or a network of elevated sidewalks. But as ocean levels rise, so should our efforts to face the challenges. Time is short, so there's nothing to lose by thinking big.

Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter: @HammerDaily