New York unprepared for flooding, sea level rise

City Environmental Justice Alliance told the New York Times. “We’re behind in consciousness-building and disaster planning.”

Officials in the New York say that it will take time to adapt a city of eight million people to climate change, and they also note that the last time a hurricane directly hit New York was more than a century ago.

Alex Marshall, who wrote a study on infrastructure in big cities earlier this year, interviewed William Reinhardt, editor of Public Works Financing newsletterwho said: “Maintenance budgets are one of the first places mayors and governors look for money to fill budget shortfalls…., That’s because the effects of underfunding maintenance are not immediately obvious.”

This is a worrisome picture. When we note the lack of urgency noted by Hill and the tendency of politicians to raid infrastructure maintenance funds in order to finance projects they regard as more electorally rewarding, the next serious storm to hit New York, on top the steadily rising sea level, would make the situation in New York not that much different than from the situation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Even thought New York is above sea level, it is second only to New Orleans when it comes to inhabitants that live less than four feet above sea level. According to scientists, the waters surrounding the city have risen over an inch a decade over the last century, but due to environmental factors such as global warming, those levels could rise two feet higher than it is today by 2050.

Scientists predict that if the sea level were to rise just four feet by 2080, 34 percent of the city’s streets would lie in a flood-risk zone (an area that would need to be evacuated). Today just 11 percent of the city’s streets are in the flood-risk zone.

The New York subway system is easily the most vulnerable when it comes to flooding. Studies have shown the Metropolitan Transportation Authority(MTA) needs to move quickly to increase pumping capacity at its stations, raise entrances, and design floodgates in order to prevent water from entering.

Five years ago, a sudden rainfall on a summer morning brought 31/3 inches of rain in just two hours, shutting the subway system down for hours and stranding 2.5 million straphangers.

That incident scared the MTA into spending $34 million on improvements, including 9-inch ventilation gates above sidewalks and building steps that head upward before heading down. The money for the improvements came from the MTA’s capital budget which pays for subway cars and buses.  According to Projjal Dutta, MTA’s director of sustainability, this is a start, but at the same time, it is hurting the system. 

“This is a vicious circle of the worst kind,” Dutta said of the financial effect. “You’re cutting public transportation, which cuts down greenhouse gases, to harden against climate change.”

These threats, however, have not made city officials abandon their go-slow approach to getting the city prepared. “It’s a million small changes that need to happen,” Adam Freed, who was, until August, the deputy director of the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. “Everything you do has to be a calculation of the risks and benefits and costs you face.”

In any case, according to Freed “you can’t make a climate proof city.”