Has The Idea of a Storm-Proof NYC Been Swept Away After Superstorm Sandy?

By Chris Riotta

Leading urban planners, academics and government scientists are warning that the idea of a stormproof NYC is being swept away by society's attempt to return to normalcy after Superstorm Sandy.  The storm caused tens of billions of dollars of damage to property and killed 100 people.

Experts are also saying that avoiding focus on the Northeastern United States' vulnerability to rising sea levels will lead to further massive infrastructure collapse and even more deaths as more catastrophic storms are predicted to hit the area in the future.

Jane Lubcheno, administrator of NOAA, provided the opening remarks at a New York City event focused on the potential engineering, ecological and public policy responses to the rising sea levels and more frequent, intense storms brought about by climate change.

"What can we do to take advantage of this horrible disaster, in which people lost their lives, millions of damages were done?" said Lubchenco. "How can we have this be something more than just another disaster?  How can it have a legacy that does justice to the people that lost their lives?  How can we have the next Sandy be something for which we are better prepared?"

The city is projected to face sea level rise of 5 to 6 feet by century's end, a level comparable to the surge brought about by Superstorm Sandy, which occurred during a high tide.

The Netherlands faced severe flooding in the 1950s that claimed the lives of over 1,000 people. The Dutch government responded quickly to the tragedy by creating the Delta Works Project- which includes a variety of engineering techniques, ranging from massive sea barriers across Rotterdam's commercial port to coastal levees and the ecological restoration of coastal and inland estuaries.  The plan cost as much as 30 billion US dollars.

Although no long term proposals have been made as yet, some experts are optimistic on the future of a stormproof NYC.  William Solecki, director of the City University of New York's Institute for Sustainable Cities and co-chairman of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, said history offers a number of lessons about adapting to disaster.

"The city, as with any city, has faced numerous other crises and has overcome them through forward-thinking, largely transformative sets of policies, oftentimes on the back of a large infrastructure revision of what the city could be," Solecki said.

Since the 19th century, he said, NYC has adapted to ecological changes and feels that the opportunity for the city to bring about reform in the aftermath of Sandy is still alive.