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After Sandy, should NYC build a storm surge barrier?

Ben Chou

Posted November 12, 2012

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The impacts of Sandy—part tropical cyclone and part nor’easter—on the eastern U.S. is a sobering reminder of our vulnerability to extreme weather.  From the storm surge damage along the New Jersey coastline and low-lying parts of New York City to the blizzard conditions in West Virginia and the heavy rain and power outages that afflicted large swaths of the northeastern U.S., millions of people have been impacted and tens of billions of dollars of damage has been wrought. 

In addition to the money it will take to repair homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure, there also has been incalculable pain and suffering inflicted.  Over 150 people in the U.S. and Caribbean have died and many more in coastal areas of New York and New Jersey have lost their homes, and with them, irreplaceable keepsakes and other mementos and their sense of security.    

The storm surge and flooding associated with Sandy highlight some of the risks that a changing climate poses to New York and other coastal cities.  While we cannot necessarily predict where and when future extreme weather will strike, science tells us that we can expect more intense storm events and rising seas due to climate change. 

In the wake of Sandy, there has been much discussion about how to prevent the large-scale flooding that overtook lower Manhattan and other parts of New York City.  That discussion has largely focused on whether storm surge barriers should be built to protect the city from future flooding.  Barriers with price tags in the billions of dollars have been built in places like London, Venice, St. Petersburg, and the Netherlands.  While these barriers may be needed in the long term, they also come with numerous implications for neighboring communities, ecosystems, public health, and even navigation that will need to be taken into consideration.  These issues warrant careful analysis and serious public consideration.

In the meantime, there are other less expensive strategies that can be put into place more quickly to protect people and communities from flooding and storm surge.     

For starters, we can be strategic about where we build and how we build.  More stringent zoning ordinances and building codes can prevent new development from being built in vulnerable, low-lying areas and also ensure that new structures and major redevelopment are more resilient.  Retrofitting existing buildings and critical transportation, electrical, and communications networks increases their ability to handle flooding and other effects of extreme weather.  

Further, taking advantage of the buffering ability of natural defenses by protecting and restoring wetlands in places like Jamaica Bay and Staten Island can reduce loss of life and property damage.  These are nature’s tools to protect against flooding.

But we cannot only treat the symptoms of climate change—we also need to treat the underlying problem by significantly reducing carbon pollution through improving energy efficiency, cleaning up our power plants and other sources of carbon pollution, and increasing renewable energy. 

Ultimately, there is not likely a silver bullet for protecting our coastal cities from storm surge and flooding.  As the levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, the perils of relying too heavily on a single solution can be catastrophic.  Instead, it will take a variety of strategies and a serious, thoughtful discussion about the solutions to better protect people and communities from extreme weather.    

What’s important now is that New York – and the entire impacted region – get started.

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Alexander HolsteinsonNov 12 2012 02:23 PM

With the USA economic problems it would be foolish to invest the huge amount of funds required to build these storm surge/wave barriers for NY/NJ specially since this was only a CAT 1 hurricane. Building these barriers to resist a more representative hurricane (CAT3) would not be feasible costwise in the actual economic state of these 2 states and the federal USA. It makes more sense to move back the development taking advantage of all destroyed properties by Sandy as a clear indicator that this should not be repopulated again. Another thing to consider will be the insurance cost rise as well as all bankrupted insurance companies derived from Sandy losses.

Mark BahnerNov 14 2012 12:21 PM

A portable storm surge barrier system should be developed and deployed. Such a system would be able to protect any city on either the East Coast or Gulf Coast (or any coast in the world) on a few days' notice.

The conceptual design I have consists of water-filled and air-filled tubes.

A permanent fixed system is like buying a moving truck, just because one thinks one will be moving some time in the next few decades. A portable system is like renting a moving van the day of the move.

Jennie CureNov 18 2012 09:40 AM

I have recently started reading a book that delves into the water crisis we are facing. Sandi is a water crisis in the context of storms affecting our coastal areas, areas that in their natural form would mitigate the impact of storms. "Blue Revolution-Unmaking America's Water Crisis" is written addressing the potable water crisis we are facing. In doing so the author, Cynthia Barnett, explores the history of storms that have affected coastal ares including the North Sea Flood of 1953 hitting the Netherlands and Katrina. Although I have only read the first 50 pages I can assure you it is a book that will challenge you to reconsider the historic behaviors toward our wetlands and water resources as well as the formation of new policies, infrastructure and management that will occur as a result of Sandi and other natural disasters.

jpNov 21 2012 04:07 PM

The readers seem to fail to address the root cause of global warming as being ...greed, unnecessary manufacturing of goods, built in obsolescence and oversupply of infrastructure and high rise buildings. No body needs to replace their mobile phone each year in order to survive and most manufactured items that are designed to fail after a few years can be built to last longer.....the real reasons behind global warming are all easily solved simply stop buying stuff ..stop manufacturing stuff that we dont need...stop the rich from getting richer as there is no need to to have more and more money ...enough is enough ...what the world needs is a balance we need to conduct an audit and create levels of consumption and restrict the amounts we manufacture and the amount of money we make at the expense of and drastic decline of the natural world and life on this planet. We can not stop climate warming and its consequences by treating symptoms or by building artificial wetlands that took millions of years to form nor can we do it by building artificial barriers that protect one area partly but push the problem next door.

The choice is ours ..accept and continue our greedy unfair consumer lifestyles and see the wanton destruction of the natural world and live in a more artificial man made bunker or live a much more restrained frugal balanced life and protect a little of the natural world. Unfortunately to overcome the huge momentum that has gathered by the time we turn the tide of unnecessary manufacture around the majority of the world will be destroyed. We should stop kidding ourselves and attempting to make people feel good about themselves by switching off a light and address the major issues in society in a revolutionary way or we should devise creative ways of living in an increasingly artificial world.

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