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Preliminary Reflections on Mayor Bloomberg's Post-Sandy Climate Resiliency Plan for NYC

Eric Goldstein

Posted June 13, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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As NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner said Tuesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s newly released post-Hurricane Sandy resiliency report provides “an expansive blueprint for fortifying New York against the irrepressible threat of rising sea level.”  

The Mayor’s report catalogues the reasons to prepare for and address the changing climate impacts that are coming to our city -- a sample of which we felt last fall when Hurricane Sandy swept into town.

We are still digesting the 438-page report, but here are ten preliminary reactions:

 

1)    The Mayor correctly diagnoses the problem -- linking past storms and future threats to our changing climate. Indeed, as the Mayor said on Tuesday, “We have to look ahead and anticipate any and all future threats, not only from hurricanes but also from droughts, heavy downpours and heat waves, which may be longer, and more intense, in the years to come.”  And, as the Mayor’s report notes at pages 21, 23: “While Sandy was historic, it was not, in fact, a worst-case scenario for all of New York City. “As the climate changes … the risks that New York City faces will only intensify.”

2)    The Mayor is right to inject a sense of urgency into the debate.  “This is urgent work, and it must begin now,” said the Mayor.  If you look at the new FEMA flood maps, on page 24 of the report, you’ll find them pretty alarming.  By the 2050s, over 800,000 residents are expected to be living in flood hazard zones in New York City. 

3)    The Mayor sensibly avoids recommending huge and expensive in-sea storm barriers, both for economic reasons and because experts predict that such barriers could transfer storm surges to unprotected areas.  The report, on page 49, concludes that the cost of harbor-wide storm surge barriers would be 20 to 25 billion dollars in capital dollars, with substantial operating and maintenance expenses; that it would take two or three decades to design, secure approvals and construct such barrier systems; and that the “hydrodynamic and environmental impacts” would be substantial.

4)    The report includes a wide range of localized storm surge protection measures, many of which seem to enjoy broad support.  Such measures, set forth in the document’s Coastal Protection chapter, include beach replenishment, rebuilt and expanded dune systems, armor stone revetments (like the boulders already in place along the shoreline at Brooklyn Bridge Park), wetlands, reefs, oyster bed re-plantings, tide-gates, bulkheads, etc.

5)    Using natural systems for flood control is a particularly cost-effective strategy and offers multiple benefits to community residents.   Accordingly, recommendations for extending the Staten Island “bluebelt” (where natural areas are used to help control stormwater flows) and creating other bluebelt areas in Queens and the Bronx, discussed on page 217, are most welcome.  So too are recommendations for expanding the city’s Greenstreets program (which landscapes traffic islands and greens roadway medians), described on pages 193, 198, and enhancing protections for Jamaica Bay, described on page 191.  For more on green infrastructure solutions, please see my colleague Larry Levine's blog postings

6)    The proposal for a new “Seaport City” to be built along the East River shoreline raises numerous ecological, financial and planning concerns.  But the inevitable controversy over this idea should not delay action on other elements of the Mayor’s plan.  

7)    The report places a major emphasis on fortifications and overlooks Governor Cuomo’s visionary flood-plain buy-out program.  Without mentioning the Governor’s plan specifically, the report on page 46 notes:  “the City’s plan for coastal protection focuses not on retreat – a strategy that may make sense in only very limited circumstances, but is neither possible nor desirable on a larger scale … “  In making this conclusion, the report side-steps some hard truths. The Governor’s flood-plain buy-out program is voluntary, protective of taxpayer funds and insurance premiums over the long-term, and deserves the support of all public officials. It should advance in concert with other key elements of the Mayor’s program. 

8)    On all of the post-Sandy resiliency challenges, it will be necessary for city and state officials to work cooperatively.  It is incumbent upon all of our public officials to set aside any differences and work together for the people of New York. 

9)     As always, a key question will be how much does all this cost and where is the money coming from.  The Mayor’s speech and the report indicate that half of the funding is already at hand.  But the 20 billion dollar pricetag could well increase over time and it is clear that the costs of protecting the city during the 21st century from the impacts of our climate crisis will be huge.  New York and other coastal regions all around the country are going to need help from Washington if they are to be fully prepared for a hotter, wetter and stormier century.

10)  As the Mayor acknowledges, implementation of many resiliency measures will fall to the next Mayor.  It is important, therefore, for the voters to hear from the candidates on this issue in the weeks to come.  Do they share the Mayor’s sense of urgency?  What elements of the plan do they support?  What will their strategy be for moving forward to attack this problem at the start of the new Administration?

 

There are many other proposals in this lengthy report (some on topics not discussed in this blog, such as measures for increasing building resiliency, safeguarding transportation infrastructure, etc.).  These issues will likely be the subject of future blogs by my NRDC colleagues.  

And, of course, the primary objective of all who are rightly worried about New York City's resiliency in the decades to come should be to attack the root cause of the problem -- fossil fuel burning -- by boosting energy efficiency and accelerating the switch to solar, wind, and other renewables. 

 

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This week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a 438-page report with over 250 recommendations for making New York City more resilient to climate-related weather extremes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In presenting his report, the Mayor warned: “As the climate changes … the risks that New York City faces will only intensify.” Although some recommendations will be controversial, including plans for a new Seaside City (which would be constructed by creating a new East River shoreline south of the Brooklyn Bridge), many of the proposals rely on more traditional  natural defenses to protect New York City and its residents.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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