A $19 Billion Plan to Fortify New York City Against Climate Change

In what may some day be termed a landmark speech in modern urban history, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City proposed this afternoon an aggressive, long-term plan to protect the city against the ravages of climate change and forestall a future Hurricane Sandy.

The elaborate climate fortification program, spelled out in a 400-page report, has elements ranging from public assistance to protect buildings and harden critical infrastructure to far-out concepts for construction of both permanent and temporary seawalls to protect both waterfront and the creeks and canals that can be "back door" gateways to flood waters. The total cost of the program comes to about US $19.5 billion, which is roughly equivalent—perhaps not coincidentally—to the estimated cost of Sandy.

Much of what the mayor talked about calls for further study, which he is initiating, and much of it will never happen. Some sea barriers would require the kind of water control engineering the Dutch have pioneered on a grand scale. But perhaps the feasibility of particulars matters less than the forceful commitment the mayor made to comprehensive protection of the city's waterfronts, a promise his successors may find difficult to back way from or ignore.

Opening his 6500-word address, which he delivered at Brooklyn's historic Navy Yard, Bloomberg did not hesitate to boast about the lead New York City and he personally have taken on climate change and on making the metropolis a model for what big cities can do worldwide. "We haven't waited for Washington to lead on climate change, we've attacked the problem head-on," the mayor said. And it's a good thing New York didn't wait, he added pointedly (though these words do not appear in the official printed version of the speech), "because if we had, we'd still be waiting."

The initial and most dramatic focus of Bloomberg's speech was on the implications of the city's growing vulnerability to flooding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) projects, he said, that by mid century a quarter of New York City will be in floodplains, an area equivalent roughly to the size of Minneapolis. "If we do nothing, more than 40 miles of our waterfront could see flooding on a regular basis, just during normal high tides." If there were another mega-storm like Sandy in mid-century, the cost could be $90 billion rather than $19 billion.

Already, said Bloomberg, because of such projections and because of new legislation adopted in Washington, many New Yorkers are seeing their flood insurance rates soar beyond what is manageable. He said in one neighborhood of Staten Island, where the average income is about $80 000, homeowners are facing annual flood insurance rates of $10 000.

Working with federal regulators and national legislators, the city is trying to devise ways of helping homeowners protect themselves against rocketing rate increases, without having to elevate their homes, which in most cases would be impractical. The city is taking a somewhat similar approach to hardening of critical infrastructure, designing programs to encourage and help owners of buildings to move or protect elecrrical and telecommunications equipment.

But Bloomberg is not proposing to shift the whole burden of such infrastructure hardening to the general population. What he had to say about electric power is worth quoting at some length: "Con Ed has made major investments in resiliency. That's a big reason why we've haven't had any major blackouts in a few years and they deserve real credit for that.

"But about two-thirds of our major substations and nearly all of the city's power plants are in flood plains today. Every summer, our electrical grid comes under extreme stress during heat waves.

"Both risks will get worse with climate change… And so the City will work with the Governor, private companies, and the Public Service Commission—the state agency that regulates utilities—to try to make sure that our systems don't fail us.…Our goal is not only to harden the electrical system, but to develop a cleaner, more reliable, affordable, and innovative energy system."

Bloomberg's remarks about telecom networks had a similar tone and toughness. Here too the goal is not just to harden but to modernize, and here, even more "the city has some leverage," Bloomberg said. "We have franchise and other agreements that let telecom companies use our streets for wiring. Well, if they want to continue using our streets, they have to make resiliency a priority."

The work done by Bloomberg's climate teams, whatever its global impact or future historical reputation, already is making an impression at the local level, to judge from the tabloid that bills itself as "New York's hometown newspaper". Here's some of what the future portends, according to The New York Daily News summary of the city's findings: a surrounding sea level that could be 0.3 meters higher by the 2020s and 0.75 meters by mid century; 10 percent more rainfall and four rather than three days each year with more than 5 centimeters of rainfall; an average of 39 to 52 days per year with temperatures over 90 degrees F rather 18 days now.

At mid century, in a word, New York City may have the heat and humidity of today's Birmingham, Alabama.

Images: NYC.gov

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