Joaquin highlights need to deal with rising risk of flooding, sea level rise & climate change


Hurricane Joaquin is moving north and continues to batter the Bahamas. We may get lucky and it won’t make landfall in the U.S. but Joaquin is still going to cause widespread flooding by dumping huge amounts of rain and pushing a surge of water into coastal areas. The National Weather Service is forecasting tides over 8 feet in some parts of the Mid-Atlantic coastline.

Hurricane Joaquin. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hard to believe, but Joaquin is the first major hurricane (a hurricane with sustained wind speeds over 110 mph) to threaten the U.S. since Wilma in 2005. Sandy, you may recall, was a huge and destructive storm, but with winds less than 75 mph it was technically not a hurricane. The decade since Wilma is the longest stretch of time without a major hurricane, dating back to 1851 when records began being kept.

Despite ten years with no major hurricanes we have still had our share of major flood events. Since Wilma struck (causing $23 billion in losses) we’ve seen 16 floods or tropical storm events that have caused in excess of $1 billion in losses including Superstorm Sandy ($67 billion), Hurricane Ike ($33 billion), Hurricane Irene ($14 billion), and major floods on the Mississippi River in 2008 and 2011 (combined $14 billion).

In the past two years, the Obama administration has advanced several smart initiatives that recognize the role climate change is playing in making many natural disasters more frequent and/or more severe. And the administration is taking steps to better prepare the nation for a future where sea levels are higher, extreme weather is more likely, and the risk of flooding is on the rise.

Federal Flood Protection Standards

President Obama updated an executive order that improved the flood risk standard that federal agencies must follow when building or funding the construction of projects near coastlines and riverine floodplains. The new standard requires a higher margin of safety to account for the increased likelihood of floods and directs agencies to factor in the future risks of sea level rise and other climate impacts where necessary. Unfortunately, some in Congress want to gut this common sense measure.

Integrate Climate Impacts Into State Disaster Plans

In March, FEMA began requiring states to assess the future impacts of climate change in disaster preparedness plans that they submit to FEMA for approval. For too long, states have relied exclusively on historical data to gauge their vulnerability to floods, droughts, tropical storms, and other natural disasters. To prepare for future disasters, it’s essential to look at how climate change loads the dice in favor of more frequent and/or more severe weather events. FEMA, at the urging of NRDC, has made it clear that states need to factor climate impacts into their plans, also known as hazard mitigation plans.

National Disaster Resilience Competition

This $1 billion competition, sponsored by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, is encouraging states and communities to pursue innovative approaches for becoming more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Sixty-seven state and local governments were invited to participate in the competition. Forty finalists will submit applications at the end of this month with winners announced later this year. This effort was modeled on the highly successful Rebuild By Design program, which Congress approved as part of its Post Sandy recovery assistance.

Past Damages and Future Risks

If we just look at the areas threatened by Hurricane Joaquin, you can see just how vulnerable we are to flooding and how much more vulnerable we’ll be due to climate change.

Let’s look at some numbers for the nine states stretching from North Carolina to Massachusetts where Joaquin could make landfall.

537 Number of water and sewage treatment plans in coastal counties
894,655 Flood insurance policies backed by FEMA as of July 31, 2015
452,939 Flood insurance claims paid out by FEMA since 1978
$13.8 billion
Total amount of those claims
$11.9 billion
Additional assistance from FEMA provided to rebuild public facilities after floods and hurricanes since 1998. This does not include tens of billions of dollars in other federal assistance from HUD, USEPA, the Army Corps, etc.


These numbers are even more sobering when you consider that they only reflect our present risk and a small portion of the total amount of federal disaster assistance paid out in the nine states most at risk from Hurricane Joaquin.

Future hurricanes are likely to be more dangerous, given that sea levels are likely to be as much as 4 – 6 feet higher by the end of the century.

The National Climate Assessment projects up to 4.6 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century (and more after the end of the century), but even this doesn’t take into account the possibility of rapid melting of the polar regions. Other studies indicate sea levels could be even higher. Even 4 feet of sea level rise still has deadly serious ramifications. Every inch of sea level rise can translates into water moving up to 100 inches (over 8 feet) inland on flat coastal beaches. An analysis by the National Academy of Sciences determined that about 5 million people in the US live in the area that would be inundated by 4 feet of sea level rise.

For future storms, like Joaquin, the 8 foot tides currently forecast for the Virginia coast would be on top of 4 feet of sea level rise, which means flooding will be higher and extend far further inland.

How do we protect that many people from the encroaching oceans?

Luckily, it’s not a problem that requires one all-encompassing solution. Just as our efforts to curb the pollution that causes climate change are made up of a multitude of strategies from reducing fossil fuel use to increasing the use of renewable non-polluting energy, our efforts to manage the inevitable impacts of climate change will require an array of adaptable solutions.

Here at NRDC we’re working on a range of ways to deal with sea level rise and the rising risk of coastal and riverine flooding. We’re looking at everything from ways to make our water infrastructure better prepared for these risks to climate-smart reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program that would encourage people to move away from vulnerable areas over the next several decades.

We certainly are worried about people in the Bahamas and hope that Hurricane Joaquin heads out to sea without making landfall in the U.S. But its presence on our shoreline is a powerful reminder of how vulnerable we are and how much more vulnerable we will be in the future due to climate change’s impacts.


This article appeared yesterday on Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Read Rob Moore’s blog here.

Rob Moore joined NRDC in May 2013 as a Senior Policy Analyst and leads the Water & Climate team. The Water & Climate team is working to identify and address the water-related impacts that result from our rapidly warming climate, while also making climate preparedness a priority for communities across the nation.

Prior to joining NRDC, Rob was the executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York (2004-2013), New York State’s main watchdog for environmental policy-making. Earlier he served as the executive director of Prairie Rivers Network (1997-2002), the only statewide river organization in Illinois, and also as the Lake Champlain Lakekeeper at the Conservation Law Foundation (2002-2004). He has a bachelor’s degree in Physics from Illinois State University and a master’s degree in Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Illinois.

We thank Rob for allowing us to re-publish this article.

Awaiting the Next Storm: Staten Island Balances Long-Term Planning, Short-Term Needs

Editor’s note: This article was published in conjunction with a citywide analysis- Assessing Resilience Planning: Is the City Preparing Smartly for the Rising Risks of Climate Change?


Just over half of the deaths caused by Superstorm Sandy, 22 to be exact, occurred on Staten Island’s East and South shores, as the storm’s waves battered homes and swept some off their foundations.

Now the island is in a race against time to prepare for the next major coastal storm. Multi-million dollar resiliency projects are coming to Staten Island, from a sea wall on its East Shore to the expansion of innovative “natural drainage corridors.”

The projects are on target, say local officials, but the pace needs to be faster.

The island’s East Shore is directly exposed to the New York Bight, a coastline formation that can channel powerful storm waves and surges into areas within New York Harbor.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to construct a “mega” sea wall that will protect over half of the East Shore, from the Verrazano Bridge to Oakwood, said Staten Island Borough President James Oddo in a phone interview.

The Army Corps will be releasing a draft feasibility study on the proposed wall to the public next month.

Oddo estimated that the wall would be completed by 2020 or 2021. The city and state are also assisting with its construction, he said.

“This is a different timetable than [the initial plans] we talked about,” added the borough president. “Help has been all too slow in coming…There will be several hurricane seasons.”

What happens between now and 2020 or 2021?

Oddo said that smaller-scale protective measures were underway, such as the elevation of several hundred homes using new FEMA flood maps as a guide.

The city has also rebuilt 26,000 linear feet of dunes between South Beach and Conference House Park. But “[the dunes] were not designed to handle an historic storm,” said Oddo. “They were designed to handle beach erosion.”

What happens if you’re not behind the mega wall?

One area on the eastern shore that won’t benefit from the Army Corps mega-wall plan is the district of New York City Council Member Vincent Ignizio.

There, a package of other solutions has been developed in conjunction with the city, the state’s New York Rising program, and the federal government. They include construction of a series of “living breakwaters” and protective berms, home elevations, and, in some cases, strategic retreat.

Ignizio expects these initiatives to be effective, and the lack of a wall not necessarily a problem. “People want to be protected but not walled off,” he explained.

But what is missing, Ignizio added, is a more robust home elevation program. The city’s Sandy rebuilding program, Build It Back, will only pay for an elevation if half or more of the home was damaged, he said.

Since the goal is to elevate, the city and homeowners could share the cost in cases where less than half of the home was damaged, Ignizio argued. The city is reviewing his proposal, the council member said. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions about the idea.

Ignizio said that the de Blasio administration is moving at a faster pace than that of its predecessor, but he added that no matter what, “The sad reality is that these projects will be extremely helpful but will take a long time.”

Concluded Ignizio: “I’m getting tired of the studies and the reviews. …I want to see shovels in the ground and hammers in the streets.”

It’s more than coastal flooding

Staten Island’s vulnerability to flooding is tied to both a changing environment and lack of planning by the city over several decades.

Oddo said some neighborhoods along the East Shore still have no storm drains because of their haphazard conversion from summer bungalow to year-round communities.

“This community still remains vulnerable to moderate rain,” he said. “We are paying the price in 2013, 2015 for what we did in the 1950s and 1960s.”

The city has started to construct storm sewers and drains where possible. Some areas – like Midland Beach – are below sea level, a further complication.

The city has also been acquiring land for a “comprehensive Mid-Island Bluebelt,” which would drain a 5,000-acre area, encompassing the South Beach, New Creek (Midland Beach), and Oakwood Beach watersheds.

“It’s a decades-long, 30-year plan,” said Oddo. “We’re still a ways away.”

The hope is that the Mid-Island Bluebelt will mirror the success of the Staten Island Bluebelt, which makes use of natural drainage corridors — such as streams, ponds, and other wetland areas — to convey, store, and filter stormwater. Concrete pipes along the corridors move stormwater from conventional storm sewers into the Raritan Bay or the Arthur Kill.

The city describes the Staten Island Bluebelt as “one of the most ambitious stormwater management efforts in the northeastern United States.”

Ready to move inland

The ultimate objective, said Oddo, is to “help people re-start their lives.” And for many Staten Islanders on the East and South shores, this means moving back from the sea.

Oddo said that he and Council Member Ignizio brought the concept of acquisition for re-development to the Bloomberg administration in March, 2013 – about five months after Sandy. The idea was to allow residents to sell their homes to the government in order to be able to rebuild more safely somewhere else within the area.

The state and city have launched an acquisition program in three neighborhoods: Ocean Breeze, Oakwood Beach and Graham Beach. Representatives from neither the city nor the state responded to questions about the status of the program.

“Bloomberg should have embraced acquisition for redevelopment,” argued Oddo. “If you can acquire a block, then you can raze structures, and raise property — that never happened. Two years, four months later — what are the holdups?”

Failure to embrace the concept of acquisition for redevelopment is self-defeating, maintained Ignizio, since using the approach would limit exposure of homes to storm surge and lessen the need for resiliency projects.

“It’s hard not to be frustrated and angry,” said Oddo. “No mayor of New York City has stood up and told the people of Staten Island, ‘We fully believe in acquisition for redevelopment and are committed to it.'”

The city could show the type of truly resilient housing that may be constructed, said Oddo. And concerns about government [effectiveness] could be overcome. “People can buy into their neighborhood again.”

Added Oddo: “I believe in this program. It truly would have worked on a wide scale if we had gotten support from the Bloomberg administration. [It would be] a really powerful message if Bill de Blasio stands up [and] says ‘we’re ready to go.’ You’ll see lots of Staten Islanders come forward.”

Assessing Resilience Planning: Is the City Preparing Smartly for the Rising Risks of Climate Change?

At one of many such meetings now taking place throughout the city’s waterfront, residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn, gathered recently at a local community center to hear about the dramatic expansion of federal flood zones in their area and what the new designation would cost them.

As in other coastal neighborhoods, Red Hook struggles with a variety of flooding-related issues. Area homes, businesses and public housing developments suffered heavy damage from a five-foot storm surge during Superstorm Sandy. Red Hook also has long-term stormwater drainage problems.

So as the March 31 meeting night wore on, and residents sat closely together staring grimly at maps of their neighborhood, their fatigue and frustration was palpable.

One described still not being back in his home more than two years after major damage during Sandy. Another, in exasperation, asked city officials and their Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who presided over the meeting, “What are you going to do? We are having meeting after meeting [about recovery and resiliency] and the neighborhood is still flooding.”

Red Hook is not alone. Similar issues and worries are being played out in waterfront communities throughout New York, from the Lower East Side to the Rockaways.

Problems like localized flooding will become all the more urgent as climate change progresses. But the threat to each neighborhood is different, depending on where it is located relative to the city’s 500-plus miles of coastline, and factors like socio-economic conditions, building stock, and critical infrastructure.

City officials are far from indifferent. Its strategy, in a nutshell, is to gradually strengthen the coastline, upgrade building stock, and protect critical infrastructure. Next week on Earth Day, April 22, the city plans to release a major progress report, the first in four years, on its multi-pronged sustainability framework, known as PlaNYC. As in the past, the report is expected to include discussion of climate resiliency, that is, the city’s ongoing and developing preparations to manage for the effects of climate change.

The PlaNYC update is the result of “an extensive engagement process,” city spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick recently told Capital New York, including meetings in every community board district, a survey available in seven languages, and an “expanded advisory board.”

In anticipation of the city’s report, news partners Gotham Gazette, AdaptNY, and the NY Environment Report raised a series of key questions about resiliency planning with a group of planners, engineers, architects, elected officials, and other experts.

  • What is the pace of preparations? And are there sufficient financial resources?
  • Is the city using the best data possible?
  • What’s the impact of expanding flood zones? And is retreat an option?
  • Can we improve the decision-making process? Expand public engagement?
  • What are the institutional obstacles?
  • What are the social implications of resiliency planning?

The overarching question: can the process of becoming resilient make New York, in the end, a better city – more livable, environmentally sustainable and socially cohesive?

Among other key takeaways, we found:

  • The city’s multi-faceted preparations for climate change are viewed as sound, but greater public clarity is needed on fundamental details of project rollout and funding.
  • There is fairly widespread frustration with the pace of execution, and ways to speed up the public review process should be examined.
  • It’s unclear how residents will manage rising insurance costs within expanded flood zones.
  • Better data could improve the understanding of the climate risks ahead, and there is an open question about how far to look into the future.
  • Residents could be engaged more meaningfully in the planning process, such as through participatory budgeting.
  • In a number of ways, civic society is coming forward with proposals for how the city can further improve its resilience plans.

Although creating resiliency is an ongoing process and climate change is long-term, the need to plan is urgent. “We are holding our breath,” said Staten Island City Council Member Vincent Ignizio about the approach of this year’s hurricane season.

“There will be more sea level rise; there will be more frequent storms; they’ll be more intense,” said Steven Cohen, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “If it [another catastrophic storm] comes in the next year or two, we’re in trouble. If it comes 5 or 10 years from now, we’d be better off.”

Added Cohen: “The question is can we build a city that’s strong enough to withstand that and then recover quickly. And I believe we can.”

What’s the timetable?

One outgrowth of PlaNYC targets a ten-year approach to resiliency. The city’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, or SIRR, was first released by the Bloomberg administration post-Sandy, in June 2013, and subsequently endorsed by the de Blasio administration.

The SIRR plan includes 257 separate projects and major coastal flood protection initiatives. It has a particular focus on five vulnerable areas: the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, the East and South shores of Staten Island, South Queens, South Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan.

As of last fall, at least 200 of the SIRR projects have been started and 29 were complete, said Daniel Zarrilli, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resilience. For instance, the city, with support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been replenishing beaches in vulnerable areas like Coney Island and the Rockaways, and rebuilding dunes on the Staten Island coast.

Critical infrastructure is being hardened throughout the city, Cohen pointed out. Hospitals are moving generators to higher floors. The Con-Ed power plant on the East River has been made more storm resilient, and the MTA is developing contingency plans to keep water out of subway tunnels, he stated.

But all of the major flood protection projects appear to be in some sort of “study” phase. For instance, an “integrated flood management project” for Red Hook, which could include a natural greenway, deployable flood walls, elevated streets, and drainage pumps, was originally scheduled for completion in 2016. Now, the City is currently issuing “requests for proposals” for the project, and hopes to begin construction in 2017.

A much larger project, the elevation and expansion of riverfront parkland adjacent to Manhattan’s Lower East Side meant to protect thousands of local residents, could take seven years to move through the review and permitting stages, and another three years or more for construction, according to a 2014 city feasibility study.

The “multi-purpose levee” is only the first section of Manhattan’s “Big U” flood protection project, which is supposed to one day stretch from West 57th street south to the Battery and up to East 42nd.

In the coming weeks, the Army Corps will also be releasing public studies for how best to protect the Rockaway peninsula and the East Shore of Staten Island. And flood protection feasibility studies for Coney Island Creek, the Gowanus Canal, Jamaica Bay, Hunts Point, and Lower Manhattan are also ongoing.

Flooding in Lower Manhattan.

So how fast can the city realistically move?

Making New York truly climate resilient will require years and, in some aspects, decades. The raising of individual homes and their mechanical systems above flood levels alone “will take a generation,” observed Cohen.

Flood protection infrastructure in the Netherlands has taken decades to put into place, observed Henk Ovink, a Dutch advisor to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Even SIRR has a caveat – climate change is a long-term problem, it notes, and “many of the strategies and initiatives [in SIRR] will evolve over a similarly long period of time.”

But growing anxiety and some frustration with that pace is evident in conversations with local elected officials, such as in Staten Island, which is racing to prepare for another Sandy.

The Rockaways also has worries, in part because of historic stormwater drainage issues like in Red Hook. City Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents roughly half of its almost 120,000 residents and chairs the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, said he is anxiously awaiting the results of the Army Corps study. Richards expressed concern that it could take as long as a decade to fully execute the Corps’ recommendations.

Meanwhile, plans to repair the Rockaway peninsula’s protective bulkheads are mired in inter-agency confusion, Richards maintained. Besides beach replenishment and the eventual repair of the bulkheads on the Rockaway coast, asked Richards, “How are we really protecting these people?”

Where’s the money?

With the launch of the SIRR plan in 2013, city officials made clear that about one-half to three-quarters of its estimated $19.5 billion price tag was in hand. The rest would need to be raised from various sources, such as federal or state funds, and the city’s utility ratepayers.

Capital projects and studies outlined in SIRR would cost almost $14 billion. Another $5.5 billion is needed for “various other housing, business, and city agency recovery and resiliency needs,” said the report.

But, according to SIRR, that $14 billion is associated with only the first phase of its projects and programs. It doesn’t include implementation costs for projects, for instance, that are to be completed beyond the 10-year time frame of the plan.

Think of SIRR as laying the groundwork for the city’s ongoing resiliency work, and realizing a first round of projects. Phase 1 projects, such as beach nourishment in Coney Island or a storm surge barrier in Newtown Creek, are included in the $14 billion. But “full build” SIRR projects, like an integrated flood protection system for West Midtown, or a storm surge barrier for the Rockaway Inlet, are not.

City Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Recovery and Resiliency and represents Coney Island, argues that the pricetag for the SIRR plan is steadily rising, and that the flood protection studies happening right now are going to drive the real cost of the projects.

“I am fairly confident when I say we don’t have all the money to actualize that vision. I’m not even sure if we’re anywhere close to it,” said Treyger, referring to what he saw as the mounting complexity of each flood protection project.

According to the city’s “Sandy Funding Tracker,” which is current through the end of 2014, more than $13 billion in federal recovery funding has been earmarked for projects in the city. This includes $7.3 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a $4.2 billion Community Development Block Grant from HUD, and $840 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

City officials declined to clarify how much of that $13 billion is actually for SIRR. For instance, it appears that at least $1.7 billion of the HUD CDBG funds was allocated to Build It Back, the city’s controversial rebuilding program for homes damaged by Sandy.

It’s also unclear whether the portion of the $4.2 billion HUD grant covering some of the new flood protection projects is totally secure.

Council Member Ignizio of Staten Island raised the concern that by 2018 the city must have shovel-ready plans – with all the relevant permits and such – or else possibly lose some of the money. “The city is pretty far behind,” said Ignizio. “There’s a lot of stuff that still hasn’t been planned out.”

City officials did not respond to questions about the HUD grant either.

Nonetheless, federal funding for Sandy rebuilding is already helping to make New York more resilient.

“The city is now required to come up with certain resiliency measures when they take federal [rebuilding] dollars,” said Treyger. An example is the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, which received a $1.6 billion FEMA grant to both repair and elevate critical infrastructure.

Similarly, the federal government has just allocated $3 billion to repair and make more climate resilient 33 public housing developments that were heavily damaged during Sandy. Included in the grant are all six New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments in the Rockaways, along with 14 developments in Manhattan, and 12 in Brooklyn. The grant is the largest in FEMA history, said the city.

How good is the data?

The starting point for the city’s resiliency plans is its understanding of flood risk along New York’s hundreds of miles of coastline. That, in turn, is largely guided by FEMA’s designation throughout the five boroughs of 100-year flood zones, areas that have a one percent chance each year of flooding.

The last time that FEMA’s flood maps were completely overhauled was in 1983, over thirty years ago. Updated maps are to be released next year, and the drafts of the new maps indicate that almost 85,000 buildings in New York will soon lie in a flood zone. That’s a three-fold increase.

But there is a very practical reason for using FEMA’s flood maps as a planning guide: Only projects that address flood risks identified by FEMA are eligible for federal funding.

“By necessity, the SIRR was set up to put New York City in a good position to receive federal money to do these projects,” explained Guy Nordenson, a structural engineer and member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, a body of climate and social scientists and risk management experts which advises the city.

But Nordenson, who worked on the SIRR plan, argues that the city could benefit from a more robust assessment of coastal storm hazards.

In the simplest terms, Nordenson maintains that hazard assessments for New York also need to include projections for 500-year and 2500-year flooding events.

Why? Because these types of events are already happening. “Depending on how you calculate it,” said Nordenson, “Sandy was definitely greater than a 500-year” event. “It was closer to what we’re looking at as the extreme [2500-year] event.”

Another way of understanding this, said Nordenson, is that the FEMA maps used by the city look at flood events with a 40 percent likelihood over a 50-year span. But over the next 50 years, what type of flood has a 10 percent likelihood of occurring? Or a 2 percent likelihood?

The 2 percent standard is what the U.S. uses for earthquake and tsunami protection guidelines, said Nordenson, who served in the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program in the 1980’s.

Nordenson, who is collaborating with the Army Corps, is also incorporating climate change projections into his flood risk models. Significantly, FEMA is not using climate change data as it updates its flood maps.

While Nordenson believes that “[New York] City is way ahead of the majority of communities up and down the East Coast” in terms of resiliency planning, the ultimate goal, he said, is to “do a better job of encompassing the full range of uncertainty.”

He pointed out: “If you consider what happened in Katrina and what’s happened in many cases in floods, there’s always something that goes wrong. There’s always flooding in places that we don’t expect. There’s always failure of some levee or other form of protection.”

What’s the impact of our growing flood zones?

Over 400,000 city residents will soon be living in 100-year flood zones.That’s an increase of 84% from the current 218,088. What does adding tens of thousands of residents to the updated FEMA flood zones mean in financial and social terms?

The most pressing issue is the specter of working class, waterfront communities facing steadily rising flood insurance costs on top of other economic challenges. Council Member Treyger calls it an approaching “financial storm.”

FEMA maps with 2010 updates compared to proposed 2016 FEMA maps. Photo credit: Federal Emergency Management Agency via FEMA

To control the costs, FEMA currently recognizes elevating one’s home as the only mitigation step. But because elevation is untenable in many cases, the city has been pushing FEMA to take New York’s existing housing stock into account.

Otherwise, the only viable option for many New York homeowners will be to abandon the first floor of their houses. That’s often a critical source of rental income. “Many of us are losing one-third of the value of our houses,” said one angry Red Hook resident at the March meeting.

The dilemma was brought home by Alexandros Washburn, an architect and chief urban designer at the Department of City Planning under the Bloomberg administration. He rode out Sandy at his home in Red Hook, which was heavily flooded.

“If I were to follow the regulatory path of least resistance [by using FEMA guidelines],” Washburn explained, “I’m supposed to take out my Victorian storefront, fill my basement, pour a concrete slab and park cars…Then my house is resilient.”

But then Red Hook would become a neighborhood of parking garages, he argued. “We would have killed the social heart of our neighborhood.”

There are solutions. Neighborhood flood protection projects, in planning now, could eventually provide mitigation credits for homeowners. That, in turn, would lower their flood insurance rates, said Treyger.

And the city’s resiliency projects could do more than help lower the cost of flood insurance for residents. They could also help whole neighborhoods get out of the flood zones altogether, said Washburn.

“If we succeed in making a beautiful and effective perimeter protection for Red Hook, we take Red Hook out of the flood zone, out from under the requirement for FEMA [flood] insurance. We remove the problem,” he said.

Is that realistic? “Totally doable,” Washburn responded. “That would be the [city’s] end-goal.”

Added Treyger: “My message to the city is that when we’re planning resiliency, are we aligned to the FEMA standards? We have to make sure that we have the relevant city agencies on the same page with FEMA, who have to be on the same page with the Army Corps.”

Is retreat an option?

Is there a point at which New York residents should simply move away from an increasingly flood-prone coast? That question begins to make sense when you look at the findings of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, or NPCC, whose most recent report was released in February.

The NPCC has found that since 1900, New York has seen sea levels rise around a foot, nearly twice the observed global rate over a similar time period.

This trend is expected to continue, and even accelerate, as the century progresses. According to the panel’s most recent report, sea level could rise another 11-21 inches by the 2050s, and 18-39 inches by the 2080s. By 2100, according to the panel’s worst-case, though lowest probability scenario, it could increase as much as six feet.

Indeed, after Sandy, some homeowners on Staten Island had already made the decision to give up their homes. They are participating in a joint city and state program under the state’s NY Rising community reconstruction initiative. The acquisition program is currently only available in three Staten Island neighborhoods and Suffolk County.

Despite this, the city has maintained a “no retreat” policy thus far. “New York City will not retreat,” the SIRR plan declared. “[It will] stand with its waterfront neighborhoods.”

But how far into the future should we try to look? “For the foreseeable future, we can manage risk and we can make neighborhoods safer,” argued city resiliency official Zarrilli, in an interview last month on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show.

“And in the future if things are going either faster or slower in the climate than we anticipated, we can continue to react,” Zarrilli maintained. “It’s not an all-at-once implementation that needs to happen.”

A concrete example is the City’s approach to inundation. By the 2050’s, some neighborhoods are expected to experience weekly or even daily tidal flooding due to sea level rise. The city said it plans to monitor the situation and raise the height of coastal edges, with bulkheads and beach nourishment, as necessary.

But others see it differently. “I think we need a realistic, thoughtful conversation about what a sustainable strategy looks like with our waterfront,” said Mary Rowe, vice president of the Municipal Art Society, a century-old organization with a special focus on design, planning, architecture and resilience. “There’s a significant question about what does New York look like in 50 years. What are the alternatives?”

And some go even farther. For instance, Klaus Jacob, a geo-physicist affiliated with the Earth Institute, who also sits on the NPCC, has pointedly argued that the city must plan now to move coastal residents to higher ground.

But the Earth Institute’s Cohen responded that “abandoning [the coastline] is not practical and not cost-effective.” Part of Cohen’s concern relates to the working class makeup of many of the city’s coastal communities. Given the current housing affordability crisis, asked Cohen, where are the almost 700,000 residents of the city’s most vulnerable coastal areas going to move?

Another issue Cohen raised is the massive financial loss that would be incurred by walking away from the critical infrastructure, like powerplants and wastewater treatment facilities, that has been constructed all along the city’s coastline.

In any event, Cohen is not convinced that the most dire projections made by the city’s climate scientists are inevitable. In 2014, greenhouse gases actually stabilized, he stated.

The global economy is moving away from coal, and will eventually replace all fossil fuels with renewable sources, Cohen said, and that will slow the pace of climate change. Fossil fuels will be driven from the marketplace “long before we’re under five feet of water in New York City,” he argued.

Can we improve the decision-making process?

One of the challenges of resiliency planning is that the timetable for infrastructure projects is guided by lengthy public review processes, which were originally established to provide more oversight and opportunities for the public to weigh in.

“The pace of climate change is such that we have to find a way of speeding up the public process,” observed Washburn, the city’s former chief urban designer. “The ability for top-down and bottom-up to come together and reach a decision is critical. You can’t act without deciding first.”

He added: “The expeditious part, for me, is not the amount of time it takes to build the thing…It’s the time it takes to get to a decision on what you are going to build and how you’re going to pay for it.”

Washburn believes he may have one piece of the puzzle. He now runs a coastal resilience research lab at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and said his lab, along with architecture firm NBBJ, has developed a computer software program that will “let us plan coastal protections together with the community in real time.”

Local residents can use this so-called parametric analysis tool to gain a much deeper understanding of the physical effectiveness, social impact, and cost of each proposed project, Washburn argued.

”[You] let everybody get into the room, whether it’s a virtual or actual room, and play with the parameters,” Washburn continued. “If you substitute a concrete wall for a vegetative berm, you can keep track of the costs. You can see what it looks like. You can see what the view from the street is. … It’s tools like that that let you go through the same interactive process that ULURP [the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process] is hoping to establish of community input and top input and modification.”

Washburn added: “The tools are now out there for the city to get to success. The city’s got a pretty good foundation. The number one smart thing the city is doing is taking a neighborhood approach. The question is can they take it the last step and make a reality that’s effective but also improves quality of life.”

Do residents have enough say?

Another concrete way to engage the public is to give people more direct say over how resiliency dollars are spent, say some policy advocates. This is already a pressing issue in cases where residents have been heavily involved in developing resiliency proposals, but risk being left out of the final decision making process.

A case in point is the Hunts Point community of the South Bronx, which has actively participated in developing one of the winning coastal resiliency projects chosen by HUD’s Rebuild by Design program.

The revised price tag for the Hunts Point Lifelines project is now $481 million. So far, HUD has allocated $25 million, and the city is prepared to offer another $20 million.

Some community leaders are asking how what is ultimately built in Hunts Point will be decided upon, and who will participate in that process.

We need “clear points of decision making,” said Kelly Terry, executive director of The Point CDC, at a public meeting about the project on April 10. She said the community is looking for clear criteria on who gets to participate in a working group created by the city, along with accountability and open communication.

There are multiple potential ways residents can participate in resiliency budget discussions.

One possible first step could be for the city to provide financial support for some of the “first responder” community groups who were so essential during Sandy. This is a “no-brainer,” argued Michael Menser, an assistant professor of Earth and Environmental Science at the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Where is the funding program for [the first responder groups] to build their own capacity, to improve their spaces and community infrastructure, to hire more, to have better relationships with the [city] agencies?” he asked.

A next step, said Menser, chair of the non-profit Participatory Budgeting Project, would be to utilize participatory budgeting for certain types of local resiliency projects. Participatory budgeting is already used in almost half of New York City‘s council districts, including several Sandy-impacted areas.

“What’s been missing is any kind of process that connects neighborhoods to city agencies and city government in a medium-term way,” Menser said. “There’s been no real defined way that people could participate.”

To be clear, Menser is talking about actual decision making, not just offering one’s opinion at a community board meeting or in a survey. Community boards can only make non-binding recommendations in the city’s land use review process, for example.

Giving residents a pot of funding could “really enliven and strengthen the city’s resilience-enhancing goals,” said Menser. As part of the participatory budgeting process, communities would work with the relevant city agencies to develop resiliency proposals that are technically and legally appropriate, he said.

Going even further, using participatory budgeting on a citywide level would significantly ramp up the city’s resilience process, Menser argued, and be especially useful for overcoming the isolation of Sandy-impacted communities. Referring to the fact that climate change will ultimately affect every New York neighborhood, whether coastal or not, Menser observed that “this is a regional issue.”

But the underlying question for Menser is how to maintain substantive public involvement in resiliency planning on an ongoing basis. In the participatory budgeting paradigm, “expertise plays a critical role, but it’s driven by community need,” he said. “And in the process, you create more trust among the government and the community, but also within the community, and also you help to promote interagency coordination.”

How are residents being engaged?

Our previous reporting found striking disconnects in communication between the Bloomberg administration and some of its community boards regarding resiliency planning.

Additional interviews last fall with several dozen residents in two of the city’s most vulnerable areas found that a significant number were simply unsure what measures, if any, were being taken to protect their communities. The overwhelming majority thought they were no safer, two years after Sandy, from the risks posed by climate change.

As noted earlier, the de Blasio administration has pledged to increase community engagement as it updates PlaNYC, and, so far, has done so by meeting with all 59 of the city’s community boards, and disseminating a survey about a variety of sustainability and resiliency topics.

The administration has decided not to re-activate two task forces that were convened after Sandy to enable communities in vulnerable areas to weigh in on resiliency planning.

But resiliency planning bodies and advocacy groups are springing up throughout the five boroughs. Resiliency and rebuilding task forces have been established by the borough presidents of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, Council Member Treyger noted.

Treyger said that he has jump-started a resiliency task force in his community, Coney Island.
“I would encourage all of the communities [with] these studies underway [to organize],” said Treyger. “Let’s not wait for them,” he said of the city. “We can do it ourselves.”

Resiliency task forces are even being formed at the hyper-local level. For instance, residents in some of the public housing developments in the Rockaways have set up planning groups, said Council Member Richards.

Richards observed that a major challenge for the city was figuring out how best to “intertwine environmental justice communities with PlaNYC planning. They have been left out of the conversation.”

The Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a citywide coalition of labor unions and community, faith-based, environmental, and policy organizations formed after Sandy, shares Richards’ concern.

The city’s rebuilding process must include a commitment to “the elimination of environmental disparities across communities,” the alliance says on its website. The goal is a process that “prioritizes transparency and community inclusion, [and] creates new economic opportunity for all New Yorkers –particularly low-income communities and communities of color.”

Richards stressed that he believes community involvement in resiliency planning is a “personal issue for the mayor.” He said that the de Blasio administration was making an “honest effort” to engage the public and to “really listen” to feedback.

What are the institutional obstacles?

All levels of government, including Congress, will have to collaborate closely to protect the eight million-plus residents of New York City from the impacts of climate change. At last month’s meeting in Red Hook, Rep. Velazquez ruefully observed how hard the New York delegation has had to fight for funding in the Republican-led Congress.

One issue that is often overlooked in resiliency discussions is the impact – positive and negative – of state funding decisions on the city. Insufficient funding for basic water infrastructure projects, like upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and water mains, has reached a crisis level across the state, say Democratic and Republican legislators in Albany.

This relates directly to climate change because New York is projected to see increases in the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme precipitation events. Yet some coastal neighborhoods in Queens, Staten Island, and Brooklyn still lack the proper infrastructure to handle run-of-the-mill rainstorms.

The city is struggling to play catch-up and is engaged in stormwater infrastructure projects in several communities. This includes building grey infrastructure, like sewer mains, as well as green infrastructure, like blue belts (natural drainage corridors) and bioswales.

The good news, according to those interviewed for this report, is that individual city agencies are increasingly working together on resiliency planning.

Challenges remain. For instance, despite ongoing pleas from residents and elected officials, the city cannot seem to determine which agency has ultimate responsibility for repairing some of the bulkheads that will protect the Rockaway coastline until larger coastal flood protection projects are in place. Council Member Richards described the situation as “convoluted.”

The Rockaway Peninsula.

But there are concrete measures that could enable city agencies to work more effectively together, says CUNY’s Menser.

“It would be a really good time to have a [city] charter review in a year or two,” argued Menser, referring to the fact that city agencies now function in the complex and shifting world of climate change. The issue affects their responsibilities, and may alter how power needs to be distributed, especially vis-a-vis the public, he said.

A charter review could also address jurisdictional issues relevant to resiliency planning, or even increase the power held by community boards. The last full review was in 1989. An examination of how government is structured is merited, Menser said. “We’re due.”

And the underlying point, said Menser, is that climate resiliency is going to require more than technical solutions. It will also require “social support” and “bureaucratic changes” – a point echoed by others. More specifically, true resilience “requires a remaking of bureaucratic institutions, and the relationship between the public and those institutions,” Menser continued.

As an example, Menser cited the city’s housing authority, NYCHA, which has been plagued by reports of internal dysfunction. Many public housing developments were badly damaged during Sandy, taking an enormous toll on residents.

“Remaking the buildings isn’t going to be enough,” he said. For NYCHA residents to be able to control resiliency spending in their developments, set their own priorities, and get their needs met, said Menser, “requires a reforming of the Housing Authority.”

What are the social implications?

It’s likely that the city’s resiliency plans will ultimately be judged by how well the most vulnerable in society – the disabled, the poor, the elderly, non-English speakers, and others – survive the next crisis.

After Sandy, for instance, some of the most harrowing stories to emerge came from disabled residents who were trapped in group homes and other living facilities in the devastated areas. In testimony to the City Council after the storm, some described losing power, water, and, eventually, access to food and medication.

As MAS’ Rowe observed, the communities that fared the best during Sandy were the ones with the most social cohesion. It’s a lesson born out time and again.

Case in point: NYU Professor Eric Klinenberg’s research on the 700-plus deaths that took place during a 1995 heat wave in Chicago. The tragic death toll, he concluded, was the “result of distinct dangers in Chicago’s social environment” – not primarily the forces of nature. Death rates were far lower in Chicago neighborhoods where social ties were stronger.

Building social cohesion and social capital – strengthening the foundation which underlies communities – can come in many forms. The de Blasio administration’s “One City” plan seeks to make all publicly-owned buildings more climate resilient and less polluting, creating scores of local jobs in the process, and potentially a whole new sector of the economy.

Menser described the plan as empowering for city residents and an “incredibly ingenious extension of the SIRR plan.”

The more the city can empower residents in its resiliency process, the more its resiliency plans will truly respond to the conditions of each community, and the more residents will be able to help protect each other from what is to come, whether it is a devastating storm or a heat wave.

“You tend to tilt yourself to focus specifically on the disaster that most recently occurred to you,” observed Rowe. “Whereas what you really want is to build the capacity of those neighborhoods to anticipate any number of kinds of challenges that may come…It may be something quite different.”

The city has a tremendous base of social capital on which to build- think of the bands of neighborhood volunteers who canvassed public housing developments across the city after Sandy, providing food and medical assistance to homebound residents; or the volunteers that cleared debris from ruined homes and businesses; or those who set up kitchens in storm-battered neighborhoods.

And as much as there are tremendous risks posed to New Yorkers by climate change, there are also opportunities to build a stronger city, both physically and socially. The two are completely linked with, and reinforce each other, Rowe argued.

She also pushed back against referring to city government as one monolithic entity, which will “solve” the climate change “problem.”

“Resiliency is too important an urban challenge to just be left to government,” she said. “Resilience is really a movement. One of the important principles of resilience is there are many, many, many parts – no one solution, no one answer. That’s the challenge – how do you mobilize and then connect those many parts.”

But it is equally important to point out that government is the only entity in society whose core responsibility is to maintain public safety and well being. This point was raised more than once during our interviews.

And only government has the resources and legal status to carry out the large-scale resiliency projects that are needed.

“Climate change is the issue of our time,” agreed Council Member Treyger. “It’s already happening…Now we have to ask ourselves, what are we doing? Are we doing enough?’”

Feds Allocate $3 Billion for 33 Sandy-Damaged NYCHA Developments

Our summary of a statement released yesterday by the Mayor’s Press Office:


Mayor Bill de Blasio and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer have announced the allocation of approximately $3 billion in federal funding to repair and protect 33 New York City public housing developments that sustained severe damage during Hurricane Sandy – the largest FEMA grant in the history of the agency.

The Mayor’s Office described the FEMA grant yesterday as “unprecedented.”

“This historic and essential funding will restore livable housing for thousands of families and fortify NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] against future disasters,” says the City.

Several major NYCHA developments lie in flood zones. The FEMA funds will go to 14 developments in Manhattan, 12 in Brooklyn, and 7 in Queens.

Half of the funds will be designated for repairs, while the other half will be aimed at implementing resiliency measures to better protect developments from future storms. The funding is authorized by FEMA’s Alternative Procedures, which provides a lump sum payment instead of the typical incremental funding by FEMA.

“Too many [NYCHA residents] are still feeling the impact [of Sandy],” said Mayor de Blasio.

“This investment…won’t simply bring NYCHA developments back to pre-Sandy conditions,” said the Mayor. “It will allow us to fortify buildings and utilities…From elevated boilers and standby generators to flood protection, this investment will go a long way for thousands of NYCHA residents.”

According to City Hall, the new Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency is implementing other “key” climate resiliency measures, including flood protection systems in lower Manhattan and Red Hook, Brooklyn, and many other short-, medium-, and long-term measures across the five boroughs.

Protecting NYCHA Residents from Future Storms

The approximately $3 billion in FEMA funding will allow the New York City Housing Authority to make critical repairs at 33 developments where Sandy’s storm surge flooded basements and first floors, severely damaging boilers and electrical and mechanical equipment, and leaving many residents without power and heat for days or weeks.

In many cases, NYCHA electrical and mechanical systems were completely destroyed during Sandy, says the City.

The FEMA funds will also allow NYCHA to take measures to make the 33 developments more resilient to future storms and extreme weather. This includes new construction of elevated boilers, installation of flood barrier systems, and acquisition of stand-by generators.

NYCHA Residents Targeted for Resiliency Jobs

The work completed via this funding will be subject to NYCHA’s recently negotiated Project Labor Agreement with the Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC) of Greater New York, as well as its affiliated unions – allowing NYCHA residents to gain access to union jobs and training and helping ensure swifter capital construction.

FEMA $$$ Aside, NYCHA Is Facing a Massive Budget Deficit

NYCHA requires more than $18 billion beyond the funding announced yesterday to address its broader unmet capital needs across its portfolio of more than 330 developments.

Eroding annual support for NYCHA has resulted in more than $1 billion in lost funding in recent years, hindering the Authority’s ability to keep its buildings in a state of decent repair and maintain a basic quality of life for the more than 400,000 New Yorkers living in NYCHA.

[Editor’s Note: The Daily News reported in December that NYCHA was nearing a deal to sell a 50% stake in almost 900 apartments to a pair of private developers. Some of the 900 apartments reportedly targeted for the deal are located in NYCHA’s Campos Plaza development in Manhattan, which is also receiving some of the just-announced FEMA funding.

The cash infusion from private developers would raise $100 million over the next two years and another $100 million through 2029, according to the Daily News.]

The 33 NYCHA developments slated to receive FEMA funding


  • Riis I
  • Riis II
  • Metro North
  • Wald
  • Baruch
  • East River Houses
  • Smith Houses
  • La Guardia
  • Campos I
  • Campos II
  • Lavanburg
  • Rangel Houses
  • Two Bridges
  • Isaacs



  • Red Hook West
  • Red Hook East
  • Gowanus
  • Coney Island Houses
  • Coney Island Site 1B
  • Coney Island Sites 4 & 5
  • Coney Island Site 8
  • Carey Gardens
  • Surfside Gardens
  • O’Dwyer Gardens
  • Haber Houses
  • Gravesend



  • Redfern
  • Hammel Houses
  • Ocean Bay Oceanside
  • Ocean Bay Bayside
  • Carleton Manor
  • Beach 41st
  • Astoria


Repair and mitigation work at the 33 developments will include:


• New elevated boiler buildings to be built at an elevation above the recent FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) to reduce future flood risk
• Removal and replacement of building heating plant equipment, including boilers, pumps, tanks and traps throughout the submerged portions of the buildings
• Removal and replacement of Sandy-damaged compactors and lifts


• Installation of standby generators to protect quality of life in any future storm power outages
• Removal and replacement of existing electrical equipment at lower levels of the buildings
• Removal and replacement of conduit and associated wiring below the flood level throughout the sites, as well as replacement of associated lighting
• Installation of CCTV/Layered Access systems
• New electrical buildings, to be built above FEMA FIRM to reduce flood risk, that will house buildings’ main electrical components.


• Removal and replacement of Sandy damaged doors, walls, floors and fixtures throughout buildings’ first floor apartments and common areas
• Replacement of damaged roofing components
• Installation of a flood barrier system for lower levels of buildings

Site Work and Environmental

• Removal and replacement of damaged play areas, fencing, sidewalks and parking areas
• Removal and disposal of any regulated or hazardous materials


New Climate Report Underscores Need for Immediate Action in New York City

Key Points:

  • A new report released by the New York City Panel on Climate Change details projections in sea level rise, temperature, and precipitation through the year 2100.
  • Sea level rise is happening, and is expected to accelerate over the next century.
  • New York City weather will become hotter and more extreme, with more heat waves and intense precipitation events.
  • These changes will have profound and dangerous impacts on New York City’s people, infrastructure, economy, and natural environment.


The data keeps piling up: climate change presents a clear and growing threat to New York City, and now is the time for action.

A new report released today, Building the Knowledge Base for Climate Resiliency, details for the first time projections in sea level rise, temperature, and precipitation for New York City through the year 2100.

Overall, the news is grim: according to the report’s authors, annual temperatures are hot and getting hotter, extreme precipitation events are increasing in frequency, and the sea is rising faster than expected.

The report was produced by the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an independent body of academic and private sector experts that advises the city on climate risks and resiliency. The NPCC was convened by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in August 2008 as part of PlaNYC. This is their third report since that time and presents work from January 2013 to January 2015.

Sea Levels Are Rising, and Fast

Transportation infrastructure in New York City is especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Photo credit: MTA via Creative Commons.

Some of the most startling findings from today’s report revolve around sea level rise projections. Since 1900, New York City has seen sea levels rise around 12 inches—that’s nearly twice the observed global rate over a similar time period.

But it’s not going to stop there: this trend is expected to continue, and even accelerate, as the century progresses. According to the report, sea level could rise 11-21 inches by the 2050s, and 18-39 inches by the 2080s. By 2100, it could reach as high as six feet.

Low-lying and coastal areas of New York City will certainly feel the brunt of this inundation—and many have already begun to experience the impacts. The report suggests that just the current 12 inches of sea level rise may have expanded Hurricane Sandy’s flood area by approximately 25 square miles.

Of all the boroughs, Queens has the most land area at risk of future coastal flooding due to sea level rise, followed by Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Manhattan.

More Storms, More Problems

While continued sea level rise is all but certain, the specific frequency of future storms like hurricanes and nor’easters has proven harder to predict. However, the report’s authors note that it is “more likely than not” that there will be more intense storms, and they will bring extreme winds and intense precipitation.

Coupled with already high sea levels, these storms could cause serious flooding in parts of the City that are already struggling to cope with climate impacts. The report states that “under the high sea level rise estimate for the 2080s, the current 100-year flood (a flood with a 1 percent annual chance of occurrence) is projected to become an approximately once-in-eight year event.”

These changes are reflected most strikingly in the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps. Residents across New York are already seeing the impacts of these maps being updated; if sea level rise continues unabated, by 2100, the area covered by 100-year flood zone will potentially double.


To the Extreme

New York City could see six dangerous heat waves per year by 2100. Photo credit: Chris Goldberg via Creative Commons.

It’s going to get hotter in New York City—but it’s also going to get wetter and more extreme.

Since 1900, temperatures measured in Central Park have risen 3.4°F, mirroring an increase that’s been seen throughout the entire Northeast, in both rural and urban areas.

By the 2050s, the NPCC suggests that annual temperatures could increase by 4.1 to 5.7°F. By 2080, it could be closer to 8.8°F.

That may not seem like much, especially as we shiver through a snowy February. But keep in mind that these increases will occur in all months of the year. To put things in perspective, the NPCC offers this: “By the 2080s, New York City’s mean temperatures … may bear similarities to those of a city like Norfolk, Virginia, today.”

We can expect to see more days above 90°F, more days above 100°F, and more heat waves (three or more consecutive days above 90°F), too. The NPCC report suggests that by 2080, the number of heat waves could triple—up to six per year.

But the extremes won’t be limited to temperature. Since 1900, annual precipitation has increased a total of 8 inches (about 0.8 inches a decade); the report suggests this increase is likely to continue, but will probably come in the form of short, intense bursts—perfect for flash floods and combined sewage overflows.

The Time for Action is Now

NYC °CoolRoofs promotes the cooling of New York City’s rooftops. Applying a reflective surface to a roof helps reduce cooling costs, cut energy usage and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Photo credit: NYC °CoolRoofs

While it is difficult to project individual weather events with any kind of certainty, the NPCC’s report is clear that climate change is a serious and imminent threat to New York City’s people, economy, infrastructure, and natural environment.

And while the City is taking dramatic steps to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, it must also act now to protect against sea level rise, coastal flooding, and warming temperatures that are now inevitable.

“NPCC’s findings underscore the urgency of not only mitigating our contributions to climate change, but adapting our city to its risks,” said Mayor de Blasio. “The task at hand is daunting— and that is why we’re making an unprecedented commitment, with a sweeping plan to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050, and a comprehensive, multi-layered resiliency plan that is already making neighborhoods safer.”

The City is also making progress on a number of key projects, including:

  • The launch of scoping and preliminary design work on the Lower East Side to implement a $335 million integrated, neighborhood-sensitive flood protection system to mitigate risk and help connect the community with the waterfront.
  • The Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR), partnering with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), has launched the first-ever, comprehensive regional resiliency analysis of New York City’s food supply chain network.
  • To combat the urban heat island effect, as of the end of 2014, NYC Cool Roofs has coated over six million square feet of building roofs with reflective paint to address the climate change risks associated with urban heat. The City’s recent green buildings plan commits to coating at least one million square feet a year more to continue mitigating the urban heat island effect and provide energy savings in affordable housing, public buildings, and non-profit organizations.
  • ORR and NYCEDC have also launched an approximately $100 million shoreline investment program to protect the most vulnerable waterfront communities, including Coney Island Creek and Staten Island’s South Shore, and other low-lying parts of the city that will be evaluated as part of the first phase of work.

Future efforts include upgrading flood protection systems and coastal protection in at-risk areas, preparing NYCHA for heavy flooding, investments in the Staten Island Bluebelt and other storm water infrastructure, and the construction of levees in Midland Beach and on Staten Island’s East Shore.

Many other sustainability plans are outlined in PlaNYC; the mayor’s office will release a progress report for those initiatives in April 2015.

The Promise and Uncertain Future of Coney Island Creek

Do you have 18 minutes? Take a look at this interesting and beautiful film about Coney Island Creek and the New Yorkers who love it. The film was produced by Charles Denson, a Coney Island native who runs the Coney Island History Project.

The History Project’s website is worth exploring. It has a treasure trove of photographs about one of New York City’s most famous -and distinctive- communities.

“I grew up near Coney Island Creek,” says Denson in his film. “And [I] began photographing it in the 60’s when the waterway was at its lowest point, polluted and neglected, but I always knew there was something special about the creek and that it would survive.”

The 18 minute video is part of a longer documentary film project that Denson is producing.

A Point of Vulnerability

One of the things that Denson discusses in his film is a possible City plan to construct a tidal barrier across the mouth of the two-mile long Creek.

Rising sea levels pose a mounting risk to the area’s residents. Indeed, the City has replaced 670,000 cubic yards of sand on Coney Island’s beaches to protect the coastline.

But some of the worst flooding that hit Coney Island (and Gravesend) during Superstorm Sandy came from the Creek, not the ocean.  “Low edges and topography contributed to “backdoor” flooding that caused enormous damage,” says the City.

In response, the City’s Economic Development Corporation and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency have launched a feasibility study to examine a possible tidal barrier and other hydrological strategies. The core objective is to prevent and mitigate upland flooding and storm surges around Coney Island Creek as sea levels rise.

But the City says other goals can be accomplished at the same time:

  • Improve waterfront open space
  • Enhance water quality and aquatic habitat
  • Strengthen connections between neighborhoods
  • Support economic development in surrounding areas
Coney Island Creek today; and a rendering of the Creek with a series of tidal barriers. Credit: NYC Economic Development Corporation

Trapping Pollution?

Denson is dubious about the City’s idea. He says that constructing a tidal barrier will “most likely turn the waterway into a toxic cesspool and do little to prevent flooding.”

The Creek’s water quality has been heavily impacted by historic industrial pollution and ongoing releases of raw sewage during rain events. The City says a planned upgrade to the sewage pumping station at Avenue V will drastically reduce raw sewage releases – from almost 300 million gallons per year to less than 50 million gallons.

Another issue is the Creek’s natural design. The width of the Creek ranges from 900 feet at the mouth to 150 feet at the head (east side). The tidal water that enters the Creek twice a day is unable to adequately flush it, says the City.

What does Denson think should happen? Make Coney Island Creek a “restored wetland that prevents flooding,” he argues.

Do you live near Coney Island Creek? The City is requesting input from community members about the future of the Creek. Read more about the feasibility study here. Contact the City with your comments and questions here.

A Plan to Protect Red Hook from Rising Seas

Red Hook, Brooklyn, one of the city’s neighborhoods most vulnerable to climate change, is going to receive some badly needed protection from rising sea levels. Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio announced a Request for Proposals this week for the study and design of an integrated flood protection system for the waterfront community.

Red Hook’s flood protection system, which the State has said will be “the first of its kind in the nation,” is supposed to make the neighborhood “more resilient and better protected from future storms.”

Rather than constructing one large barrier, the City and State plan to utilize a combination of elements, such as a natural greenway, deployable flood walls, elevated streets, resilient building retrofits and redevelopment, park retrofits, and improvements to drainage and pumping facilities to protect the neighborhood over the “long-term.”

Once complete, the coastal protection system will encompass 370 acres of land and be able to safeguard “all [New York City Housing Authority] Red Hook Houses and other key buildings and infrastructure in the 100-year floodplain,” the City said. Red Hook Houses is the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn and home to over half of the neighborhood’s 14,000 residents.

The $200 million project is receiving an initial $100 million investment from the City and State combined. It is part of New York State’s $17 billion climate resilience strategy, “Reimagining New York for a New Reality.” It is also one of the 257 initiatives in the City’s climate resilience plan.

The de Blasio administration’s response to climate change has four core elements: strengthen coastal defenses, upgrade buildings, protect infrastructure and critical services, and make homes, businesses, and neighborhoods “safer and more vibrant.”

No “High Ground”

Red Hook, low-lying and bounded by water on three sides, sits below the base flood elevations currently identified by FEMA. There is virtually no “high ground.” According to the City, much of Red Hook experienced three to six feet of flooding during Superstorm Sandy.

Sections of the Red Hook Houses were without heat, hot water and electricity for days, and in some cases, weeks after Sandy. The mechanical systems for the complex, which had been located below sea level, were crippled by Sandy’s storm surge.

Sufficient Funding to Build the Project?

Red Hook’s flood protection system, to be built in phases, will most likely connect with the Brooklyn Greenway, a landscaped route along the waterfront. The Greenway will eventually stretch 14 miles, from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge.

A design competition for the project was supposed to be held this year, with a project completion date scheduled for 2016, according to the City’s resiliency plan. That timetable was delayed because of funding issues, said a spokeswoman for the City.

The City and State say they have received some initial FEMA Hazard Mitigation funding -“to be drawn down from the $100 million”- to complete the project’s feasibility and design analysis.

The City has not yet answered our question regarding whether it has funding to actually construct the flood protection system.

The City has other plans to prepare the Brooklyn waterfront for climate change. A longer-term project, according to resiliency planners, is to build a storm-surge barrier in the nearby Gowanus Canal. That barrier will protect a larger area, including Red Hook and Gowanus.

Tell Us: Is Your Neighborhood Prepared for Climate Change?

High-Risk Neighborhoods of Red Hook, Lower East Side Are Focus of Live Coverage, Climate Crowdsourcing

Take the Survey: Is Your Neighborhood Climate Safe?


Live Coverage from Red Hook, Brooklyn

Live Coverage from the Lower East Side


Streets and buildings flooded, power out, trains down, lives disrupted and taken. No, we’re not talking about the effects of Superstorm Sandy two years ago. We’re talking about New York’s future, with the kind of extreme weather experts warn could hit the city in the years ahead.

Given the forecasts and the lessons of Sandy’s massive impact, do residents in some of the most climate-vulnerable New York neighborhoods think they’re any safer than when Sandy hit? Has the City made progress in fostering a more climate-safe New York?

To find out, we and a group of partners are launching a multi-faceted special project this week.

First, TODAY, the Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY sent teams of journalists to report in real time from two of New York’s highest-risk neighborhoods – Red Hook in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Both communities were slammed during Sandy and are now bracing for more.

We’re also launching a crowdsourcing initiative that will ask all of you the same question: Do you believe you’re safer?

The project is a joint reporting initiative between Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY, which covers how the city is adapting to climate risk, along with NY Environment Report, and more than 30 reporters from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

NYER’s focus in this project is getting City officials and planning experts to talk about progress made on climate resiliency preparations in Red Hook and the Lower East Side, and across the city.

It’s not the first time we have joined forces to look at this issue. Last year, the Gazette, AdaptNY and NYER editor Sarah Crean partnered on an investigative report highlighting the disconnect between city officials and some of its most vulnerable communities in planning for greater climate resilience.

What’s at risk for Red Hook, Lower East Side

Red Hook, home to Brooklyn’s largest public housing complex and a mixture of businesses and industry, was inundated when Sandy hit, causing severe infrastructure damage and affecting thousands of residents. Many remained without power, heat, or running water for weeks. Because of its low-lying geography and climate-induced sea-level rise, Red Hook remains increasingly vulnerable to coastal flooding.

The Lower East Side (LES) also felt Sandy’s force, with more residential units affected there than in the rest of Manhattan combined. Many LES residents lived without power or access to basic utilities for four days after the storm, some for much longer. The area was also at Sandy’s epicenter in another way, when nearly half of the two million New Yorkers who experienced outages in the hurricane’s wake were left in the dark by the explosion of a ConEd substation on 14th Street.

Both neighborhoods remain similarly at risk for future flooding. So much so that the city plans a massive project to shore up a low-lying ring around southern Manhattan with 10 miles of dual-use parks, berms and protections – a $335 million plan known as the Big U.

Tell Us What You Think About Climate Safety

We’re launching a two-pronged interactive effort to hear from New Yorkers directly.

Find out what residents and others in these communities think about their climate safety, especially relative to two years ago when Sandy hit. Check out the live coverage from Red Hook and the Lower East Side this Thursday morning.

The Gazette and AdaptNY are gathering rapid-fire reports, mutimedia interviews, maps, polls and more from both communities. Watch here for Red Hook coverage and watch here for Lower East Side coverage.

Meanwhile, you can also take part in the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram by using the #AreYouClimateSafe hashtag.

We’ve also opened specific Facebook pages to foster more conversation. Join in on Red Hook – Are You Climate Safe? or Lower East Side – Are you Climate Safe?.

Second, we’re inviting you to take part in a crowdsourcing project that will run for two weeks following the live event, through Oct. 17. You can take a quick survey about climate safety in New York. And you can help create a mosaic of community sentiment about climate safety by sharing comments, photos, videos or soundbites. Stay tuned for more information.

Our special project will culminate during the week of Oct. 20 with a major overview, prepared by NYER, to address the central question: Are we safer? That analysis will make extensive use of your contributions from our live reporting and the crowdsourcing projects and look into what progress the City has made with its own climate resiliency planning process, particularly for these vulnerable communities.

So, sign up now on the live event pages – Red Hook and/or Lower East Side – for email reminders. And watch for more news developments in the coming days.

This report was prepared by David Gershgorn, Eric Levitz, Derek Scancarelli and Marguerite Ward.

City Details Preparations as Peak Hurricane Season Arrives

Almost three million New Yorkers currently live in a Hurricane Evacuation Zone. Among those living in “Zone 1,” the areas of the city most vulnerable to coastal flooding, are the 6,500 residents of Red Hook Houses, Brooklyn’s largest public housing complex.

Last week, Mayor de Blasio and other city officials traveled to Red Hook to describe measures the City is taking to prepare for the next major coastal storm. Eighty-four percent of hurricanes form between August and October, officials said.

“It was deeply troubling to see how hard hit this neighborhood was,” said the Mayor. “Even without all the preparation that people deserve, people improvised in an extraordinary manner…We want to be ready for the next time.”

After Sandy, several thousand residents of Red Hook Houses remained without electricity, and heat and hot water for almost two weeks. The development’s mechanical systems, which were located in building basements, were destroyed by flooding.

The lack of power and heat became particularly dangerous as temperatures dropped below freezing. Many older and disabled residents were unable to leave their apartments to secure food and medical assistance because building elevators were not operating.

As part of its Coastal Storm Plan, the City says it has the capacity to shelter up to 600,000 people through a system of 64 evacuation centers and more than 450 hurricane shelters, including special medical needs shelters. The City also maintains an emergency stockpile of essential supplies and a database of several-thousand City employees and volunteers who would be called upon to manage evacuation centers and emergency shelters.

First Steps: Rebuilding Beaches

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the Bloomberg administration developed a rebuilding and climate resiliency plan which focused on five geographic areas: the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront, the East and South Shores of Staten Island, South Queens, Southern Brooklyn, and Southern Manhattan.

The de Blasio administration says it is furthering those efforts to protect everything from the city’s fuel supply to its health care facilities to New York’s 500+ miles of coastline in the face of rising sea levels and storm surges.

In his visit to Red Hook, Mayor de Blasio highlighted progress made on replenishing beaches in some of the city’s most vulnerable areas:

  • In Brooklyn, 600,000 cubic yards of new sand put in place to protect Coney Island;
  • On Staten Island, 26,000 linear feet of dunes rebuilt between South Beach and Conference House Park; and
  • In Queens, 2.5 million cubic yards of sand in place to protect the Rockaways, with another half-million cubic yards coming, said the Mayor.

Support for beach replenishment has come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Re-thinking and Fortifying the Coastline

In Manhattan, the City plans to construct a “protective system” around the lower part of the island, “10 continuous miles of low-lying geography,” stretching from West 57th street south to the Battery and up to East 42th street.

The first segment of the “Big U” proposal, which was the winning entry in the Rebuild by Design competition sponsored by President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, is a “berm” which will elevate and expand the riverfront parkland adjacent to the Lower East Side.

The berm will help to re-connect the Lower East Side to the East River, and “protect one of our biggest concentrations of public housing and affordable housing,” said the Mayor. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded $335 million for the overall Big U proposal.

HUD also awarded $20 million for flood protection projects at Hunts Point in the Bronx, where the Mayor noted, “our food supply is centered.”

And HUD is supplying $60 million to create a “necklace of living breakwaters” off the Staten Island coast to buffer against wave damage, flooding and erosion. The idea, said the Mayor, is to restore “what mother nature had in place to protect against storms.”

Protecting Critical Buildings & Infrastructure

The Mayor noted that new laws have been enacted to require flood-resistant construction for New York City healthcare facilities, and to require emergency plans for residential and commercial buildings.

He said that the City has also adopted new policies to protect critical infrastructure, such as sewage treatment plants and pumping stations, from future storm surge and sea level rise.

De Blasio referenced Red Hook’s ongoing vulnerability to rising sea levels. “We’re working with the State of New York to develop a comprehensive flood protection system for Red Hook, something this neighborhood needs,” he declared.

In the meantime, residents of the Red Hook Houses are still relying on temporary boilers. The New York City Housing Authority plans to replace them with elevated, more efficient boilers and an upgraded heat distribution system, said NYCHA General Manager Cecil House, who spoke after the Mayor.

The Mayor observed that protecting New York City from the impacts of climate change also means examining its underlying causes, and New York City’s role in the global climate crisis.

“We’re committed to addressing the root causes of global warming. And we’ll be saying a lot more about that in the next few weeks as we lead up to the United Nations global summit on climate change in September,” the Mayor added.

GrowNYC Helps Urban Gardens Prepare for Climate Change

Is your garden prepared for climate change? Are your hyacinths ready for a heat wave? Is your fig tree ready for a flood? These are the questions GrowNYC is posing to gardeners across New York City this year—and chances are, the answers are “No, no, and no.”

A new manual released by the nonprofit could change that, though, by providing gardeners and greenspace managers with simple strategies to prepare for more severe weather incidents.

The Resilient NYC Community Garden Guide is a practical manual that details easy ways to make your garden or greenspace more resilient, including step-by-step guidelines to minimizing storm damage.

Learning from Sandy

Photo credit: GrowNYC
Photo credit: GrowNYC

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy showed us, in the most straightforward way, our region’s immense vulnerabilities when it comes to climate change. It also gave us a glimpse of what is to come: more severe weather events, frequent flooding, higher temperatures, and less predictable outcomes.

In fact, these changes are already happening: just last month, New York City received nearly five inches of rain in a single day. As our region begins to tackle the infrastructure needed to handle these changes, GrowNYC is making sure we don’t leave our greenspaces and urban gardens behind.

Lenny Librizzi, GrowNYC’s assistant director of open space greening, remembers the impact of Sandy well. “Around 25 community gardens were damaged in some way by Superstorm Sandy. A number of them had large trees come down causing extensive damage. Others were completely flooded by the ocean or the East River.”

And while GrowNYC was awarded funding to help these gardens recover—through soil replacement, raised bed installation, debris removal, and other repairs—Librizzi hopes that in the future, with the help of their new guide, that won’t be necessary.

A Guide for the Future

Photo credit: GrowNYC
Photo credit: GrowNYC

The 15-page guide is meant to provide practical, approachable advice to gardeners of all kinds—backyard, community, and beyond. It provides preventative steps, like pruning, rainwater collection, and infrastructure enhancements, that can enable a garden to withstand the winds, rain, drought, and snow that come with a changing climate.

The pages are filled with illustrations, diagrams, and photographs that make it easy, even for gardening novices, to take steps towards resiliency. The end of the booklet also contains pre- and post-storm checklists that are designed to keep gardeners safe and healthy.

Resilient NYC Community Garden Guide
Resilient NYC Community Garden Guide

GrowNYC has distributed more than 1,000 copies of the guide to NYC community gardeners at gatherings, workshops and plant sales. The guide is also available online.

If you’d like to see some of these resiliency strategies in action, Librizzi recommends the following:

  • Campos Community Garden on the Lower East Side, where gardeners replaced wooden raised beds with recycled plastic lumber, which is less likely to be displaced by flooding and can be reused after floods.
  • College Avenue Community Garden in the Bronx, where GrowNYC has helped prune dead and damaged branches on trees and added dwarf fruit trees which will not grow as tall as standard varieties and therefore be less likely to be damaged by wind. This garden also repurposed many of the downed limbs into rustic structures in the garden.
  • Santos White Community Garden in Coney Island, which received a new shade structure that incorporates rainwater harvesting as a way to mitigate damage from heavy rains.