November 1, 2012

Learning from Hurricane Sandy

By: Eugenie L. Birch and Susan M. Wachter

Birch and Wachter, professors, University of Pennsylvania and co-Directors, Penn Institute for Urban Research, edited Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster, Lessons from Katrina (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). Birch is Chair, Board of Directors, Municipal Art Society of New York  (MAS). Wachter is Chair, Wharton GIS Lab.

A mere six years ago, when a major metropolitan area was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the nation witnessed and was embarrassed by the pictures of dysfunction that ensued. We saw enormous human suffering and we saw huge missteps at every level – from the lack of pre-storm preparation to the total breakdown of government response at the local, state and federal levels in the post-storm recovery. 

Let us acknowledge the loss of life and devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, the nation’s second most severe storm in recent history.  Recovery efforts are ongoing, with much work yet to be completed.  Severely damaged neighborhoods are in shambles in the Rockaways, Staten Island and parts of the New Jersey shore.  The dewatered transportation tunnels are functional but require enormous reconditioning.

Still, the recovery process shows that we have learned from Katrina and in the New York metropolitan area many of Katrina’s lessons are now being applied. First, pre-storm preparations were, on the whole, executed well, with smooth evacuations, pre-emptive closure and protection of major transportation assets and communications strategies to keep as many people as possible out of harm’s way at home or in safe havens. Second, first responders were on call during the storm, reacting where possible to emergencies, as in the case of the two workers who climbed a W. 57th Street building to check the security of a fallen crane.  Third, the decision to put resources into infrastructure repair – focusing on transportation –and  managing traffic flow by maximizing public transit – no fares, favored bus lanes and forced carpooling – demonstrated leadership and forethought and put five million daily riders back into the system. And one as yet underappreciated factor contributing to the city’s resilience is its multi-year effort to add bike lanes, heavily used in the past few days.

There have been problems – and analyzing them and thinking about how to deal with them is now in order, lest we forget.  The topics are many and complicated. Take infrastructure for example. Here, one category of questions revolves around gasoline, another around power, and yet another around water. They are, to some degree, intertwined and the failure to recognize their inter-relationships in the recent emergency was painfully obvious.  The metro region’s auto dependency, heightened by the closure of the mass transit, put enormous pressure on delivering fuel – both its supply and distribution.  When the Coast Guard closed the harbor, inventories could not be replenished; when individual gas stations had no power (nor back-up generators), pumps were still.

Widespread reliance on back-up generators put additional pressure on the demand for fuel.  In addition, public and private decision-makers did not fully anticipate the flooding risks to the power system. For example, NYU’s Langone Medical Center had two generators – one in the basement and one on a high floor.  But, when the hospital basement flooded, not only did the first generator go out of commission, the fuel supply to the elevated generator failed. Others had raised their backup power systems – generators, transmission stations and so forth but not high enough.  In addition, no one had seriously considered flood gates for the transportation system’s seven Lower Manhattan tunnels. Finally, a series of problems surfaced around water: making sure everyone had a supply of drinking water, especially the elderly or disabled trapped in high rise buildings whose elevators were powerless, and figuring out how to treat the sanitary and rain sewers that overwhelmed the pollution control plants.

In the long run, as Robert Yaro, President of the Regional Plan Association and Penn IUR Faculty Fellow wrote, “we need to prioritize storm protection and resiliency. Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath have awakened us to an uncomfortable reality: The country's most populated area and its largest economic engine sits on a vulnerable coastline.”

At the center of the hoped-for discussions called for by Yaro should be an honest confrontation of the different aims in recovery and long-term planning. It is one thing to rebuild for restoration of the status quo; it is an entirely different approach to rebuild for prevention and resilience. These distinctions might inform the now-emerging debates about what measures would help ease the impact of storm surges (and the other sword of Damocles: sea level rise).

Returning to the infrastructure questions, they encompass a variety of investment choices in hard and soft solutions. For example, New York could erect tidal gates and barriers at key points in the harbor to prevent storm surges from reaching the region's core. Although these systems are expensive and pose significant engineering and ecological questions, they can, and do prevent serious flood damage. Or it could focus on the restoration of barrier dunes and wetlands systems and reducing construction along perilous flood plains. These approaches might be more cost-effective and less damaging to estuaries and natural resources but could require population relocation and other touchy political issues. Overlaying the city’s historic wetlands with evacuation zones provides a tentative roadmap of areas to study.

FIGURE 1 New York City 2012 (courtesy David Maddox)

Most likely, the City and surrounding region will undertake some combination of these approaches. As we plan for resilience, we need to protect key infrastructure assets better – whether it is flood gates or more alternative transportation routes, dealing with underground gas lines subject to damage, caring for overgrown trees and building more green infrastructure, carrying out smart grid improvements – we will need to spend some money to make the appropriate investments. We will also need to examine and revise appropriate levels of flood plain and coastal development, putting into place research, education and outreach programs about how to engage in environmentally sound practices.

We learned from Katrina and now we can learn from Sandy.  And in our increasingly urban world, we have no choice but to learn what makes urban places resilient.

Urban Link November 2012 (Volume 2012, Issue 1) »

Bring our latest initiatives, publications and events to your inbox.