Sandy Shows More Cities Need To Boost Preparedness

In the wake of superstorm Sandy, the lessons learned from flooding in New York City suggests a broader look at the readiness of U.S. coastal cities ahead of the next big storm. Lynn Neary talks about infrastructure and storm preparedness with Adam Freed, former deputy director of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability.

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So how does Sandy change the conversation about preparations for disasters in New York City, which had some of the worst damage from the storm? The agency there that's devoted to making the city more resilient is called PlaNYC.

Adam Freed was the deputy director there until August. He's now at the Nature Conservancy, and he joins us today from Rockville, Maryland. Hello, Mr. Freed. Thanks for joining the program.

ADAM FREED: My pleasure. Nice to speak with you.

NEARY: Anything that you do is going to require a huge amount of time, a huge amount of money. How do you begin to tackle this?

FREED: In fact, that's something the city has had under way since 2007 with the launch of PlaNYC. It started by bringing together a panel of scientists to develop climate change projections, specifically for New York. Then the city brought together over 41 city, state, federal agencies and private sector companies to use those climate projections. And that also underscores one of the critical challenges facing cities, is that much of the infrastructure is not controlled by cities.

You have private power companies. You have private utilities that are regulated by federal and state entities. You have a mass transit system in the city that's controlled by a state public authority. So there are multiple challenges in doing that.

NEARY: So this is not just a scientific problem. This is very much a political problem.

FREED: Very much so.

NEARY: You know, when you talk about climate change with regards to New York City specifically, what is the danger of climate change to New York?

FREED: New York has 520 miles of coastline. Historically, you've seen about an inch of sea level rise a decade, even without climate change, just from the local terrain and subsidence. And that could increase to over five feet by the end of the century. If you add on top of that coastal storms, be they nor'easters or hurricanes, there's a tremendous flood risk that the city faces.

NEARY: You know, one of the really big ideas that's out there is that there could be a floodwall, which would act as a barrier, to this kind of storm surge coming into the city. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that New York may need floodwalls. Mayor Bloomberg is not as enthusiastic about that idea. Why would the city be opposed?

FREED: You know, I think what you're seeing is that the city is not opposed to that necessarily but wants to make sure they're evaluating all the potential strategies. Storm surge barriers or any proposal on its own is not going to mitigate all the risks. There's no one-size-fits-all solution for this.

NEARY: When you look at the New York City subway system, which is just vast, I wonder if even if you put in a floodwall, aren't you always going to have to be pumping out the subways after a storm like this? I mean, is there really any protection that would keep water away from getting into the subways?

FREED: And that's one of the main challenges of any underground infrastructure. The subway system pumps out 10 million gallons of water a day without rain or flooding. There are large areas of the city that would not be protected by some of the barrier proposals that are out there. And that's always going to be a challenge and the reality that the MTA and the city faces.

NEARY: Now, one thing I read about, for example, was the possibility of putting, you know, electrical power structures on, say, the second, third, maybe fourth floor of a building as opposed always being in the basement. But that would take a lot of cooperation from different entities.

FREED: Yeah, and that's something that the city had already identified as needing to be done. They pass new building code changes that allows buildings now to put electrical equipment and other critical equipment on the roof. So I think it's going to be hundreds of thousands of small actions as well as some larger actions to really increase the resilience of not just New York but all coastal areas and those areas that face intense rainfall or heat waves as well.

NEARY: Thanks very much for joining us.

FREED: My pleasure.

NEARY: Adam Freed was deputy director for PlaNYC, the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability in New York, up until August. He's now at the Nature Conservancy.

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