New York Business Owners Aren't Waiting For City To Get Flood-Ready

Business owners in lower Manhattan are taking matters into their own hands to prepare for when flooding threatens, hardening buildings and investing in barriers they can put up on their own to create a dry perimeter around their properties. Sea level rise is expected to make the area much more prone to inundation in just a few decades.

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New York City is working on several plans to protect itself from future hurricanes and storms. But most of the proposals are many years and several billion dollars away from fruition. Matthew Schuerman, from member station WNYC, found that some owners of large office buildings aren't waiting around for the city to act. They're finding their own solutions.

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MATTHEW SCHUERMAN, BYLINE: Seventeen State Street is a large office building located right at the southern tip of Manhattan. One morning, earlier this month, a crew came and erected a four-foot-high temporary flood wall around it.

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ADAM GOLDBERG: We're looking at 450 linear feet of AquaFence.

SCHUERMAN: That's Adam Goldberg, the New York representative for AquaFence. The wall looks a bit like a series of track and field hurdles lined up side-by-side, but made of solid waterproof plywood. The flat pieces along the ground have rubber gaskets underneath.

GOLDBERG: The water approaches the barrier. The way the barriers are set up, the weight of the water actually compresses down on the lower panel, creating a seal that actually gets tighter as the water gets higher.

SCHUERMAN: Goldberg says AquaFence has been doing a brisk business in the past year: 21 customers in New York, with five dozen more deals in the works. The temporary walls cost a few hundred thousand dollars for each building. By comparison, 17 State Street suffered millions of dollars in damages from Sandy.

Deloy Stoll is the property manager.

DELOY STOLL: We were we were completely overcome in Hurricane Sandy. We lost everything - all of our cellar, all of our inner workings. There was a two-foot storm surge which caused the majority of the damage, so we have ordered the four-foot AquaFence so that...

(LAUGHTER)

STOLL: So that will never happen again.

SCHUERMAN: They're making sure the floodwall fits. The crew takes it down and puts it into storage where it will sit until the next hurricane approaches.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed buying temporary walls like these to stretch around much of the Island of Manhattan, including the southern end, where 17 State Street is located. But Deloy Stoll doesn't want to count on that.

STOLL: And when they come up with that plan, then we will be more than happy to embrace this as a secondary line of defense.

SCHUERMAN: The mayor's plan calls for everything from floodwalls to stronger power plants to smarter sewage systems. It would cost at least $20 billion to implement. When he laid out his ideas in a major speech in June, even Bloomberg admitted not much could be finished before his final term expires in December.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: It's up to you to hold our successor accountable for getting it done...

SCHUERMAN: Most of these ideas have to be designed, debated, financed, and contracted out before they are finally built.

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SCHUERMAN: One advocate for the waterfront, Roland Lewis, says he understands why property owners aren't sitting back and waiting for the city's plan.

ROLAND LEWIS: They're looking for protection. They're looking for ways in a cost-effective, permittable(ph), affordable way that will make their property resilient for an oncoming storm.

SCHUERMAN: Lewis is head of the nonprofit Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. Its own office, right along the East River, had to close down for a little bit after Sandy. He says, if property owners are left to fend entirely for themselves, the next big storm is going to turn the city into a checkerboard.

LEWIS: What is that going to look like in a couple of years, two or three surviving properties and 200 that won't? It's no way to run a city, state or country.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: There needs to be policy. There needs to be planning.

SCHUERMAN: Both major candidates in the mayoral election early next month support Mayor Bloomberg's resiliency plan. But Roland Lewis says with city budget deficits looming, it will be hard to find the money to make sure the entire city survives the next storm, not just those buildings with their own private walls.

For NPR News, I'm Matthew Schuerman in New York.

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