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This weekend marks five years since Superstorm Sandy slammed into the Northeast, causing billions of dollars in damage. Since then, New York City has rewritten its building codes to make low-lying neighborhoods more flood-proof. But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, some people think the city should steer construction away from the coastline.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The Domino Sugar construction site in Brooklyn is about as close to the water as you can get.
DAVE LOMBINO: There's about 50 feet of pier sticking out over the East River.
ROSE: This site really is hanging out right over the river.
LOMBINO: Yeah, exactly.
ROSE: Dave Lombino is a managing director with Two Trees. The developer bought this waterfront site for $185 million after falling in love with the expansive views of the Manhattan skyline and the Williamsburg Bridge. A month later, the storm surge from Sandy flooded most of the property. Lombino says the company spent the next two years totally reworking its plans.
LOMBINO: We raised the whole grade of the site between 2 and 7 feet. So when you came here in 2012, you could almost reach down and touch the East River. And now, you know, you're considerably above it.
ROSE: That was expensive. But Lombino says it was worth it to reduce the risk of future flooding.
LOMBINO: It's not a matter of if it will flood again. It's a matter of when and how quickly we can bounce back the next time.
ROSE: It's not just developers who are thinking about the next storm. Since Sandy, the city has made big changes to its building and zoning codes for structures of all kinds - from luxury apartments to single-family homes - aimed at getting expensive heating and electrical systems out of basements and off the ground. Daniel Zarrilli directs climate policy and programs for the city.
DANIEL ZARRILLI: We're replacing less safe buildings with more safe buildings. So that means we're elevating the house. We're elevating the core infrastructure, the mechanicals, the electrical equipment, the meter. All of that is being raised out of harm's way and out of the floodplain.
KLAUS JACOB: The city has done a lot of things that really help for the current situation. What I think is missing - that we have a long-term vision.
ROSE: Klaus Jacob is a climate scientist at Columbia University. He thinks these new resilient building practices are great, but he worries they won't be enough if sea levels rise 6 feet by the end of the century, as some models suggest.
JACOB: While those buildings themselves may be OK - because they are actually constructed in such a way that they can flood - people may not be able to get in and out of those buildings because the streets are flooded.
ROSE: Jacob says the city should start thinking now about managed retreat, steering new development away from the water and turning some low-lying areas into park or even marshland. In Staten Island, residents of a few coastal neighborhoods have taken voluntary buyouts and left. But in most parts of the city, homeowners are rebuilding in neighborhoods that flooded. And high-end real estate developers in Brooklyn and Manhattan are still building right up to the water's edge.
SIMON KOSTER: We're standing on the top floor of the West Tower on the 48th floor - what would typically be our penthouse apartment.
ROSE: Simon Koster is a principal with JDS Development Group. Koster says the firm incorporated some key lessons from Sandy into its American Copper Buildings - a pair of luxury apartment towers just a few hundred feet from the East River in Manhattan. Instead of a penthouse, for example, this room holds five huge backup generators that can supply emergency power to more than 700 apartments.
KOSTER: You would have enough power to charge your phone, and you'd be able to keep food in your refrigerator at a bare minimum. You'll be able to flush your toilet, and you would have an elevator that goes up to the floor you live on.
ROSE: Koster's company is betting those will become selling points for future tenants as sea levels rise. But even the best flood proofing won't help if the buildings turn out to become luxury islands every time there's a big storm or an unusually high tide. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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