What New York has learned from Sandy

New York — The Globe and Mail

Eddie Liu uses a broom to clean up mud and water from extensive flooding in a laundromat due to superstorm Sandy in the Coney Island neighborhood of New York. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

Sometimes, when faced with unimagined events, the struggle for parallels tells its own story.

Fumbling to describe the impact of the worst storm in living memory, New Yorkers have reached for analogies. Is Hurricane Sandy a Katrina-like moment? Is it an echo of the devastation of the 9/11 attacks?

The questions are less a search for precise similarities than a way to talk about how people feel. They evoke a time when basic needs are unmet, when the comforting routine of normalcy is shredded, when the city – as one Brooklyn resident told me – is like “a giant on its knees.”

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All of New York’s eight million people have experienced the storm’s touch, lightly or viciously. For many, the disaster is primarily an inconvenience. But through friends or relatives, everyone finds connections to people whose lives were upended. A friend’s parents live on Staten Island, where the flood swept into their living room, while a cousin’s friend in Far Rockaway saw his house destroyed.

The toll of the storm is still being measured – in lives lost, homes flooded, businesses disrupted. But in a broader sense, the reckoning is clear: The disaster has altered the city’s perception of its own vulnerability. The new danger is from nature, and lays bare the precariousness of urban existence.

Seen after Sandy, New York is a series of islands at the mouth of a rising sea, dependent on a network of underwater tunnels and a century-old transit system to speed millions of people on their way every day.

Coming to terms with that reality will not be easy. New York needs new safeguards against natural disaster, ones that go far beyond the adaptive capacities of its residents. But that kind of protection is costly and difficult to co-ordinate. And fault lines are already opening up among politicians over how to address the city’s frailties.

“We’re resilient, but we’re not crazy,” says Bob Yaro, a Queens native who heads the Regional Plan Association, an urban research and advocacy group. “New Yorkers are going to demand that we take steps so we don’t have this kind of event with its aftermath again.”

 

No water, plenty of fear

 

On a recent cold, bright morning, a knot of volunteers assembled near the darkened storefront of El Rinconcito restaurant on East 10th Street near Avenue C in lower Manhattan. Late the night before, someone had driven up a van of relief supplies from Baltimore for local residents, who were without power, heat or running water.

Among the volunteers was Harold Hernandez, 50. He has spent his entire life on these streets, and on Monday night, he saw things he had never imagined. There was the thigh-high water coursing down Avenue C. And there was the enormous explosion at the power plant next door, which lit up the sky with a flash so white that Mr. Hernandez says he thought to himself, “Okay, Lord, you’re calling me home.”

Three days later, he struggled to strike an optimistic note. “We strive, so …” he said, his voice trailing off. “It doesn’t look like it, but we’ll strive, we’ll go forward. What else can we do?”

At the nearby Jacob Riis Houses, a public-housing unit, people were gathering their water from fire hydrants and lugging buckets up to their apartments so they could flush their toilets and wash.

“They left us on our own out here,” says Susan Tirado, 43, a mother of three. “We’ve been helping each other; that’s how we’ve been surviving.”

Leaving the neighbourhood, we drove carefully through streets with no traffic signals, obeying the occasional cop directing cars, before arriving in the other city – the one where billboards blazed with light and restaurants were full of diners. Sainfa Destine, a taxi driver, told me the problem was clear. The city’s comfort zone had been obliterated, he said. “When we have this kind of challenge, we’re going to have to face it and prepare for something even bigger.”

 

The next time

 

That raw sense of vulnerability is prompting a search for solutions.

Both Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor, and Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York state, have said they expect more severe storms, a trend they connect to the changing climate. In the past 14 months alone, there were two such hurricanes, Sandy and Irene. The latter threatened New York but largely spared it.

“For us to sit here today and say this is a once-in-a-generation [occurrence] and it’s not going to happen again, I think, would be shortsighted,” Mr. Cuomo said at a briefing on Wednesday. “We need to anticipate more of these extreme-weather-type situations in the future, and we have to take that into consideration in reforming, modifying, our infrastructure.”

Mr. Cuomo’s comments appear to open the door to a more radical re-imagining of how to protect New York, including tidal gates and barriers in the city’s harbour, much like those that have been installed in the Netherlands and on the Thames River in London.

Planners have already envisioned such a system and how much it would cost – in the ballpark of $10-billion (U.S.). While that is a hefty price tag, the amount is “cheap at the price compared to just one more of these events,” Mr. Yaro says. Sandy will cost the United States at least $50-billion, according to an estimate from Moody’s Analytics, which includes both actual damage and economic activity lost.

“We’re capable of doing big things when we develop the political will, but sometimes it takes a galvanizing event like this to do it,” Mr. Yaro adds.

The other school of thought prefers an approach that’s more of a Mr. Fix-it solution. That means improving existing infrastructure, whether by enclosing subway stations and rail tunnels to seal out water or installing more powerful pumps.

Mr. Bloomberg appears to favour this tack. “Nature produces great risks,” he said earlier this week. He said he was unsure there were “any practical ways to build barriers in the oceans … even if you spend a fortune, it’s not clear to me that you would get much value for it.”

Once the immediate disaster-relief phase is over, the political tug-of-war will begin. Finding the money to finance any improvements in an era of strained public budgets will be a challenge. And any large infrastructure projects could involve the leaders of all three states in the region – New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – not exactly a recipe for harmonious execution.

For some experts, Sandy is the unhappy culmination of years of warnings that New York – and especially its 108-year old subway system – was unprepared for a superstorm.

Mitchell Moss, who directs the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, said there was now widespread recognition that “we have to make vast improvements to the existing system for moving people so it can withstand not just terror, but nature.”

Mr. Moss praised the ability of New Yorkers to adapt (when we spoke, his colleagues were carrying water and food up 17 floors to a 100-year-old retired professor who lives in a downtown building without power) but predicted they would demand change.

“No one is going to forget this one,” he said. “Nobody is going to name their kid Sandy.”

 

The long slog

 

The city is limping forward. Though the annual New York City Marathon will not proceed as planned on Sunday, schools will reopen at the start of next week. And much of Lower Manhattan, dark since Monday, had its power restored Friday afternoon.

Yet for those whose homes or businesses were devastated, the journey is just beginning.

In Red Hook, a hip Brooklyn waterfront neighbourhood, the tide swept through the streets, flooding houses, restaurants and artists’ studios. One of the places it ruined was a bakery and smokehouse facility for Mile End, a delicatessen much beloved for its Montreal-style smoked meats.

Noah and Rae Bernamoff, the restaurant’s proprietors, met as students at McGill University and opened the new facility this past spring as their business expanded. When Sandy came ashore, a 1 1/2-metre-high wave of water rushed through, toppling equipment weighing thousands of pounds.

“It’s still very emotional,” Ms. Bernamoff says. There was “total destruction of everything inside the space.”

She says it’s hard to know whether they’ll rebuild at that location. “I don’t think that any of us could ever bear to relive such a horrific disaster.”

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