…What New York is not so good at is preventing big storms from exacting an enormous toll on infrastructure, buildings and businesses. In the case of Sandy, the damage to New York City is estimated to be as much as $17 billion. Cities like London, Amsterdam — and, yes, Providence — have built systems to minimize the damage even Category 3 storms can cause. But not New York.
Part of the reason is that the cost of any such system would run into the billions of dollars. But another reason is that many environmentalists are firmly opposed to a big public-works project, fearing that it would give people a false sense of security about the problems posed by climate change. They prefer taking smaller steps, like raising the height of subway grates to keep water out of the subway tunnels. Bloomberg has embraced this approach.
In 2008, for instance, Bloomberg convened a panel of experts to examine the ways climate change could affect the city. The panel’s report, issued in 2010, documented the undeniable fact that the rivers and bays around New York were rising, and that changes in the atmosphere were likely to make storms both more frequent and more dangerous.
Yet Malcolm Bowman, who leads the Storm Surge Research Group at Stony Brook University, told me that when he joined the panel, he was pointedly told that barriers were not going to get much emphasis. Another former member of the panel, Klaus Jacob, a scientist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, told The New York Times, in a prescient article published just six weeks before Sandy hit, that the city’s unwillingness to be more aggressive was akin to “Russian roulette.” Jacob believes that the city needs to build unbreachable gates to subways, tunnels and infrastructure to prevent water from rushing in. Despite the expense, he says that such a system would save billions by preventing storm damage.
In the aftermath of Sandy, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has openly called for rethinking the way New York deals with storms. So far, however, Bloomberg has resisted. “The fact that we are close to the water shouldn’t be a surprise to everybody,” he sniffed on Thursday.