By Sarah Trefethen
From the Rockaways to South Street to Staten Island, a question mark hangs over the coastal communities hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy. Given the threat of future storms is rebuilding worth the cost?
Insurers and lenders may not be sure, but for the Bloomberg Administration, the answer is yes.
Rebuilding flood-ravaged sections of the city is not just a matter of doing right by residents and businesses, according to Seth W. Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. It can also be an important part of planning for a future in which, the administration believes, the sea level will continue to rise.
“We are going to fight as a city for our coastal neighborhoods, especially those that were impacted by Hurricane Sandy,” Pinsky told the Building Congress Tuesday.
“And that’s because we not only believe that we have a moral duty as a city to those who suffered the most, but also because we believe that those areas provide us with a laboratory for trying to develop new best practices.”
Pinsky is the director of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency,” which is scheduled to present a report on concrete recommendations to the mayor next month, addressing climate–related threats ranging from heat waves, drought and torrential rain.
With the release of the report still weeks away, Pinsky’s talk was short of specifics, but he did make some things clear.
The goal of plan will not be to make the city impervious to disaster, he said, but to build and develop in such a way that when the worst happens, the city can recover quickly.
“The goal will be to reduce impacts where possible, but acknowledging that no defense is going to be perfect, and therefore trying to make our city more resilient — meaning that we can bounce back more quickly when defenses are breached,” Pinsky said.
“And that means looking at multiple defenses from coastal defenses to the built environment, saying not just that we’re going to build things to keep the water out, but when the water gets in we have to make sure our buildings can actually absorb that water.”
The Mayor has already allocated $1.77 billion in federal aid to housing, business and infrastructure needs in the neighborhoods hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. But a number of those programs are competitions for innovations that could be replicated citywide.
As part of the special initiative, McKinsey, SwissRE is helping the city develop loss frequency curves to calculate the potential cost to the city of various disaster scenarios.
“We’re facing a very serious challenge, not just as a city, but as a planet,” Pinsky said. “And that challenge cannot just be counted in terms of inches of sea level rise, but also in terms of dollars and cents.”
While work is still underway on the calculations, Pinsky said, it was already clear that, “as horrible an event as Sandy was, if we don’t do anything as a city, the losses are likely to get greater as the conditions around us get more challenging.”
Which may explain why, in the face of challenges that will only get worse with time, the administration rejects backing away from the low-lying areas of the city within the 100-year flood plain.
“When you look at the numbers, what you see is we can’t not sustain the costal neighborhoods,” Pinsky said. “You’re talking about neighborhoods in which 70,000 buildings, 580 million s/f of building floor area and hundreds of thousands of people and jobs live and exist. If we’re a city that’s going to continue to grow, we can’t abandon the 520 miles of coastline that make up a significant part of our city.”