How resilient is New York when confronted with a natural disaster?

Written by Elena Collins on 5 November 2012

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, could the city have made more long-term investments to make New York’s infrastructure more resilient?

A week on from Hurricane Sandy, commuters are returning to work today while the city continues to restore the city's transport services. The New York stock exchange is now open again and citizens of the city are beginning to head back to their jobs. However, NJ Transit, New Jersey's public transport body, warned that it was "still several weeks away from full service restoration". To cope with the demand, it would be running emergency bus services as of Monday morning to help get commuters to and from the Big Apple.

In preparation for the storm, local authorities took immediate action. Tunnels shut down across the city connecting Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey. Subways, buses, trains and schools were also closed, as well as 9,000 flights cancelled across the region, and the main rail service was suspended. Nine states declared a state of emergency.

The Empire State took a series of emergency solutions to brace itself for the unclear impact of Storm Sandy. However, could the city have made more long-term investments to make New York’s infrastructure more resilient?  How could the urban infrastructure of New York be adapted?

In 2009, The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) stressed that “awareness is growing that some impacts from climate change are inevitable” and concluded that “these changes suggest a need for the City to rethink the way it operates and adapts to its evolving environment.” The NPCC indicated that the city needed to take steps to protect its equipment and infrastructure from salt-water erosion. If this had been implemented, would the electricity have been restored sooner to the city?

As 730,000 people in New York State continue to live without power, perhaps further investment into ‘smart grid energy systems’ could prevent the megacity in coming to a standstill as emergency battery devices or back-up generators can only provide a short term fix or can indeed fail too. Jim Woolley, Business Development Manager of KONE lifts in the UK, explains that: ‘‘lifts in high-rise buildings do not run well on batteries because of the power requirements and in the case of New York; not at all. Electrical systems which are located in the lift pit could cause the lift to malfunction should they become wet or submerged. The high-rise lifts in New York would simply stop dead if the main power fails and would trap people.’’

In terms of political leadership, President Obama stopped his election campaign to guide his citizens, stressing to the public: "Please listen to what your state and local officials are saying. When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate’’.

Sharon McHugh, the New York-based US Correspondent for World Architecture News, gives an account that shows how these messages sometimes fail to get through: ‘‘People living in low lying areas, West Chelsea, for example, were a bit in denial so there was no widespread acknowledgement that the event which happened could indeed happen.’’  

It appears that due to the public being underprepared in certain areas, through denial or lack of information, West Chelsea, famous for being an artistic hub and epicentre of the industry, lost millions of dollars worth of art, much of which is irreplaceable due to the flooding. Sharon asks some pertinent questions on how such losses might have a lasting effect on real estate value: “What will happen with the micro economy there, or in areas affected?  Will the art galleries leave?  And if they do how will this affect the neighbourhood, the restaurants, and high end residences etc that grew up with the galleries and are to some extent dependent on that economy?”

In an attempt to restore some sort of normality to the area and to prevent a backlash of a withering local economy, the Conservators from the American Institute for Conservation Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT) and The Museum of Modern Art participated in a consortium on conserving works of art damaged by flooding, on Sunday 4th November, at The Museum of Modern Art.

Sea water flood at the Ground Zero construction site

The steps taken by the AIC-CERT is a clear example of how a micro economy needs to be maintained in the effected neighbourhood. If the artistic community continues to be supported on a long-term basis, local businesses that rely on it will thrive once again.

Sharon McHugh explains some tactics that New York could adopt from its neighbouring cities to prevent floods from repeating itself. Suggestions include building levees or a floodwall around Lower Manhattan, which was done with mixed results, in New Orleans and a temporary dam is also being discussed for a location at the Verazzano Bridge.  

As a final point, New York emergency tactics obviously saved lives, and the city wounds will heal in time. What will be interesting to see is what measures will be taken by the leaders in the built environment to prevent the aftershocks of a disaster like Sandy from happening again. There are lessons to be learned here to protect people and businesses but also to mitigate the long-term risk to real estate asset values.

Categories: Environment, People, Governance, Emergency services, New York