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After Sandy, New York State Examines Resilience

New York Blackout after Hurricane Sandy
A new report recommends that the State of New York coordinate its communications and planning efforts and create a greater level of security and redundancy in its infrastructure so it can better withstand not only natural disasters but future ecological and demographic changes as well. Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone

After Hurricane Sandy roared through the eastern seaboard, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo established a commission to examine the condition of the state’s infrastructure and its preparedness for the next extreme event. The report recommends a number of changes in approach.

February 5, 2013—The photographs of Manhattan being inundated with floodwater on the evening of October 29, 2012, are images that will always be associated with Hurricane Sandy, although the city was just one of many communities crippled by the storm. But the past few years have been especially tough on New York—hurricanes Sandy and Irene, as well as Tropical Storm Lee, caused significant damage within the state. On November 15, 2012, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the creation of the NYS 2100 commission to examine the state’s infrastructure and its preparedness for extreme events. He charged the commission with making recommendations to improve New York’s ability to withstand major events through the remainder of the century. Several weeks later the commission issued its report, “Recommendations to Improve the Strength and Resilience of the Empire State’s Infrastructure.”

The commission’s ultimate goal is for New York State to develop the fundamental characteristics of resilience: an infrastructure that has multiple redundancies, as well as flexibility, so that communities can continue to function in the aftermath of an extreme event; infrastructure can fail only in limited ways rather than cause a series of chain-reaction failures; the ability to rapidly rebound after a significant event; and constant learning and efforts to improve resiliency during calmer times.

“We live in a world of increasing volatility, where catastrophic weather events are becoming the new normal and rebuilding each time disaster strikes is not an option,” said Judith Rodin, Ph.D., the president of the Rockefeller Foundation and cochair of the NYS 2100 Commission, in written responses to questions posed by Civil Engineering online.

The recommendations of the commission address infrastructure improvement in the face of extreme weather but also take into consideration the implications of a number of natural, demographic, and societal changes that are anticipated to occur in the state within the next 90 years.

According to worse-case-scenario projections, rising sea levels could top 6 ft by 2100 in New York City and Long Island, the commission noted in the report. In addition, precipitation is predicted to increase by as much as 15 percent, and average temperatures are predicted to increase by 4.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit within that time period. And the seasonal impacts of these shifts are not the same: the winter months are expected to experience increased rainfall and warming temperatures that will significantly impact New York regional economic activities—such as agriculture, including the production of maple syrup, apple, and dairy products. The summer months are expected to see less rainfall, increasing the risk of drought and adversely affecting drinking water supplies. Extreme weather events, which include heat waves, are expected to increase in both frequency and intensity by 2100, according to the report.

Demographic and societal developments that the state needs to take into consideration include a population that will grow by 12.5 percent within the next 30 years, jumping from 19.6 million to 22 million. This growth will occur at the same time cities expand, suburban poverty grows, and the senior population expands by a projected 75 percent, according to the report.

The commission’s specific recommendations for infrastructure improvements, then, are grouped in five areas: transportation, energy, land use, insurance, and infrastructure finance. In addition, the commission made a number of “cross-cutting” recommendations aimed at helping the state become more resilient overall in light of the demographic and societal changes that are projected to occur by 2100.

“Many of the recommendations included in the NYS 2100 Commission report can be enacted wholly through policy changes with an effective cost of zero, to reach the ultimate goal of helping New York State rebuild smarter and to leave our state stronger and more prepared for storms and other events,” Rodin noted.

Protecting the existing transportation, energy, and wastewater infrastructure from extreme weather and flooding, strengthening it so that it can withstand ever-increasing floodwater levels, and reducing its future vulnerability are some of the immediate goals. The commission also recommends that long-term infrastructure projects be identified that will help the state rebuild “smarter.”

“When it comes to disaster-preparedness, as this report highlights, we must think long-term,” Rodin said. “Doing so will ultimately save dollars and lives.”

Rebuilding with long-term goals in mind rather than short-term, one-to-one replacement, and encouraging the use of “green” and natural infrastructure are two such options to rebuild “smarter,” the report states. The report points out that there have been a number of severe weather events in the recent past in which the existence of wetlands and dunes acted as natural buffers against storm surges, thus minimizing local flooding, contamination, or erosion. These incidents can serve as models going forward for more natural, less expensive solutions.

The commission also recommends that agencies responsible for infrastructure decisions coordinate their resilience planning, response measures, and access to resources and equipment. Coordination will decrease duplicate efforts and improve outcomes, according to the report.

“Every one of the recommendations made within the report would ultimately save dollars and lives, however not everything can be immediately put into place today,” Rodin pointed out. But, she added, the report also includes “a number of very inexpensive ways to improve our resilience, many of which will not require prohibitively expensive ‘hard’ infrastructure—tightening our institutional coordination and public communication, for instance, will go a long way toward mitigating the catastrophic effects of natural disasters.”

The commission also recommends reforms in investment, insurance, and risk management; improving data, mapping, visualization, and communications systems; and expanding education, job training, and workforce development so that when the workforce must respond to an emergency, it is prepared to do so.

The 31-member commission included representatives of academia, business, not-for-profit, engineering, finance, real estate, and the federal government. The full NYS 2100 report can be downloaded from the Rockefeller Foundation’s website.



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