All Wet

Bloomberg's man Dan Doctoroff has an answer for rising seas: more coastal condos!

The effort to get the unit going continued at least until Ward's departure in February 2005, and it was Ward who signed up Rosenzweig's Columbia groups, including a $300,000 NASA Goddard Institute contract, as his agency's climate advisers. Predictably, however, the initiative had a hard time competing for air during Bloomberg's re-election campaign. Then, at the end of the year, Shaw and Madonia followed Ward out the door, and the proposal seemed dead.

By the mayor's own account in his Queens speech, he asked the newly empowered Doctoroff in January 2006 "to develop a long-term land-use plan for the city," a project the two thought "would take just a few months." They soon realized that they had to consider "the full range of challenges to our city's physical environment," Bloomberg recalled, and that's how the sustainability project was born. First announced in September, it took its initial shape at the December presentation, three years after the Ward proposal was launched. Doctoroff's concept is quite different from Ward's—DEP is just one of many agencies working with Aggarwala, Kulikowski's unit has been taken out of the mix, and sustainability is a much broader challenge than climate. While the original idea was focused on adapting the city's complex infrastructure to the exigencies of our new weatherworld, that has clearly not been Doctoroff's top agenda so far.

The Ward proposal flowed from a prime finding of the 2001 Rosenzweig study, which pointed out that $100 billion per decade would be spent in the metropolitan area improving the infrastructure. "The most cost-effective way to protect the infrastructure against future coastal storm surge losses," the study found, "would be to build into the capital projects protection against the increased flood potentials. A coherent policy is needed that should be based on technical input." The official assessment of the consequences of climate change locally, Rosenzweig's report said the first step was "an agency-by-agency, systematic inventory of infrastructure assets, potential hazards, and loss potential that reflects climate change impact scenarios," a simple enough idea whose time, Aggarwala concedes, has yet to come.

Illustration by Jonathan Barkat


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Emily Lloyd, who succeeded Ward at DEP, says that her task force, working with Rosen-zweig, is "due to complete" an inventory of the agency's assets this summer, and that those recommendations "will be fed into our plans." But DEP, like every other city agency, has been spending billions since 2001 on capital projects without any climate criteria, and, in all likelihood, this spending will continue without Rosenzweig's guideposts well into the future. This is not just a wasted opportunity; it prolongs the city's exposure, though Rosenzweig's study warned that "under climate-related sea-level rise projections," the city's waste treatment plants, pumping stations, and storm sewers "could become permanently submerged and cause backups."

Lloyd concedes that half the city's 14 treatment plants are close to sea level, and that her agency is only now thinking "in the near-term about what kinds of adaptive strategies we can put in place" to protect them and the rest of the vulnerable sewer system. She rejects the suggestion that a big storm could result in untreated sewage in our streets, backed up by an overwhelmed and low-lying system, which several experts contacted by the Voice said was a plausible scenario. "I can't quantify it for you," said Lloyd, "but I think it would be really extraordinary if that would happen." DEP is also developing a response to the other weather extremes that accompany warming—droughts that may dry up our water supply, with one major tunnel from the reservoirs already badly leaking.

The subways, roadways like the FDR, and tunnels from the Holland to the Battery are also exposed nerves, with Rosenzweig's study listing the elevations of the most vulnerable transportation facilities page by page. "Entrances to subway, road or rail tunnels or ventilation shafts will be at or below flood levels," warned the report about severe storms, even in Category 1 hurricanes. Jerry Hauer, the head of the Office of Emergency Management under Mayor Giuliani, recalls that he was summoned to northern Manhattan during a 1999 storm surge and watched top MTA brass and workers "throw sandbags at the entrance to a big subway tunnel."

That's why the Rosenzweig report urged "incorporating climate change requirements" into the major, federally aided subway improvements, but Aggarwala told a City Council committee recently that his office had just begun talking to the MTA or the Port Authority about climate issues. Just as Aggarwala found "strange" any suggestion that the city ought to restrain future coastal development before figuring out ways of protecting existing structures, he called a review of the 7 extension's vulnerability "odd" because "lots of parts of the subway system are closer to areas prone to flooding." This pick-your-own-poison approach, of course, allows Doctoroff, whose EDC now has an astounding $1.4 billion grab bag of development contracts, to continue right on down the path to Moses eminence.

Some who have watched Doctoroff and Bloomberg together say they speak to each other in tongues, a language of the marketplace that most others in the government don't even understand. DEP's Lloyd says she's only discussed climate adaptation with the mayor "in group settings." Her predecessor, Ward, never discussed it with Bloomberg at all. Asked if the mayor has made his commitment to adopting adaptation strategies clear, Lloyd couldn't cite an instance. "I take it as a given," she says, "but I can't tell you what I've heard from whom," expressing confidence that City Hall supports her climate work. Talk to Joel Klein about Bloomberg's direct engagement with the schools and the contrast is clear. The mayor is letting Doctoroff lead this charge, even though safeguarding the city against climate change would become a more memorable Bloomberg legacy than schools or anything else.

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