Columbia Ignores Peril

When Klaus Jacob talks, important people take action. Except the important people paying him.

When he saw the plans for the basement, Jacob realized that any flooding of the area would have much greater consequences.

Ironically, in Columbia's environmental-impact statement, there is an acknowledgment of Jacob—the scientist is cited by name, and the report devotes an entire section to his 2004 letter. Mueser recommended further studies of the flood hazard and agreed with Jacob's demand to hire an independent risk-assessment firm—but no firm was named. A floodgate of the type Jacob recommends is mentioned as a possibility. The report also points out that many underground structures already exist in Lower Manhattan and ultimately concludes that the engineering concerns can be resolved, and that therefore the project shouldn't be prevented from going forward.

Jacob calls the report "cautious and clever" and says that he isn't at all satisfied. The university didn't commit itself to building a floodgate or taking other serious measures to address what he sees as a grave risk. Such a commitment would require a frank discussion of the actual financial costs of building a floodgate or a levee, and Jacob thinks those costs will be extremely high. "Of course, the most expensive solution is to do nothing," he adds. As for the report's observation that many underground structures already exist in New York, Jacob scoffs: "And because there are many thefts, that means that you can steal?"

Klaus Jacob
Cary Conover
Klaus Jacob
‘I’m trying to convince my own alma mater to do the right thing, and I can’t. And that’s bad news.’
Cary Conover
‘I’m trying to convince my own alma mater to do the right thing, and I can’t. And that’s bad news.’

Other Columbia scientists have said little publicly about the project. And George Deodatis, a Columbia civil engineer and hazards-analysis expert who recently collaborated with Jacob on a flood study for the MTA, says he differs with his colleague on the flooding issue. He's convinced that engineering can take care of the flooding risk—and not at a monstrously high cost. Deodatis doesn't think Columbia needs to makes plans now for events that could occur so far in the future. "To design such a wall today that will be good 100 years from now doesn't make economic sense now," Deodatis says. "There's always a possibility of a worst-case scenario, but the question is, are we going to design for something like that?"

Jacob recognizes that he's somewhat of a lone voice. It wouldn't be the first time, he says, citing the resistance he encountered when he tried to create a national building-code standard for earthquake hazards. Ultimately, he succeeded.

Columbia denies that its expansion will face a serious risk of flooding. But for evidence, the university has repeatedly pointed to outdated maps that don't show the new flood zones Jacob is trying to warn it about.

Flood risk in the United States has customarily been calculated using Flood Insurance Rate Maps that were prepared by FEMA and last updated in 1983. Columbia and its engineering firm relied on those FEMA maps when assessing risks to the expansion project. And according to those maps, the Manhattanville campus will not be located in a flood zone.

Those 25-year-old FEMA maps don't take into account the effects of climate change, however—and forward-thinking governments and agencies are well aware of that fact. The Bloomberg administration, for example, has called for new flood-zone maps in its PlaNYC 2030 project, the mayor's much-touted long-term sustainability plan. That initiative calls for maps that would take global climate change into account, as well as changes in the building code to match.

Columbia's officials, Jacob says, aren't the only ones resisting the move to use up-to-date maps that reflect the reality of rising sea levels. He's also run into opposition at the federal level. Last year, at a 300-person Transportation Research Board committee meeting that he chaired, Jacob asked the head of FEMA's flood division when the agency was going to update the maps. "I'll change them when Congress tells me to change them," the official answered.

Two months after Columbia delivered its environmental-impact statement based on the old FEMA maps—and a year after the city itself had warned that the maps were out of date—the city planning commission approved the university's rezoning of Manhattanville. (Seven out of the 13 commission members, including the chair, are mayoral appointees.)

Within a few months, Nick Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storagein Manhattanville and perhaps the expansion's most visible opponent, filed a lawsuit against the planning commission. Tuck-It-Away is one of the three remaining businesses that will be displaced if Columbia obtains eminent domain, and Sprayregen has dedicated most of his waking hours to lobbying against it. (He's waging his campaign on two websites: and Sprayregen's lawsuit charged the agency with not taking the legally mandated "hard look" at whether the basement area was vulnerable to flooding when it evaluated the environmental-impact statement. Last week, a State Supreme Court judge decided in favor of the city, and Sprayregen plans to appeal the decision.

Earlier this year, Sprayregen asked Jacob to join him in his lawsuit against the planning commission. Ron Shiffman, a former city planning commissioner and the author of the alternative community plan for Columbia's Manhattanville expansion, had already submitted an affidavit in support. But Jacob refused to join the suit. "In no way am I going to be used to represent concerns that aren't my own," he says. "This is a technical matter, and it should be solved on technical grounds."

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