While the Bloomberg administration has gotten kudos (so far) for the city’s emergency response to the storm, the mayor has an elephant in the room: his administration’s encouragement of flood-zone development in the face of repeated warnings going back at least a decade.
Indeed, New Yorkers had to be impressed with the efforts of the overwhelmed emergency agencies in trying to deal with one crisis after another. But he has sidestepped questions about his administration green-lighting massive construction in the very danger zones crippled by Hurricane Sandy, despite calls for tighter regulation of such development.
The administration has pushed development by granting major incentives to builders in Red Hook and Coney Island, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, western Queens, on the Rockaways, and along Manhattan’s West Side. Flooding and damage were reported in all those places.
On Monday, Bloomberg seemed to dismiss the question, saying: “People like to live in low-lying areas on the beach. It’s attractive. People pay more, generally, to be closer to the water.” On Tuesday, he modified this only slightly, saying he spoke with aides, and “what’s clear is that the climate is changing, and each of these storms, we have to see if you can’t learn to deal with them better.” His answer then wandered off to topics like generators in basements. “We’ve really got to start focusing on planning down the road.”
From there, he once again lauded the storm response: “We had a good plan, good communications; we knew how to respond.”
In January 2011, a report from the state’s Sea Level Rise Task Force projected that the water level in New York Harbor will rise two to five inches by 2025. The group proposed additional rules limiting building in flood zones, protecting wetlands and other natural storm barriers, and moving infrastructure to safer areas.
But Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for long-term planning at the time, Adam Freed, objected to the proposal because it would stifle development and add another layer of state regulation. “If implemented, the regulatory changes would create unnecessary additional oversight for local land-use decisions and could add significant costs and time to projects in coastal areas,” he wrote. “[They] could have an adverse effect on property investment into the New York City—and thus the New York State—economy.”
In April 2012, Freed seemed to soften his stance in remarks to the U.S. Senate but still said, “While we all share the objective of protecting and restoring coastal wetlands, federal agencies must recognize the need for regulatory flexibility in urban areas like New York City, where we do not have room to retreat from the shoreline in response to rising sea levels.”
In some instances, the city has required additional safeguards in development. The Willets Point development is said to be being built at a higher level to avoid damage from flooding. Floodgates were built into a sewage plant on Tallman Island. Generators and other electrical gear can be sited on roofs rather than in basements.
And, in the months preceding Hurricane Sandy, the city did several things, none of which were short-term in nature. The City Council voted to assemble a panel of climate experts to plan for rising sea levels, and there have been renewed discussions about some kind of movable barrier system.
But the mayor’s PlaNYC 2030, his long-term list of proposals for the future of the city released in 2007, included encouragement of development in the flood zones.
A deputy mayor at the time disputed the sea-level-rise projections and said it would be about 1 percent of the predicted five-inch rise—or five tenths of an inch, according to a 2007 article by former Voice staff writer Wayne Barrett.
Barrett pointed out in the piece, which focused on PlaNYC and warned of the future dangers in coastal development, that the Army Corps of Engineers said New York was among the most vulnerable cities to storm surges. When Barrett, as he wrote, tried to get the mayor’s office to respond to whether storm barriers should be built, he couldn’t get an answer. Barrett also noted that in 2006, Bloomberg insisted that “NYC is not a high-risk area for hurricanes.”
Way back in 2000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency predicted that a quarter of the structures 500 feet from the coast will be eventually destroyed by the rising sea level.
A major study called “Climate Change and a Global City” way back in 2001 contained the prediction of a five-inch rise in sea level.
“The key threat of sea-level rise is its effect on storm surges,” the report said. “Heightened storm surges associated with future hurricanes and nor’easters will cause the most significant damage. . . . Many of the region’s most significant infrastructure facilities will be at increased risk to damage resulting from augmented storm surges.”
That was 11 years ago, and today, as scenes of wreckage fill our living rooms, it seems almost shockingly prescient.