November 15, 2012
By Marc Bussanich
Scientists have been warning for decades that global warming will cause severe damage if carbon emissions aren’t curbed. The jury is still out whether global warming was responsible for Hurricane Sandy, but the catastrophic storm has strengthened calls for the federal government to take action. Indeed, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn presented several proposals at a meeting of business and civic leaders recently that will cost more than $20 billion.
“We need the federal government to invest in our citizens, to help us rebuild New York safer than before,” said Quinn.
Some of the big-ticket items she proposed include building sea walls, bulkheads, flood gates and natural defenses such as sand dunes, wetlands and embankments. Quinn stressed too that the city must fortify its energy infrastructure, starting with ConEd taking action to prevent lengthy power outages in the future.
“First and foremost, we need to improve the protocols for when ConEd cuts power to vulnerable substations. If they had shut off power at the 14th street substation sooner, they would have avoided the explosion that caused long-term blackout for hundreds of thousands in lower Manhattan.”
She noted also that ConEd must flood-proof vulnerable infrastructure, erect structures around power plants and substations in at-risk areas and bury overhead power lines.
The city will also have to build redundancy in the gasoline supply chain to prevent six-hour or more wait times at gas stations. Quinn called out the big oil companies for not supplying their local stations with back-up generators to keep pumps operating.
“Three days after the storm, less than a quarter of the service stations operating under international companies like Exxon, BP and Shell were selling gasoline. Meanwhile, as many as three-quarters of our regional chains like Hess, Wawa and Sunoco were up and running using back-up generators.”
She also proposed investing in an outdated sewer system with new sewer and wastewater treatment projects, passing legislation requiring the use of new pavement materials that absorb rainwater, deploying new technology to seal off subway or vehicular tunnels and enforcing stricter building codes.
Quinn warned, “At this moment the need for action cannot be ignored—the cost of this enterprise cannot be dismissed as too great.”
Quinn noted that New York should look to the Netherlands as an example to invest smartly in shoring up the city’s defenses against future storms.
Ricardo Alvarez, a researcher who specializes in hurricane protection, has been working on the impacts of hurricanes since 1988 when Hurricane Gilbert leveled Cancun, Mexico. He cautioned against New York importing wholesale solutions the Dutch have deployed such as sea walls, which might actually contribute to the damage hurricanes cause.
“The main focus for New York has to be with storm surge,” said Alvarez.
Water, especially salt water, is about 900 times denser than air noted Alvarez. “The energy impact of water is 25 times greater than air. On top of the surge, waves are created by wind transferring energy to water, which is a double blow to buildings.”
One solution for the city is building engineering structures offshore that can potentially absorb 65 to 80 percent of a storm’s energy. For example, after the Miami Beach Marina was destroyed when Hurricane Andrew swept through in 1992, the city erected a storm surge dampening structure that protected the marina from subsequent hurricanes.
“The structure acted as a filter. As water rushed in, a lot of the energy dissipated. There’ll always be some damage and flooding after big storms, but mitigating rushing water is imperative as it is more destructive than rising water,” said Alvarez.
Aaron Huertas of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which combines scientific research with political action to protect the environment, said that it was refreshing to hear policy makers in New York taking action on climate change after decades of inaction.
“Hurricane Sandy has reinvigorated the conversation around climate change. In the past couple of years, we’ve broken records for the number of billion dollar disasters related to extreme weather. Unfortunately, we’ve been hitting the snooze button on climate change for decades. But we are excited that New York’s council speaker has put climate change on the agenda,” said Huertas.