New York City and Hurricane (Super Storm) Sandy

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Sandy, in many ways, was the wake-up call for the United States east coast as it affected so many people. Here, we will focus on the impacts on New York City, but there were many more communities in this region of the U.S. that were devastated by Sandy’s impacts. It was the first time in recent years a city of the stature and population density and sheer size of New York had been hit directly by a storm this size. And it is fully acknowledged that it can easily happen again. Below, we will consider the circumstances of Sandy and the plans afoot for protecting the city from “another Sandy.”

To begin with, Sandy was a uniquely impactful storm in terms of its size, timing, and trajectory. It provided perfect examples of the factors that affect storm surge impacts learned in Module 5. Please read Chapter 1 of the New York City government report on Sandy's impacts, linked to the Module 6 roadmap below. You will be responsible for understanding these impacts and why Sandy was such a destructive and important storm event for the northeastern U.S. Please also listen to and read the other materials linked below to gain a picture of the response to Sandy.

Required and Recommended Resources

Required

  • Sandy and Its Impacts, New York City Government report available on the Module 6 Roadmap. Begin by reading Chapter 1 of the report which details the factors that made Sandy the destructive late-season storm that it was, and the unique nature of its impact on the northeast coast of the U.S. It also details the impacts, from the direct effects of power outage and disruption of lives (including fatalities) to the more indirect effects to the city’s complex infrastructure. This document will serve as a reminder and guide for future storm surge impacts on major cities.
  • "5 Years After Sandy, New York Is Still Vulnerable To Storm Surge" available on the Module 6 Roadmap. Following Super Storm Sandy, much work has gone into planning for the future. Listen to this excellent (9:46) interview that was aired on NPR radio for the five-year anniversary of Sandy, with Bill Golden, President of the National Institute for Harbor and Infrastructure on the topic of what has been done since then to protect New York.
    Click for a transcript

    SPEAKER 1: It has been five years since Hurricane Sandy slammed into the east coast. The storm caused 182 deaths in the Caribbean and the United States, and more than $65 billion of damage in the US. In New York City alone, Sandy caused 43 deaths and $19 billion of damage. In New York and New Jersey, there was devastating flooding. In lower Manhattan, a power outage that lasted several days. Sandy also made landfall at high tide, creating a storm surge of 14 feet in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan and in Staten Island, and 11 feet on the Coney Island peninsula. After the storm, many experts pointed out that New York will end up spending more money on the damage than it would have if it had pumped billions into new infrastructure to protect against the storm surge. So what has the city done in the five years since to try to prevent the kind of damage Sandy caused? Joining us now from New York is Bill Golden, who's the president of the National Institute for Coastal and Harbor Infrastructure. Bill, welcome to here and now.

    SPEAKER 2: Thank you, Jeremy.

    SPEAKER 1: And if Superstorm Sandy were to hit again, would it be different, let's just say, in New York City? Has the city made infrastructure changes to prevent that level of damage?

    SPEAKER 2: Well, it's not a question of if. It's really when the next Sandy will hit. And if the next Sandy was to hit today, the damage would be much the same as it was five years ago. And that's because we have not yet learned the lesson of Sandy. And that's that we're facing-- a new reality that has resulted from climate change induced storm surge and sea level rise.

    SPEAKER 1: Well, what should have been done?

    SPEAKER 2: We have to recognize the new reality of storm surge and sea level rise requires a response based on three fundamental principles. The first is that these storms are not local storms-- they're regional in nature, they don't stop at political boundaries, and have to be addressed on a regional, planned basis. The second is that we have to differentiate between storm surge and sea level rise. They are two very different phenomenon. Storm surge is an episodic event, such as Superstorm Sandy, that when combined with increased levels of tidal action-- as is coming from sea level rise-- can have devastating episodic effects on communities, particularly urban areas. While sea level rise is a gradual, more predictable phenomenon that requires a much, much more comprehensive approach, but a much less intensive approach. And the third thing is that we're dealing with really two realities, just as when Sandy hit. There were people fighting for their lives and losing their lives on Staten Island. When in Times Square, there were people posing with Mickey Mouse. And until you go through a Sandy and experience it, it is very difficult to have a full appreciation of the impact of this new reality we're facing and the need for comprehensive solutions to sea level rise and storm surge.

    SPEAKER 1: I was in Manhattan during Sandy, and I couldn't believe that from 39th street and below there was no power for several days. There was no flooding along the water. There were cars that were brought out into the middle of the streets in Manhattan from the flooding. But I know that one thing that's being talked about is called the Big U. Tell us what that is.

    SPEAKER 2: There are two approaches to hardening an area to protect it from storm surge and sea level rise. The first is an offshore barrier meant to protect a large area in a comprehensive way by shortening the coastline. That's a concept the Dutch have used for hundreds of years. And by doing that, you can build a 25, 30-foot wall over a six-mile stretch that protects 820 miles of coastline in the greater New York, New Jersey metropolitan area. The other alternative is called a perimeter defense where you actually build a wall on the edge of the water in a city. Now, if that wall is intended to keep out sea level rise, over the next 50 years it might be three feet high, over the next 100 years it might be six feet high. But if that wall is intended to keep out both storm surge and sea level rise, it has to be 20 or 25 feet high. Now, the Big U proposed a concept where you would build that kind of wall that had an elevation at its top of 20 or 25 feet around a densely urban area-- lower Manhattan. Again, something that has never been done. So in structuring this wall, you have all kinds of issues that have arisen.

    SPEAKER 1: Well, and starting with cost, right? I mean, this is not a cheap project to do-- either one of these. The wall out in the sea or the wall on the land.

    SPEAKER 2: No. Cost is definitely significant for protecting an urban area from storm surge and sea level rise in terms of the cost of the construction of the infrastructure. But it is a bargain when you consider that a regional storm surge barrier could protect a city for 100 years or more, and then the next Sandy would cost the city probably $25 or $30 billion more than the construction of a regional storm surge barrier. So by constructing a regional storm surge barrier, which is the cost of approximately what Sandy was in 2012-- by the way, Mayor Bloomberg calculated the cost of Sandy in mid-century would be $90 billion. And the National Academy of Sciences has said that the 500 year storm can be expected as frequently as every 25 years. So if you are building a regional storm surge barrier that can protect the city for 100 years, you are protecting it from four or more Sandy type events. And that means that that storm surge barrier has paid for itself many times over.

    SPEAKER 1: So why hasn't construction started on a storm surge barrier, then?

    SPEAKER 2: Well, that's a very good question. A construction on a storm surge barrier has not been done in New York City, even though such barriers are in use and have been for decades all over Europe-- in London, in Rotterdam, in St. Petersburg, and now in Venice, and are being built in Asia, and in this country have existed for decades in New Bedford, Providence, and Stanford. And recently, a barrier the size of what we're talking about was just completed in four and a half years in Louisiana and another one is now being planned for Galveston, Houston. But there hasn't been a focus on the local level to build a storm surge barrier. The concept was that we should respond on a local level to build projects that can be built quickly without cooperation by the state government. This concept was deeply flawed. Again, local barriers don't protect you from regional impacts. Local barriers that try to protect you from both sea level rise and storm surge are not only expensive, they are almost impossible to build in a densely urban environment and are not effective.

    SPEAKER 1: So what do you think will happen? I think what will happen is that some of these projects will be built locally. And that's OK. It's good to have a layered defense. In fact, we advocate a layered defense where you have a regional storm surge barrier that protects you from 25 to 30-foot surges and local seawalls that protect you from three to six feet of sea level rise. That kind of layered defense on a regional basis makes sense. Many of the projects that are planned now that are intended to protect lower Manhattan and the region from storm surge simply will not get built. And this is clear from the experience of Hoboken. Hoboken was awarded through rebuild by design the Little U. And the intent was to do for Hoboken what New York City is trying to do for New York City, for lower Manhattan-- to build a wall around Hoboken. Well, Hoboken has moved forward faster than New York. And the results are really the canary in the mine-- the warning to the Big U. In trying to build this wall, the wall was so strongly opposed by the community-- people just didn't want to have a 20 foot wall between them and the water for many different reasons-- that that wall was moved back into the center of the city, leaving 20% of the city, the most vulnerable part of the city, exposed. And also leaving the whole railyard and interconnection exposed. So that phenomenon, I think, is indicative of what will happen in New York City when New York City finally gets to the design stage. There is no final design. So there's nothing for the residents of New York or the businesses of New York to really respond to yet. And that's five years after Sandy.

    SPEAKER 1: That's Bill Golden, who is the president of the National Institute for Coastal and Harbor Infrastructure talking with us about what's happened in the New York, New Jersey area five years after Sandy. Bill Golden, thank you.

    SPEAKER 2: Thank you very much, Jeremy.

Recommended

proposed surge barrier map (New York harbor)
Figure 6.5: Map of proposed surge barrier locations around New York Harbor.
Credit: Justinesk, CC BY-SA 4.0

Learning Check Point

After reading and listening to the materials provided in the links above, consider how you would answer the questions on the cards below. Click "Turn" to see the correct answer on the reverse side of each card.