Sandy, 5 years later

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Efforts to mitigate impact of future storms include improvements to transit, infrastructure and electrical grid


  • Recovery and resiliency efforts undertaken since Superstorm Sandy include steps to prevent tunnels like the Battery Park Underpass, pictured here during Sandy, from flooding during future storms. Photo: Timothy Krause via Flickr

Five years later, Superstorm Sandy’s impact on New York City is still being felt. Ongoing efforts to recover from the storm, which caused 43 deaths citywide, including two in Manhattan, and an estimated $19 billion in damage, have encompassed virtually all aspects of the city’s crucial infrastructure, including hospitals, power supply, drinking water, roads and mass transit.

“There is absolutely no question that the city is safer and more resilient since Sandy,” Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, said at a Community Board 1 meeting last night on the response to the storm.

During Sandy, hundreds of openings to the subway system in Lower Manhattan, ranging from stairway entrances to manholes to vent bays, became entry points for floodwaters. “Since then, MTA has undertaken a massive investment program, funded primarily by the Federal Transit Administration, to repair and rebuild the damaged facilities and install resiliency measures on all of our vulnerable opening locations in the subway system,” said Branko Kleva, program executive for Sandy Recovery and Resiliency with New York City Transit.

The South Ferry subway station, which was completely flooded and reopened in June of this year following years of repair work, now has sealable vent bays and marine doors on each of its entrances that can be closed during storms, as well as pumping capacity to remove water that might leak through the new flood defenses. The pumps, Kleva said, are located above the floodplain so they can keep working even if water enters the system.

Hundreds of thousands of Lower Manhattan residents lost power during Sandy, in some cases for days. The primary cause of downtown electricity outages was flooding at Con Edison’s East 13th Street substation, off the FDR Drive near the East River, where storm surge flowed above temporary barriers and damaged critical mechanical infrastructure.

Since the storm, Con Edison has invested $1 billion to protect its systems from future storms, including $18 million in Lower Manhattan, said Darren Scarimbolo, a department danager at the energy company. The East 13th Street substation was fortified with new walls and flood barriers, and existing infrastructure was raised above the floodplain to protect it in the event that flooding does occur. Additionally, Con Edison has installed submersible equipment throughout its system, including 182 underground transformers in Lower Manhattan.

The city’s Sandy recovery efforts are tied closely to its plans to mitigate the impact of climate change. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s intention to adhere to the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement even if the U.S. withdraws, as President Donald Trump announced it would earlier this year. Under guidelines announced earlier this year, all new city construction and improvements to buildings and infrastructure must account for anticipated changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea levels. By 2025, all city buildings will be retrofitted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of taking 715,000 cars off the road, officials have said.

“When we talk about flood protection, we’re not just talking about storm surge like we faced during Sandy, but we’re also talking about the effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise,” Bavishi said.

Sea-level rise is a key concern in the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project, which aims to strengthen the downtown waterfront to prevent future flooding. City officials presented various potential design concepts to the public last spring, such as 10-foot berms along the Battery, raised esplanades along the Hudson near Battery Park City, and temporary floodwalls that could be deployed near the South Street Seaport prior to a storm. But concrete plans for the Resiliency Project remain in the planning stages, according to officials, who plan to present short- and long-term proposals to the public early next year.

“We are moving as fast as we can,” Bavishi said. “We certainly recognize the urgency and we are completely committed to ensuring that Lower Manhattan is protected.”

The city has invested $108 million in the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project thus far, but additional sources of funding for the project, the cost of which is expected to far exceed that total, remain unclear. “It will require city capital, but we will also have to look to other sources of funding,” Bavishi said, noting the possibility that the city would seek federal grant money.

“What we’re talking about is a first-of-its-kind coastal protection system,” she said. “It’s never been done before and it’s challenging.”

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