A snapshot of the force of nature that was Superstorm Sandy is an image out of an apocalyptic nightmare. Tides swollen with sea water flowing down the narrow streets of lower Manhattan, 90-mile-per-hour gusts toppling sycamores in Brooklyn, power lines flailing in the wind and setting fire to over 80 houses in Breezy Point, leaving little behind but the charred foundations of people’s livelihoods.
This was the second major storm system to batter New York City in the last two years, and it is fair to say that it won’t be the last. The question now becomes where do we go from here? With Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure coming to a close, the job of rebuilding the city and preventing future disasters will fall to the city’s next chief executive.
At a breakfast event hosted last week by the Association for a Better New York, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a leading Democratic mayoral candidate in 2013, put forward a plan for upgrading the city’s aging infrastructure to combat the specter of climate change and tides that are expected to rise several feet over the next 80 years.
“It’s now crystal clear that we need to build protective structures,” Quinn said in her speech. “This will include both hard infrastructure, like sea walls, bulkheads or flood gates, and more natural defenses, like sand dunes, wetlands and embankments.”
While some of her opponents commended Quinn for highlighting these preventive measures—a spokesperson for potential Republican candidate Adolfo Carrión immediately praised Quinn’s foresight on the issue of infrastructure—the stark reality is that many of these capital projects could take a decade or more to complete. That timeline will likely exceed consecutive terms of the city’s next mayor, and many proposals come with a hefty price tag—up to $20 billion—that the city and state simply cannot afford.
Quinn called for the federal government to pick up most of the tab for such projects, citing the precedent of federal money showered down on New Orleans in wake of Hurricane Katrina. However, addressing Quinn’s proposal, some of the other mayoral candidates tempered her enthusiasm with a harsh dose of fiscal reality.
“In the long run, given what’s happening in Washington nowadays and discussions about cutting budgets, I don’t know that we’re going to get that much help,” said former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, another Democratic candidate for mayor.
Others believe that thinking bigger is imperative for any infrastructure discussion. City Comptroller John Liu, another likely mayoral candidate, said that despite the cost of such monumental projects as sea gates or levees, the price of the potential damage incurred by a storm of Sandy’s proportions or worse could be devastating.
“The data that we now have from Superstorm Sandy has clearly tilted the equation and completely upended the cost-benefit analysis,” Liu said. “Bottom line is, yes, the costs of building these storm protection systems are astronomical, but just as astronomical are the costs of not building such a system.”
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a candidate for city comptroller who until recently was considered a likely mayoral contender, has already taken the lead in supporting infrastructure improvements. In September Stringer drafted a resolution as chair of the Borough Board that requested a study by the Army Corps of Engineers on the potential for flooding due to storm surges and the feasibility of sea gates to protect Manhattan. And in a comprehensive report released last year Stringer proposed the creation of a state infrastructure bank, a public-private partnership that would create thousands of jobs and spur construction projects that would benefit the entire city.
Republican mayoral candidate and Manhattan Media publisher Tom Allon believes that any large capital project would have to be funded by a public-private partnership. Allon said that the city should focus on smaller short-term projects—such as underground power lines—to protect itself in the event of another storm in the near future.
“You need a comprehensive plan, and it’s nice for people like Christine Quinn to throw the kitchen sink out and say, ‘We’re gonna do all of these things,’ but you have to then come up with a timetable,” said Allon, the CEO of the parent company which owns City & State. “The electrical grid is something that has to be looked at, and the mayor has to look and see how do we sink as much of this stuff underground as possible. I would want to do a feasibility study to find out how much it would cost to upgrade the electrical grid.”
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, another likely candidate, expressed support for infrastructure upgrades shortly after the storm, but did not respond to a request for more specific plans. Another mayoral candidate, Doe Fund founder George McDonald, did not respond to requests for comment.
But before any of these initiatives can be put into motion, it is clear that there needs to be a consensus on the gravity of global warming. In her speech Quinn challenged climate-change skeptics to come to Coney Island and Staten Island’s South Shore, areas that were hit especially hard by Sandy, and “tell [those residents] that global warming is a myth.”
Quinn noted, “Our nation needs to take on climate change, and New York is leading the way.”
Update: An earlier version of this story referred to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer as a potential mayoral candidate. He has since announced he’ll run instead for city comptroller.
Tags: Adolfo Carrion, Army Corps of Engineers, Bill De Blasio, Bill Thompson, Breezy Point, Christine Quinn, climate change, George McDonald, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, infrastructure bank, John Liu, Scott Stringer, Tom Allon