At the forefront of efforts to restore people’s livelihoods and reopen businesses in the wake of Superstorm Sandy is the construction industry, which has seen a bump in employment in the aftermath of the storm—though in most cases only for short-term projects that may very well require bring long-term challenges.
Contractors, plumbers, steamfitters and electricians are dealing with the immediate task of getting businesses to a point where they can be operational. In lower Manhattan, for example, flooding in commercial buildings knocked out many critical mechanical systems.
But as crews work to get these buildings back on line, there are questions regarding the prudence of placing vital equipment like generators and boilers in the basements of buildings that face the distinct possibility of future flooding.
“It may be possible for certain types of equipment, like boilers and mechanical systems, to be put up higher,” said Louis Coletti, the president and CEO of the Building Trades Employers’ Association. “Depending on the scale of the project, you may be able to put [that equipment] on the second or third floor. In some buildings that may not be high-rises, you might even be able to put them on the roof.”
Coletti said a discussion of what is practical and what can actually be accomplished is needed. For example, certain systems cannot be elevated, he said.
On the residential side, contractors and builders are getting a big assist from the city and federal governments in helping individuals renovate and restore their homes. Perhaps learning from the chaotic recovery from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where thousands of displaced homeowners struggled to cut through the red tape and vie for a limited number of FEMA trailers, the city has instituted a “Rapid Repairs” program.
Under this initiative, contractors are sent to individual homes to help restore heat, hot water or electricity so that people can perform more large-scale renovations, such as replacing a kitchen or Sheetrock. The goal of the program is to restore as many housing units as possible by the end of the year.
While these coordinated efforts help struggling homeowners, a larger question surrounds the future of coastal development around New York City and Long Island, and the mitigation efforts that homeowners can take to protect themselves.
Jonathan Gaska, the district manager for Community Board 14, witnessed the storm as it swept through Far Rockaway, a coastal community affected by weather events more frequently than most neighborhoods in the city.
Gaska said that while he appreciates the city providing resources for displaced homeowners, other construction efforts need to be on the table for homeowners in coastal areas. Gaska suggested smaller steps like moving electrical breaker boxes to the second or third floor of a house, and large-scale projects like requiring any new development to be built on elevated land to mitigate flooding damage.
“[Building] code changes like that probably make sense, as long as they work with the community and the architects and the builders,” Gaska said, adding that “government has a tendency to put a burden on homeowners and industries without really thinking things through.”
Denise Richardson, the managing director of the General Contractors Association, echoed Gaska’s concern about the building code and said that discussions about a major infrastructure project, like a sea wall or levees constructed near residential communities, comes with the caveat that any given year the tidal shifts can change the landscape of the beaches and make some areas of the coastline more susceptible to flooding than others.
“When you look at densely populated residential communities in what is now an extended floodplain, and clearly the floodplain has changed as a result of this storm, the question becomes for the building code: What is permissible, and how do you build it and then put the infrastructure in place to support it?” Richardson said. “If you look at the configuration of some of these beaches, you can tell from one beach season to another that the beach grows in some areas and shrinks in others, depending on what the tidal storms do in a given season.”
The unpredictable nature of these coastal events, combined with uncertainty as to how much federal assistance New York will receive to repair the areas affected by Sandy, makes any large-scale infrastructure projects uncertain.
Even though the members of his association would be happy to build one, Coletti tries to tune out the calls for a sea gate to curb a flooding disaster. He noted that there is often a gulf between capital projects that have a huge price tag and the simple fiscal reality that prevents them from being built.
“We all have a tendency when there’s a traumatic event like this to overreach,” Coletti said. “We have to develop rational strategies in dealing with the new conditions that we’re living in, but we have to be careful that we don’t overreach to such a degree that we put a giant obstacle in the way of developing the future of the city.”