On Thursday, a startlingly sunny and brisk day in the New York metropolitan area, a litany of city and state lawmakers called broadly for “action” to be taken to address climate change in the wake of deadly flash flooding the night before. The calls echoed the same ones made less than two weeks ago, when Tropical Storm Henri produced record rainfall in New York City – records promptly shattered by Wednesday’s downpour. They echoed the ones made in July, when flash flooding inundated not just low-lying areas but subway stations in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, and halted traffic on the Major Deegan Expressway.
By Thursday morning, the flash flooding accompanying Hurricane Ida left transit service in New York City still limited. At least 22 people in New York and New Jersey, including at least nine in New York City, died in Wednesday’s storm.
Amid these calls for action to address climate change, environmental experts and advocates continue to press for concrete steps. To discuss the city’s greatest weaknesses in the face of more extreme weather and flooding – and what can be done to address them – City & State reached out to climate experts and activists including Jeffrey Raven, associate professor in the graduate program in urban and regional design at New York Institute of Technology; Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance; Robert Freudenberg, vice president of energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association; Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest; and Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
This story was originally published on July 12, 2021, after flash floods inundated parts of New York City ahead of Tropical Storm Elsa.
What is New York City’s greatest vulnerability when it comes to the threat of flooding and heavy rains?
Robert Freudenberg: Infrastructure is the lifeblood of any city. Whether it is the transportation system that keeps us moving, the energy system that powers us, or the water and wastewater systems that keep us alive and healthy, disruptions have significant impacts that reverberate across neighborhoods and throughout the region. As we were reminded last week, our infrastructure systems, including subways and roadways, are carved into the natural systems of streams, springs, wetlands and floodplains that predated them. Most days, we can keep the water that naturally flows in these places at bay with pumps, pipes, and other engineered approaches. But when we have incidents of extreme weather, floodwaters reach into the places where city residents, businesses, and visitors carry out their daily activities and can bring things to a grinding halt. For a moment, mother nature re-stakes her claim. Multiple studies indicate that we can anticipate even more events like last week’s, meaning more water will find its way into infrastructure that is ill-equipped to handle it. By 2050, over two million people, 60% of the region’s power-generating capacity, and dozens of miles of critical roads and rail lines, will face a high risk of flooding – some of it permanently.
Julie Tighe: Our power grid is not resilient when it comes to flooding and heavy rains. Our reliance on fossil fuel power plants means that we're vulnerable to outages during and after major storms. The subway system also has many vulnerabilities – while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has done a lot of work to harden its infrastructure since Sandy, severe flooding can still sharply reduce transit capacity. And certain communities are still vulnerable to coastal flooding which will be exacerbated as sea levels continue to rise.
Anthony Rogers-Wright: Before answering this imperative question, I believe it necessary to name what’s driving your question, which is the same thing that’s driving more powerful storms that led to the intense and disruptive flooding the city experienced last week: a quintessential and global climate crisis that’s racialized, gendered and disproportionately harms the lives of Indigenous, Black, Brown and Asian peoples as well as poor folk of all races and ethnicities. Now, to your question: Look, our great city is only an average of 33 feet above mean sea level. And it’s not like we need to anticipate or infer what the vulnerabilities are; Superstorm Sandy showcased what they are – people and lives. I don’t want to be reductive of the vulnerabilities associated with infrastructure including homes, our transit system, and our roads. As we saw with last week’s flooding, if we fail to act with urgency, we will continue to experience massive disruptions to, if not total collapse of, entire vital infrastructure systems. At the same time, as a practitioner of climate and environmental justice, my primary concern is protecting lives – and particularly the wellbeing of Indigenous, Black, Brown and Asian folk, who are being hit first and worst. It’s a question of justice at the end of the day – which is fast approaching, because the climate clock has struck midnight, and this crisis is in Revelation mode.
Jeffrey Raven: Hurricane Sandy of 2012 illustrated how New York City’s concrete jungles pose greater risk of flooding. Impervious surfaces like asphalt cannot absorb stormwater, and these same flood-prone materials absorb heat leaving these districts hotter than their surroundings. High temperatures increase the levels of air pollutants; exacerbating cardiovascular and respiratory disease in vulnerable residents.
Eddie Bautista: The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance has long advocated for climate adaptation measures in New York City’s industrial waterfront neighborhoods, given its vulnerability to climate change impacts and hazardous toxic exposures that may result in the event of severe weather. In 2010, NYC-EJA launched the Waterfront Justice Project, New York City’s first citywide community resiliency campaign. NYC-EJA discovered that the Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs) – clusters of heavy industry along the waterfront – are all in hurricane storm surge zones, and in environmental justice communities. When considering how to protect our shoreline, the city should prioritize measures that protect communities from the cumulative contamination exposure risks associated with clusters of heavy industrial uses in such vulnerable locations.
What actions need to be taken now to address that threat and prepare for future storms?
Jeffrey Raven: (1) Prioritize construction of “sponge city” projects. Faced with the urgent need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, New York City must prioritize urban design that accomplishes both. Sponge City infrastructure such as green roofs, underground stormwater basins, permeable pavements, and bioretention facilities help urban areas soak up as much stormwater as possible while also reducing carbon emissions, enhancing non-motorized transport networks and cooling the city. Construction of these types of projects should be prioritized in high-density areas such as Midtown Manhattan, downtown Manhattan, and Downtown Brooklyn. (2) Construct stormwater storage structures in low-lying neighborhoods. Building depressed roadways, parking lots or parks along flood-prone coastline can help to temporarily store stormwater during extreme flood events. In addition, these projects can be multipurpose, with green infrastructure built above to provide win-win resilience and quality of life improvements. Areas that flood often, such as the Hudson River Park, FDR Drive, the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway, and the Major Deegan Expressway should be prioritized.
Eddie Bautista: New York City needs to urgently protect critical facilities including the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center and New York City Housing Authority developments, while also addressing major vulnerabilities near SMIAs and Superfund sites. Furthermore, the city should prioritize large-scale investments in equitable coastal protection interventions that are ecologically grounded. Green infrastructure and nature-based solutions provide co-benefits to environmental justice communities by improving water and air quality, providing more green and open space, building community resiliency, supporting resilient industries, mitigating the urban heat island effect and creating new local job opportunities.
Robert Freudenberg: While New York City and entities like the MTA have taken important steps in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we are in a race against an accelerating foe, and we are behind. We must hasten efforts to both adapt to climate change and address its root cause by dramatically reducing the region’s greenhouse gas emissions. That means investing in critical infrastructure, making communities more livable and less vulnerable, and enhancing natural systems like wetlands and forests. Doing so will not only mitigate the impact of storms and heat, but also create a new relationship with nature that will improve the health and well-being of residents, now and in the future. In order to adapt fairly, we must have stable streams of funding and community-informed plans that do not repeat the injustices of past policies. We must focus on policies, investments and regional land use decisions that address the climate crisis without triggering other crises of equity, affordability or economic decline. And even as we adapt, we must aggressively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. This means shifting away from fossil fuels for electric power, transportation, and heating and cooling.
Julie Tighe: Equipment should be modernized and more localized to prevent power outages. We need to move away from the dirty fuels of our past to the renewable energy of the future. Increasing renewable energy sources reduces air pollution and it also improves grid resiliency by ensuring that if one source goes down, others are still available. We need to invest in hard (or “gray”) infrastructure where necessary but much more we need to invest in green infrastructure to absorb heavy rain and stormwater runoff.
Anthony Rogers-Wright: We actually have great legislation on the table to take the action we need to reduce threats and prepare for imminent and more powerful storms. We just need a State Legislature with the gumption to bring them home, get them on the governor’s desk, and then get them signed into law. Key measures to enact include the Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA), Sen. Jabari Brisport’s “Pollution Justice Act,” that would close all peaker plants in five years and replace them with renewable energy sources, and Sen. Jessica Ramos’ enhanced public participation bill that would increase self-determination and local oversight for environmental justice communities as part of the permitting process for major projects.
We need our lawmakers’ continued commitment. To this end, I believe it’s warranted to demand Gov. Andrew Cuomo recall the Legislature for a special session on climate justice. We are in the midst of a climate emergency, and the people’s government needed to act yesterday to give New Yorkers a chance at a tomorrow not defined by climate chaos. We can’t afford any more self-appointed “climate champions” in the people’s government who don’t deliver when it’s most critical.
How can or should New York pay for the costs of resiliency projects?
Eddie Bautista: Currently, investments in coastal and other resiliency projects are not meeting the pace of urgent climate risks – as clearly evidenced by last week’s shocking subway and roadway inundations. There is hope that one of the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure proposals (either through the reconciliation and/or straight legislative budgeting processes) will begin to commit much-needed investments in the nation’s second most hurricane-vulnerable city. We hope the next phase of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) New York and New Jersey Harbor & Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study will provide a new funding stream to address coastal storm and flood risk for vulnerable communities, housing, critical facilities, ecosystems and infrastructure in New York City. Furthermore, there are likely still unallocated Superstorm Sandy federal rebuilding/resiliency appropriations to be drawn down. Finally, the governor must also prioritize the establishment of the Traffic Mobility Review Board to kick off the serious implementation of congestion pricing – which promises billions to a cash-strapped MTA desperate to improve its resiliency. Over two years have passed since congestion pricing was approved in the 2019 budget deal, yet the board charged with developing the framework for congestion pricing has yet to be empaneled.
Julie Tighe: In 2022, there will be a $3 billion Environmental Bond Act on the ballot (statewide) that is heavily focused on resiliency. If voters approve it, hundreds of millions of dollars will be available for green resiliency projects. The New York League of Conservation Voters is advocating for strong climate provisions, including tens of billions for resiliency, in the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better legislation. We are also a part of the Rise 2 Resiliency coalition and working to get a comprehensive, five-borough resiliency plan implemented in New York City.
Robert Freudenberg: Adapting our infrastructure to climate change may be one of the most expensive initiatives we will undertake in the next generation, and we are sorely underprepared. The way we pay for most of our adaptation efforts today is by having a natural disaster and relying on funds from the federal government. This is not sustainable and puts us in a vicious cycle. Some ways these projects can be paid for are outlined in our Fourth Regional Plan and include reducing greenhouse gas emissions with a cap-and-trade market modeled on California’s program, instituting climate adaptation trust funds through an insurance surcharge, and establishing a Regional Coastal Commission that would help prioritize funding for resilience projects. In addition to new sources of funding, we need to ensure that capital plans and dollars of infrastructure agencies are shifting to address short- mid- and long-term climate impacts. Whether it’s the MTA, the Department of Transportation, the Economic Development Corporation, NYC Parks, or the Department of Environmental Protection, every agency must be a climate agency and every investment must be taking into account climate change.
Jeffrey Raven: New York can incentivize private development of sponge city infrastructure through transferable development rights and credits/waivers for POPs (privately owned public park) space in designated areas of need.
Anthony Rogers-Wright: The aforementioned CCIA offers an excellent methodology to generate the revenue for key resiliency projects by holding polluters accountable. We have true social and climate justice champions in our Congressional delegation who support the CCIA, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Yvette Clarke, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velázquez, and we have great partners in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and his staff, who work with us to develop mechanisms to pay for the projects we need for resilient housing, resilient schools, and a resilient society. Schumer earlier this month assured me and others on a call of his commitment to making polluters pay and taking cues from mechanisms like the CCIA to make that happen. Every other industry in our great state is required to pay for its garbage; why should greenhouse gas emitters enjoy a toxic form of qualified immunity that puts public health and the planet at risk?