Storm Barriers Are Worth the Investment for New York City
There is no easy -- or inexpensive -- way to fully prevent the enormous damage that Hurricane Sandy inflicted on New York City. Because of the city’s location, at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound and Hudson River, the nation's largest metropolitan economy is highly susceptible to coastal storms and tidal flooding. However, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development recently found that the metro area's lack of protective measures is an outlier when compared to better prepared peer cities like London, Tokyo and Shanghai.
Yet proposals for "hard" infrastructure investments -- like storm surge barriers -- are not new, and numerous types, styles and functions have been suggested. As a nation of innovators, I have no doubt we can engineer a solution. The new flood defense system in New Orleans passed its first tests after the devastation from Katrina in 2005. So why isn't it getting done in New York?
The cost of such a system is generally considered the most significant hindrance. To be sure, at $6 billion or so to build and about $75 million each year to operate, the costs are large. But perhaps not prohibitive compared to other projects like $15 billion for the World Trade Center reconstruction, $8 billion for the Long Island Rail Road link to the East Side of Manhattan, and even the $2.5 billion for new stadiums for the Yankees and Mets. The costs of Hurricane Sandy's devastation (more than 30 people killed, $20 billion in damage, millions in lost economic activity each day) also provide important perspective.
Also top-of-mind are the unintended consequences associated with such a project. These include ecological effects like salinity, sediment and habitat changes as well as social effects like ensuring the flood water does not end up in low income areas. Much of which was learned from the heavy engineering of the Mississippi River against flooding.
But another consequence may be the loss of this teachable moment. A super-secure storm barrier could have the consequence of complacency and force out important conversations about how and where we build and rebuild in the future.
The inevitable pursuit of infrastructure investments, sea gates or storm barriers should be tightly coupled with "softer" but just as important regulatory reforms like zoning codes and building and infrastructure standards. In this way, impressive hazard mitigation plans — like New York City's — get the attention and action they deserve.
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