Has Anything Changed? A Year After Sandy, Are We Ready for the Next Big Storm?

Written by Wilder Fleming on . Posted in Energy, Environment, Government Operations, Public Safety, Technology, Transportation.

In June Mayor Bloomberg’s office released a $19.5 billion plan with over 250 recommendations for preparing the city in the face of climate change and severe storms. The proposals included building a giant levee to protect Lower Manhattan, creating wetlands along the East River and erecting floodgates along Staten Island. But measures like these would take years to implement. So with hurricane season again upon us, how is New York better equipped to handle the next natural disaster that could arise?

The preparations may not be as substantial as we would like, given the short amount of time since Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the eastern seaboard. But government agencies, authorities, utilities and the Army Corps of Engineers have been working nonstop to restore equipment, rebuild beaches and other barriers, harden infrastructure and improve disaster plans in New York City and on Long Island.

Con Edison, for example, is investing $1 billion over four years in strengthening its electric grid, and a healthy portion of the work is already completed. As a result of the storm surge being far higher than predicted, the utility had to pre-emptively shut down three of its networks—two in Lower Manhattan and one in Brighton Beach—leaving nearly 250,000 customers without power for days. But Con Edison officials maintain this won’t happen again.

“If Sandy were to occur again this year, we would not have an impact to our substations or outages in Lower Manhattan,” said Robert Schimmenti, vice president for engineering and planning at Con Edison. “Our floodwalls were around 12 feet and the surge was predicted for 11 feet, but it actually came to 14 feet. So … we raised our floodwalls, installed additional storm pumps to keep the water out, installed floodgates and raised some other equipment. And we completed all that work by June 1 of this year in preparation for the hurricane season.”

Con Edison is also working to prevent the spread of outages caused by isolated damage to the grid. Submersible remote controlled underground switches have been deployed in and around Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, an area affecting some 28,000 customers. Part of their federally funded “smart grid” technology program, these switches can be operated from miles away and will isolate parts of the system at the touch of a button, preventing surging electricity from spreading throughout the grid.

The utility has also installed over 1,000 aboveground “isolation devices,” designed to automatically de-energize when, for instance, a tree falls on overhead wires. These devices—3,000 of which Con Edison is on track to install by the end of the year—also prevent damage from spreading throughout the system, thereby reducing the number of customers with power outages.

Electricity in the Rockaways and along the South Shore of Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties is provided by the Long Island Power Authority, whose officials say it will take up to two years to replace all of the damaged equipment. For now only temporary repairs have been made. Protection against this season’s storms comes in the form of “TrapBags,” temporary flood barriers constructed of plastic cellular skins commonly filled with dirt, sand, concrete and other rubble. Part of the permanent construction over the next several years will involve installing new equipment at higher levels, deemed out of reach of floodwaters.

In the face of public criticism, both utilities are aiming to improve communications with customers in times of crisis. Both are beginning to deploy electronic tablets to collect information in the field in order to relay it to their respective command centers.

“One of the things that we were criticized for, frankly, was that we were still utilizing paper tickets and paper information collecting in the field,” said Nicholas Lizanich, vice president of transmission and distribution at LIPA. “Now those of us who sit in a command bunker somewhere can analyze the data and determine a course of action from this readily available information.”

LIPA is working to improve cooperation with municipal and county officials as well, both in the realm of more accurate progress reports and improved coordination among first responders. It has also added hundreds of thousands of customers to its email updates list and hired more personnel to disseminate information.

“In the past we’ve struggled with getting information flow from the field, not only because of the way the data was collected but because of the systems that we have,” Lizanich said. “We now have liaisons who will be able to convey the information back to headquarters, so that we will be able to carve messaging to [go] out to customers and municipal officials, such that we are able to tell customers with more certainty what is going on.”

LIPA spent $850 million in Sandy’s aftermath, and it is in the process of allocating another $50 million for further repairs, according to Lizanich.

Aside from electricity, public transit is perhaps the most vital factor in keeping New York City’s pulse alive. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $5.67 billion plan to harden the system, which will involve plugging unnecessary openings to tunnels in places like Lower Manhattan, raising the walls around necessary air vents, relocating equipment to higher ground and installing stairway covers and submarinelike doors in subway entrances, has yet to commence and will take years to complete. (The plan, which will be federally funded, has been passed by the MTA board and is currently under review by the Capital Program Review Board in Albany. Its approval is expected sometime near the end of August.)

Other MTA post-Sandy repairs involve disaster mitigation measures. Current repairs to heavily damaged infrastructure in the G and R train tunnels entail the relocation of switches to higher ground, for instance. But New York City Transit officials say their greatest asset in the face of an impending storm is the hindsight they gained from Sandy.

“During Sandy we actually covered the level of the surge where we built temporary structures, like at our 148th Street yard,” said Fred Smith, senior vice president and chief engineer for capital program management at NYCT.

“That worked well. But here in Lower Manhattan the surge was much higher than expected. Now we have a better handle, more information, from our surveys on additional penetrations and vulnerabilities. We’ve added these to our plan going forward, so we would provide more temporary coverage and closure to these openings.”

With regard to disaster plans, the city’s Office of Emergency Management says it is better prepared than ever for the next storm.

“Ever since Katrina we’ve been working on a comprehensive citywide disaster plan,” said Kelly McKinney, deputy commissioner for planning and preparedness at OEM. “Irene gave us an opportunity to turn everything on, and then Sandy was when we really activated and implemented the full range of coastal storm operations. And now we’re about as ready as you can get.”

In May City Hall released its “Hurricane Sandy After Action” report, a review of the emergency response operations conducted by the city in the weeks prior to Sandy’s landfall and in its aftermath. In contrast to the mayor’s June report, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” which looked at long-term plans for coastal storms and climate change, “After Action” is concerned with how the city can tighten its emergency response times in the short term.

Take, for example, the strategy for supporting New York City’s elderly and special needs populations. Workers are supposed to go door-to-door in devastated areas, handing out food, water and space heaters, asking for information and providing medical assistance when needed. But this initiative didn’t even begin until a couple of weeks after Sandy.

“Now we’re prepared to start this operation just as soon as it’s safe to do it,” McKinney said. “It’s really about short-ening those time lines, and that’s really the difference across all of our different playbooks.”

The OEM has also been busy surveying New Yorkers in an attempt to understand why some people chose to heed calls for evacuation while others did not.

“We had the capability to shelter 70,000 people, but we had way, way fewer than that,” he said. “But we have a feeling if there’s another storm coming up the coast, a lot more people are going to seek shelter with us.”

OEM is also looking at better ways to accommodate New Yorkers who have lost their homes. Next month OEM will start building stackable interim housing units based on a design drawn from an international competition. The units are an answer to FEMA’s notorious disaster trailers, which McKinney says are too bulky for widespread use in New York City.

The city’s Recovery Office has been largely responsible for providing post- Sandy assistance to homeowners, land-lords, renters and businesses, with initiatives like the Build It Back and the Business Recovery Loan and Grant programs.

New York City’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, which is largely concerned with preparing the city’s coastline for the consequences of climate change, is outlining strategies to protect buildings as well, from the largest skyscrapers right down to private homes.

“The city has put in place zoning relief for those who want to elevate their homes or make other resiliency measures in their homes,” said Dan Zarrilli, the city’s newly appointed director of resiliency at OLTPS. “So they’re not limited by ultimate building heights in the zoning code.”

Some 60 percent of buildings in flooded areas lay outside the Federal Emergency Management Association’s 1983 100-year floodplain—FEMA was in the process of developing a new map when Sandy hit— and recent projections show sea levels around the Big Apple rising as much as five feet or more by 2100. FEMA’s new 100-year floodplain for New York City covers an area 15 square miles—or 45 percent—greater than the previous one. Across the city 67,700 buildings are now included in this floodplain, 90 percent more than the 1983 map encompassed.

Zarrilli said that by 2015 FEMA will have finalized its updated flood maps, which will then be incorporated into the building code. He also notes impending reforms in the national flood insurance program, which will bring risk-based rates into the equation.

“Our building chapter lays out a number of incentives, not requirements but market mechanisms so people can make investments that make sense and reduce risk,” he said. “It could mean elevating your mechanical equipment, it could mean somehow protecting equipment in your basement, and this is on top of things that may ultimately be required by FEMA in order to qualify for lower premiums, such as elevating your home.”

While looking to achieve as much as the Bloomberg administration can in 2013, Zarrilli admits the city would be hard-pressed if a storm with Sandy’s surge were to hit in the next few months.

“In certain neighborhoods people could feel very exposed—and having gone through Sandy, I totally get it,” Zarrilli said. “The Army Corps is out pumping sand on the beaches as we speak. There’s repairs going on to floodwalls and tide gates around the city … but it’s important to note that the city did not have much in the way of coastal protections before the storm.”

As luck would have it, Sandy is believed to have been an anomaly, a confluence of factors including a high tide and a full moon that isn’t likely to occur again for some time, much less this year. A recent study from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies calculated Sandy to be a 1-in-700 year event. But with sea levels set to rise as much as five feet around the city by 2100, it is not hard to imagine lesser storms doing just as much damage in the future.

An earlier version of this story appeared in our print edition on Aug. 19, 2013.

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