NYC bounces back

NYC bounces back: How one of the world’s largest cities recovered from Hurricane Sandy 

On 29 October 2012, the world watched as Hurricane Sandy crashed into the East Coast of the United States. New York City and the surrounding areas, which lay directly in Sandy’s path, were particularly hard hit. In this exclusive interview, we discuss the challenges the City faced in the aftermath of Sandy and explains why the City was particularly well-prepared to meet and recover from this massive storm event.

Tony Dalessio (TD): I think we all saw the impact that Hurricane Sandy had on the New York City (NYC) area. What was the impact in terms of infrastructure damage?

Seth Pinsky (SP): Sandy certainly had an enormous impact on the region. In NYC alone, the gross losses are estimated to have totaled approximately USD19 billion. Those losses were a combination of asset loss and asset impairment, and also include lost economic activity due to damaged infrastructure such as the electrical grid.

TD: Given the size and scope of Sandy – which was three times larger than Hurricane Katrina – it looks like the City has bounced back very quickly.

SP: In many ways, I actually think NYC was better prepared than many other jurisdictions for a storm of this magnitude. That’s because, back in 2007, Mayor Bloomberg brought together more than 25 City agencies to work together to create a 30-year resiliency and sustainability plan for New York called ‘PlaNYC’.

Since then, we’ve been working to carry out that plan, making investments and enhancing resilience. For example, we’ve been making design changes along our coastline and updating building codes and our regulatory frameworks. What we found with Sandy was that most of the infrastructure built after 2007 stood up fairly well. But we have an enormous amount of infrastructure that pre-dates this plan. Therefore, the real challenge for us going forward is less about making sure that what we build is more resilient, and more about focusing on the tens of thousands of buildings and other infrastructure that pre-date PlaNYC.

TD: With the frequency of major storms increasing, is the City preparing for the ‘next’ Hurricane Sandy?

SP: That’s exactly what we are NOT doing. Mayor Bloomberg has been very emphatic about the fact that we need to be focused on identifying all of the potential future vulnerabilities that the City faces as a result of climate change; things like rising sea levels, storm impacts and surges, heat waves and droughts – the full range of potential impacts, rather than just focusing on the next big hurricane.

TD: And how are those potential impacts being identified and assessed?

SP: This is another area in which, even before Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg was very proactive. In 2009, for example, the Mayor brought together a group of academics from leading institutions and asked them to project what the likely downside scenarios would be for NYC as a result of climate change. They produced a peer-reviewed report and a highly-technical set of projections that the City has been using ever since. The report was actually just updated, at the Administration’s request, to reflect new data and scientific advances over the past four years.

In other words, we are looking at the best available science and projections to tell us what the real risks are, not just tomorrow or a year from now, but also in a decade or multiple decades.

I think it’s also important to note that we are not trying to ‘future-proof’ or ‘climate change-proof’ the City. That is impossible for any city. What we are aiming to do is to make NYC more resilient, and that means creating a City where the impacts of extreme weather are fewer and the City is able to bounce back more quickly when they do occur.

TD: How is the City working with private sector infrastructure operators to ensure that they are also investing appropriately into resilience?

SP: Our plan is actually quite specific about the kinds of resiliency investments that we will be looking for from all of the various entities, and we actively monitor their investment plans. For example, we’re working with ConEd – NYC’s biggest electricity distributer –to ensure that the company is able to make the capital investments required to improve the resiliency of its network.

We’re also very heavily focused on working with the appropriate regulators to catalyze change. We have found the current regulatory standards that the utilities are held to, for example, either don’t take into account extreme weather events or don’t anticipate the potential impacts of climate change. In other words, there is little regulatory incentive to focus on climate-related resilience. So that’s another very important focus of ours.

TD: What did the City take away from its experience with Sandy that will help enhance resilience in the future?

SP: I think our response and our ability to bounce back so quickly is a testament to both the heightened level of collaboration among all levels of government and the resiliency of the people of NYC themselves. One of the key initiatives that helped the City return to normal faster was the Rapid Repairs program, which quickly made repairs to more than 20,000 homes and allowed a large portion of the displaced population to return home quickly.

Mayor Bloomberg is also very keen to understand the lessons that came from Hurricane Sandy. About six months after the event, the Mayor released an ‘After Action’ (PDF 2.63MB) report on city government performance during the storm that helped inform the ‘A Stronger, More Resilient New York’ report released by the Mayor in June. This comprehensive plan contains more than 250 actionable recommendations both for rebuilding the communities impacted by Sandy and for increasing the resilience of critical systems and infrastructure citywide.

TD: What advice would you give other city leaders based on your experience over the past year?

SP: I think all coastal cities like New York – and other cities facing the impacts of climate change – must remember they are highly vulnerable and that their vulnerability is only going to increase as the impacts of climate change become more acute. So it is incumbent upon us as city leaders to think ambitiously about preparing our cities and making the investments needed to make our cities more resistant to climate-related events.

But we also have to balance the desire to think ambitiously against reality, so that we are creating plans that not only have the greatest possible impact but that are also achievable given the resources that we have. This is going to be one of the defining problems facing most cities going forward.

*Please note: At the time of publication Seth Pinsky is no longer with NYCEDC, but has started a new role as Executive Vice President with RXR Realty.

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