6 ways New York City is preparing for the next Superstorm Sandy

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Damage in Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy
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Lucas Jackson/Reuters

On October 29, 2012, exactly four years ago, Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, flooding many coastal areas and claiming the lives of 44 New Yorkers. City officials estimate that the storm cost $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity.

Though Sandy is now considered a 260-year-storm, meaning there’s just a 1 in 260 chance of it happening in a given year, storms like it are expected to become more common as climate change causes weather to become more extreme. To make matters worse, damage caused by future storms will be exacerbated by sea level rise – estimates suggest that by 2050, Sandy-sized storms could flood nearly 25% of New York City.

Though cities like New Orleans currently have more land area in their floodplains, New York’s density makes it the US city with the most people – nearly 400,000 – living in the 100-year flood zone.

That reality means it’s imperative for the city to start preparing now to protect its residents, businesses, coasts, and infrastructure from those future storms. Though some experts suggest little can be done to fully prevent damage in many parts of the city, efforts are already underway to mitigate the future impacts of flooding and extreme weather events.

Here are a few of the big projects underway.


The New York City Panel on Climate Change has brought together leading scientists to assess risks and make projections.

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A view of Hurricane Sandy over the East Coast

In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg gathered a group of climate and social scientists to form New York’s first NPCC. The panel was charged with developing projections to help city officials understand the risks of climate change and rising sea levels. The panel’s report was released in 2010, and it projected that the city could see sea levels rise by up to a foot, causing what we consider a 100-year storm (meaning that the chances of it are one in 100 in any given year) to be two to three times more common.

Though that research began well before Sandy, the city has continued to get panels together to update climate projections and and advise the city about where to focus its resiliency efforts. The third panel’s report came out in 2015, and provides projections through 2100 for the first time.


The city is building more emergency shelters.

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A woman shops for food in a shelter created by “Occupy Sandy”, an relief organization born out of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, in Queens, New York, November 10, 2012.
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Andrew Burton/Reuters

In 2014, the capacity of New York’s emergency shelters was just 10,000. Though more haven’t been built yet, the city has created plans to bring that number up to 120,000.

These shelters are meant for New Yorkers with disabilities who are unable to evacuate their homes without support. Existing shelters are also slated to be retrofitted to have accessible entrances, restrooms, and other upgrades.


A program called RISE:NYC is funding technology projects that will enable small businesses to bounce back after the next storm.

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A rooftop wifi installation by “Digital Stewards” of the Red Hook Initiative
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Stefanie Deji, courtesy of the Red Hook Initiative

The New York City Economic Development Corporation is distributing $30 million of federal grant money to fund tech projects that will help small businesses survive the next storm.

The money is being divided among 11 initiatives, including goTenna – a startup that allows users to send text messages and create a mesh network between their cell phones when internet or phone networks go down – and the Red Hook Initiative, which created a free local wifi network in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood that stayed live after Sandy.


The city is making $3 billion worth of repairs in public housing infrastructure to make it more storm-resistant.

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A generator provides electricity to NYCHA buildings in Coney Island that have no water or heat following Hurricane Sandy, November 13, 2012.
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Reuters

Many of the residents impacted most severely by Sandy were those living in New York’s public housing. According to WNYC, more than 200 buildings were damaged during the storm, which left many residents without heat or power for months.

After the storm, FEMA awarded the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) $3 billion to make upgrades – the biggest grant the federal organization has ever awarded. That money is being used to build storm gates, install flood walls to protect boiler systems, and revamp communication policies around emergency and evacuation situations.


The Metropolitan Transportation Agency’s Fix and Fortify program is putting $10.5 billion into repairs and upgrades.

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Flooded L train tunnel
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MTA / Patrick Cashin.

The Metropolitan Transportation Agency’s Fix and Fortify program was created for the two purposes stated in its title – to make repairs to the transportation infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and to prepare subway tunnels, train tracks and other parts of the network to better weather future storms.

Part of that plan involves a controversial proposal to shut down the notoriously crowded L train, which connects north Brooklyn to Manhattan, for 18 months of repair work. The tunnel that passes under New York’s East River was filled with more than 7 million gallons of water during the storm.


The East River Coastal Resiliency Project will one day protect part of the Manhattan coastline from storm surges.

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Bjarke Ingels Group/Rebuild by Design

The winner of Rebuild by Design, a competition created by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, was a proposal called the Big U. The plan is an ambitious flood protection construction project created by the architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group, along with a group of other architecture, engineering, and environmental organizations.

The plan is broken into three parts – one on Manhattan’s west side, one on the east, and one surrounding the southernmost tip of the island. Each would create a pedestrian-accessible area that would act as a park and would also lessen the impacts of storm surges. The federal government has so far given the city $335 million to create the first section on the east side. According to the city’s 2015 OneNYC report, the project is expected to break ground in 2017.