RPA Calls for Political Leadership, Cooperation Among States to Prepare Region for Future Storms

FROM: Regional Plan Association
CONTACT: Wendy Pollack at [email protected] or (646) 468-7751

NEW YORK – Regional Plan Association mourns the loss of life and devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. As we begin to recover, we share a responsibility to learn from this tragedy and develop a new approach to managing the impact of storms in the tri-state region.

The immediate priority must be to provide relief to storm-ravaged communities and to restore vital transportation and other systems. Yet once the cleanup is completed, the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region should conduct a comprehensive assessment of the investments and policies needed to prevent or minimize future flooding and other storm-related damage.

This can occur only through concerted political leadership at the federal, state and local levels. We are very encouraged by statements this week by Governors Cuomo, Christie and Malloy and Mayor Bloomberg recognizing the need to re-examine our policies, plans and infrastructure in light of the threats of severe storms and rising sea levels. States and localities throughout the region have made some progress in recent years in planning for volatile weather. But more needs to be done.

“As the region focuses on recovering from this terrible event, we welcome the commitment from our political leadership to identify long-term solutions to storm management,” said RPA President Robert D. Yaro. “We look forward to working with government and individual communities to help form strategies that will best protect the region from intense storms and cope with other changes to our environment.”

There are many steps that the region should consider to help reduce damage from the inevitable storms in our future, from physically protecting urban shorelines to rethinking our transit and power networks so that localized outages don’t cripple an entire city or region. In all likelihood, we will need to adopt both “hard” infrastructure changes and “soft” solutions that rely on better land-use decisions and tap ecological systems to limit damage.

One approach could be to erect tidal gates and barriers to prevent storm surges from reaching the core of the region and critical infrastructure systems. Although these systems would be expensive to build and pose significant engineering and ecological questions, they can and do prevent serious flood damage. One estimate has put the cost of building a barrier system for the New York Harbor at $10 billion.

Other measures also must be considered. In less densely populated, flood-prone areas, it might be more cost-effective and less damaging to our estuaries and natural resources to focus on the restoration of barrier dunes and wetlands systems and the elevation of homes and other structures. State or local governments can offer to buy the most vulnerable properties, allowing floodwaters to return without putting residents and first responders at risk and reducing repeated claims on federally subsidized flood insurance. Localities should take a hard look at local land-use policies that encourage building in areas known to be at risk. Structures that aren’t built to modern flood standards can be encouraged to retrofit.

To protect key infrastructure, the region also should consider enclosing transit stations, road and rail tunnels and utility plants in ways that seal out water. Raised ventilation stacks and entrances could replace subway grates and stairs, and more powerful pumps could clear stations and tunnels more quickly. In addition, the region should put greater emphasis on building redundancy into the transportation network through a targeted expansion of buses and rail. This additional capacity, which our growing region needs to sustain its economic competitiveness, would provide us with more flexibility than our current predominantly “hub-and-spoke” network and greatly speed the return to normalcy after outages.

We also should explore ways to develop a more distributed energy network, so that power can be maintained to most areas even when the central distribution system or branches on the power network suffer damage.

All these options need to be fully examined, with greater urgency than they have in the past. While the approaches outlined here have been examined in a series of task force and agency reports, implementation has been inconsistent. Moreover, Sandy’s wake of destruction has made clear the regional nature of our waterways. To accelerate the implementation of storm-mitigation strategies, the three governors in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should cooperatively conduct a comprehensive investigation of different approaches and make specific recommendations for action.

There are no simple solutions to the problems posed by storms of this magnitude. We do know that grappling with severe storms in a densely populated region will require a combination of protection and resiliency strategies, and that the necessary steps will vary by location within the region. And of course, the New York region’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions are more critical than ever before.

It also will require long-term capital investments. Although the sums might seem daunting, the cost of preventative measures is far smaller than the toll suffered by the region when core infrastructure is battered and unusable, homes are damaged and destroyed, millions of residents are unable to get to work or school, and lives are lost. It is imperative that we recognize the growing frequency of severe storms and the effects of climate change, and use this opportunity to move forward with changes in our region.