Life after Sandy: How New York City is preparing for the next superstorm

Michael Bloomberg has rolled out a $20 billion plan to protect the city

It remains to be seen whether Bloomberg's successor will adopt his plan.
(Image credit: (Getty Images/Jemal Countess))

One year ago Tuesday, Hurricane Sandy tore through the northeastern United States, killing scores of people and causing an estimated $68 billion worth of damage.

The impact was particularly severe in the greater New York City area, where flooding washed away miles of beachfront, overwhelmed old power facilities, and pulverized buildings. The storm cut power for 2 million customers in the area, and left 44 dead in New York City.

Though a historical rarity, Sandy's destructive power — it peaked as a Category 3 hurricane, meaning it boasted sustained winds of up to 130 miles per hour — exposed how vulnerable the city was to a natural disaster. And in its wake, New York has pledged billions of dollars to better equip the city to handle a future natural disaster of Sandy's size and strength.

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In May, the city released an after-action report full of recommendations for mitigating future disasters, calling it a "roadmap of the strategic steps the City will take to improve our ability to protect life and property in the face of increasing risk of severe weather." In June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) unveiled a second report with more specifics — some 250 recommendations in total — saying at the time that the issue was "a defining challenge of our future."

The plan called for an ambitious $20 billion project to, among other things, build flood walls and berms along the city's 520 miles of coastline, bolster utility infrastructure, and fortify buildings against hurricane-force winds. Inlets would be protected with flood gates, while low-lying coastal neighborhoods would have large natural wetlands and dunes to absorb excess water. The plan called for virtually everything imaginable save a mammoth sea wall outside the city, which, at an estimated price of $10 billion, Bloomberg deemed "impossibly expensive."

It will be years before the suggested infrastructure developments become a reality, if they do at all. The recommendations would need cooperation from city, state, and federal agencies, as well as help from amenable zoning boards. The steep price tag could rise, too; some recommendations weren't factored into the overall cost since they needed to be first studied in greater detail. And with Bloomberg on his way out of office in a few months, there's no guarantee his successor will choose to move forward with the existing blueprint.

In the meantime, the city has moved quickly to address short-term goals aimed at handling a storm's aftermath.

New York has doubled its stock of emergency boats, power generators, and fuel trucks, and amassed 100 more converters that allow cars to power traffic lights. Officials have also redrawn the city's evacuation zones to better reflect the current threats to low-lying areas, and beefed up emergency shelter capacities. The city has even tied emergency contracts to food vendors to ensure a steady supply of food for displaced residents.

It's also replenished sand washed away from beaches to create a natural buffer zone, and installed berms on Staten Island. Under new building codes, future buildings in certain flood zones will have to have higher ground floors, while older buildings will need to raise heating systems to make them less vulnerable to flood damage.

At the state level, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced last weekend that New York would launch a pilot program to create the nation's first state-level fuel reserve. The reserve, to be housed on Long Island, would store 3 million gallons of gasoline, a direct response to the energy shortages encountered after Sandy struck.

Power company Con Edison has also taken its own steps to protect the city's energy grid. The company has made $400 million in infrastructure upgrades and installed more than a mile of concrete flood wall around important equipment.

With climate change threatening to raise sea levels and make extreme weather systems like Sandy more common, New York will need to make vast improvements to protect itself from those dangers in the future.

"Sandy was the worst natural disaster to ever hit New York City," Cas Holloway, deputy mayor for operations, said last week. "We are prepared for the next storm — in fact we are better prepared than we were before Sandy."

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