Five Years After Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers Reflect on the Storm’s Legacy

Metropolis asked New York stakeholders to consider what we’ve learned since Sandy and how the city is moving toward a more resilient future.

Hurricane Sandy Five Year Anniversary
An aerial view of the New Jersey coast following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in 2012. Courtesy U.S. Air Force photo/Mark C. Olsen

This week marks five years since Hurricane Sandy, one of the most devastating storms in U.S. history, made landfall. As it rolled over the Caribbean and up the Atlantic Coast, the storm caused unprecedented destruction—unseen since Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew—and killed more than 100 people. The New York City area was hit particularly hard, especially in economically and geographically vulnerable areas on its unprotected coastline. When the waters receded, according to a city report, the storm left nearly $19 billion in damage. Although progress has been made in the half-decade since, there is still much work to be done.

In light of these challenges, Metropolis asked several New York stakeholders—ranging from resiliency leaders to grassroots organizers—to reflect on how Sandy continues to impact New York City, what we have learned about storm preparation, and what hurdles still lay ahead. Read their responses below.

Hurricane Sandy Five Year Anniversary
BIG’s BIG U proposal for the Rebuild By Design competition. Courtesy BIG/Rebuild By Design

Amy Chester
Managing Director, Rebuild by Design

Hurricane Sandy impacted New York City physically, socially, and culturally. We understand now that our shoreline is 520 miles of vulnerability that needs to be addressed.

Though our city has already done a lot, we are far away from being ready for another storm as severe as Sandy. Some of the long-term investments made in our city are not visible to us, like the upgrades to our subway infrastructure. Others are more visible, such as the raising of homes in Broad Channel or rebuilding our historic wooden boardwalks into concrete pathways. In the next two to three years, the Rebuild by Design projects will each break ground; these large-scale demonstration projects will increase social resilience by reimagining parks that will not only increase recreational opportunities but also protect our communities in times of severe weather.

However, all that we have already invested is not nearly enough. We need to rethink our city’s relationship to the water. How do we do that? We ensure that every piece of infrastructure we build is built for tomorrow’s environment, not today’s. If we build the berm to protect us from the storm surge, we need to build it to heights that will protect the next generation, 100 years from now. We also need to become smarter about our investments and ensure that every single dollar we spend on infrastructure brings us multiple benefits. We need buildings that produce energy, parks that store water, and green infrastructure that beautifies our city, absorbs water, cleans the air, and increases health outcomes.

If we do it now, our New York will be loved by the people who live here in 150 years, just as we do today.

Hurricane Sandy Five Year Anniversary
New York City Mayor de Blasio makes an announcement about coastal resiliency in the Rockaways Sunday, October 29, 2017. Courtesy Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office.

Bill de Blasio
Mayor of New York City
[Spoken at an October 29 press briefing announcing new infrastructure investments in the Rockaways, an area of Queens hit particularly hard by Hurricane Sandy]

I want everyone to know, it’s going to be my administration and many administrations to come that are going to have to do this work. Global warming set the stage for everything we’re facing now. Global warming will take decades to reverse.

We will be in the resiliency business for a long, long time—not years, decades—and it’s going to take a huge amount of effort and a huge amount of money to increasingly make us safe, and it takes time, piece by piece, to make us safer and safe each year.

Still from New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) affiliated artist Anita Glesta’s WATERSHED installation at Red Hook Library, part of WATERSHED Red Hook, a large-scale public art project and forum presented by ArtW Global and The Fifth Avenue Committee’s “Turning the Tide Environmental Justice Initiative” in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. Courtesy Amy Aronoff for NYFA

Karen Blondel
Environmental Justice Community Organizer, Turning The Tide (part of the 
Fifth Avenue Committee)

Hurricane Sandy impacted New York City’s most vulnerable communities typically housed in public housing along its waterfront. Many residents were without electricity for weeks and most are still hooked up to temporary boilers for heat and hot water five years later. Many businesses and private residents along the coast were also devastated, and there is a need for an integrated flood protection system since our waterfront has many owners and businesses.

The challenges ahead are related to how we retrofit our buildings in order to reduce our energy and waste. But what we also need is legislation regarding value capture, carbon taxes, and a community climate protection act that holds corporations, developers, and everyday citizens responsible.

The key is public education and awareness through the arts. Artworks like Anita Glesta’s WATERSHED (2015) actually provoke and stimulate the conversation, and our local community-based organizations, including the public library, are exactly the types of spaces we need to carry out that work.

Hurricane Sandy Five Year Anniversary
Courtesy Office of Brooklyn Borough President

Eric Adams
Brooklyn Borough President

Five years ago, a deadly force of nature hit our shores like nothing we had experienced before. Hurricane Sandy claimed the lives of dozens of our neighbors and destroyed thousands of homes, and as Brooklynites we take time today to pause and mourn what our borough and our city lost.

The winds and waves of Sandy certainly did all they could to shake us, but they could not break us. The spirit of “One Brooklyn” has shone as bright as ever in the still-ongoing process of rebuilding and recovery, and I want to personally thank everyone who gave whatever they could to help communities in despair from Red Hook to the Rockaways, Manhattan Beach to Midland Beach.

Sandy tested the resiliency of our people, and we passed with flying colors. However, we still face an incomplete grade when it comes to the resiliency of our infrastructure. The realities of climate change compel us to be prepared to handle storms like this again, and the recent devastation facing our fellow Americans in Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are terrible reminders of what Brooklyn may face in the years ahead. Government has made some strides in flood mitigation efforts, but bureaucratic red tape has stalled or boondoggled far too much. Leaders on the local, state, and federal level have a duty to be as determined in funding and finishing these projects as our residents have been along our coast, from Greenpoint to Gerritsen Beach, Canarsie to Coney Island.

Let us channel the pain from this anniversary into a purpose of strengthening our waterfront, protecting our environment, and building a more resilient future.

Hurricane Sandy Five Year Anniversary
Joseph Esposito Courtesy Ed Reed Mayoral Photography Office

Joseph Esposito
Commissioner of New York City’s Office of Emergency Management

Hurricane Sandy was a paradigm event for New York City. We have never experienced in modern times an emergency incident that so severely damaged many areas in this city in all five boroughs. Our decision making, our response as a city and our attempts at recovery (which are on-going) posed a major coordination challenge. After a thorough after action review, we’ve developed new procedures and protocols to more quickly and effectively coordinate storm response and recovery in the future.

One of the key changes following Hurricane Sandy was an update to the City’s hurricane evacuation zones, which are a critical part of the City’s Coastal Storm Plan. The City’s pre-Hurricane Sandy evacuation zones corresponded to the anticipated flooding caused by hurricanes categorized on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale. The new hurricane evacuation zones (1 through 6) reflect more sophisticated modeling and forecasting from the National Weather Service, including the direction and strength of a storm’s winds. These more refined evacuation zones allow the City to more effectively communicate with and evacuate those residents who are most at risk based on the characteristics of a particular storm. Over the past few years, we have expanded efforts to prepare New Yorkers for hurricanes. This remains one of our biggest challenges—we want all New Yorkers to know which hurricane evacuation zone they live in and have a plan for what to do when a storm approaches.

Hurricane Sandy Five Year Anniversary
Courtesy DLAND Studio

Susannah Drake
Landscape Architect and Founding Principal, DLANDstudio

Control of nature is human folly. Recent storms have demonstrated once again that as a society we are not invincible to weather yet are unwilling to make difficult choices to reduce vulnerability. The $20 billion of physical damage and scores of lost lives have led to some important changes in attitude, which has, in turn, enabled innovation. But it’s not enough. In five years we should have seen more real change.

The concept of retreat needs to be recast as a heroic strategy—escape danger to live and fight another day. Our recent work with the Regional Plan Association for its fourth regional plan recasts retreat as a development strategy that we call Receive Protect and Adapt. Existing underdeveloped transportation corridors on high ground (which will incidentally be the waterfront in 50 years) will be up-zoned and developed with jobs and housing to draw people away from vulnerable properties in flood zones. The water’s edge will become a zone of action, relieving tension off hundreds of miles of coast, and protecting hundreds of thousands of residents, and hundreds of billions of dollars in property. Waterfront zones will be repurposed for recreation, agriculture, energy and ecosystem services including carbon sequestration, oxygen production, and flood control. Critical infrastructure will be buffered and protected. We also need to be smarter about leveraging our built and natural systems for long-term sustainability. The opportunity and challenge: to understanding, working with, and capitalize upon nature’s dynamism, value, and diversity.

SCAPE’s Gowanus Lowlands project proposes adaptive strategies for the area surrounding the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. Courtesy SCAPE

Kate Orff
Landscape Architect and Founding Partner, 

Despite increasing uncertainty in climate- and weather-related stressors, we are planning for the next 100 years with the static tools and siloed regulatory context of the last 100 years. Innovation will spring from pilot projects that test, modify, and reframe these rules. We are working on this now in the San Francisco Bay Area through our Public Sediment project and will continue to test alternatives here in New York Harbor with waterfront edge design and in-water habitat design. The latter can pilot not only physical changes in the urban landscape but regulatory pathways that can unlock future system-wide transformation.

Manhattan East River Esplanade
MNLA is engaged in multiple waterfront resiliency projects citywide, including the community-based planning initiative for Manhattan’s East River Esplanade. Courtesy Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects

Signe Nielsen
Landscape Architect and Founding Principal, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA)

The good news since Sandy is that locally-based NYC initiatives are expanding the parameters of climate change and attempting to address a broader set of strategic responses. The bad news is that the continuing disconnects among federal, local, and community level regulatory agencies are stymying real change.

At the federal level, most resiliency implementation funding is based on stringent FEMA requirements including the reconstruction of a damaged or destroyed property in kind regarding location, elevation, and materials. Low-lying areas demonstrate that these approaches are no longer fiscally responsible—relocation must be considered.

Locally, slow decision-making on FEMA-certified projects by operationally-strapped city agencies is being exacerbated by federal and local flood protection data variances. Additionally, FEMA’s maps do not adequately account for sea level rise and rapid rain accumulation. It is politically challenging to change National Flood Insurance Program maps. Federal agencies should consider local conditions and offer broader solutions. New York realizes that resiliency requires a regional response, but action succumbs to inertia in the face of budget shortfalls and cost uncertainty due to varying natural and physical conditions.

At the community level, those touched by Rebuild by Design now feel they are not getting promised ecosystem services and broader community benefits. Better communication, engaging a spectrum of urban challenges, and proposing multi-valent solutions are critically needed moving forward.

Adam Friedberg
Associate Principal, BuroHappold Engineering

Five years after Hurricane Sandy, New York City is stronger and better prepared than ever to respond to a future event, yet major infrastructure projects intended to deflect devastating surges—notably the Storm Surge Barrier and the Big U—remain stymied by lengthy approvals and staggering costs. While frustrating, especially for those in vulnerable areas, these delays have created an opening to analyze and accelerate less costly, more agile green infrastructure solutions, such as wetlands restorations at Jamaica Bay and Staten Island or the New York City Department of Environmental Protection projects throughout the five boroughs. And we’re designing and retrofitting buildings for resiliency so they remain inhabitable following flooding—whether from a hurricane or a nor’easter. Collectively these cheaper, faster solutions may allow us to reconsider the scale and purpose of mega projects, diminishing their economic and ecological impacts. In other words, the end result may be smarter long-term strategy.

Hurricane Sandy Five Year Anniversary
Diagrams depicting SCAPE’s Jamaica Bay Eco-Infrastructure proposal, from Waterproofing New York Courtesy UR

Denise Hoffman Brandt
Director and Associate Professor of Graduate Landscape Architecture Program, The City College of New York, and co-editor of 
Waterproofing New York

It’s time to recover from the recovery. We launched Waterproofing to propose a systematic approach to climate change adaptation that would evolve with dynamic challenges as opposed to a piecemeal response that would leave the city in a perpetual state of defense against climate forces. Since then we have watched as ambitious initiatives like the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (or SIRR) and Rebuild By Design got caught in a mire of conflicting regulatory requirements and fragmented by underfunding as political winds shifted. What we need most right now is a clear-eyed assessment of what worked and where we floundered in the recovery process so that agency policies can be untangled and plans for systemic adaptation can be made that will outride the four-year election cycle.

Collage of Red Hook Island, a plan to protect the Red Hook community from the next Hurricane Sandy. Courtesy DRAW Brooklyn LLC

Alexandros Washburn
Founding Director, Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban eXcellence (CRUX), ‎Stevens Institute of Technology

I was the chief urban designer in the Department of City Planning when my house was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. I stayed and saw the devastation first-hand, and I relied on my neighbors in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to survive. I tried to learn from the experience. I wrote a book about it, The Nature of Urban Design: a New York Perspective on Resilience. I went to teach about it, working with the best hydrodynamics professors in the world at the Stevens Institute of Technology. And I tried to convince government how important it was to fund resilience in order that we could improve not just the security of our neighborhoods but their quality of life as well.

Five years after Sandy, I have come to realize that we are out of time. We cannot wait on a rational combination of government funding, science, and philanthropy. We have to act on our own. We developed a community plan called Red Hook Island, and we are moving forward. One hundred years ago a new island was signed into law in New York Harbor, and then abandoned. We are reviving that island. If we succeed, it will prove what resilience can be: socially beneficial, simple to engineer, and profitable.

This is the future that will not wait.

You may also enjoy “The Bold Plan to Help Save the Mid-Atlantic Coast from Storm Surges.”

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