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Posted on on November 4th, 2012
by Pincas Jawetz (




Opinion in The New York Times

Deciding Where Future Disasters Will Strike.

Published: November 3, 2012

WE all have an intuitive sense of how water works: block it, and it flows elsewhere. When a storm surge hits a flood barrier, for instance, the water does not simply dissipate. It does the hydrological equivalent of a bounce, and it lands somewhere else.

Related in Opinion:

Op-Ed Contributor: Our Latest High-Water Mark (November 3, 2012)
Room for Debate: Should New York Build Sea Gates?
(November 1, 2012)

The Dutch, after years of beating back the oceans, have a way of deciding what is worth saving with a dike or sea wall, and what is not. They simply run the numbers, and if something is worth less in terms of pure euros and cents, it is more acceptable to let it be flooded. This seems entirely reasonable. But as New York begins considering coastal defenses, it should also consider the uncomfortable truth that Wall Street is worth vastly more, in dollar terms, than certain low-lying neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens — and that to save Manhattan, planners may decide to flood some other part of the city.

I think I was the only journalist who witnessed the March 2009 unveiling of some of the first proposed sea-wall designs. “Against the Deluge: Storm Surge Barriers to Protect New York City” was a conference held at N.Y.U.’s Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, and it had the sad air of what was then an entirely lost cause. There was a single paying exhibitor — “Please visit our exhibitor,” implored the organizers — whose invention, FloodBreak, was an ingenious, self-deploying floodgate big enough to protect a garage but not at all big enough to protect Manhattan. When we lined up for the included dinner, which consisted of cold spaghetti, the man waved fliers at the passing engineers. But as I look back over my notes, I can see how prescient the conference was. A phrase I frequently scrawled is “Breezy Point.”

One speaker got a sustained ovation. He was an engineer from the Dutch company Arcadis, whose $6.5 billion design is one with which I suspect we will all soon be familiar. It is a modular wall spanning 6,000 feet across the weakest point in New York’s natural defenses, the Narrows, which separates Staten Island and Brooklyn. Its main feature is a giant swinging gate modeled on the one that protects Rotterdam, Europe’s most important port. Consisting of two steel arms, each more than twice as long as the Statue of Liberty is tall, Rotterdam’s gate is among the largest moving structures on earth. And New York’s barrier would stretch across an even larger reach of water — “an extra landmark” for the city, he said triumphantly. That’s when everyone began clapping.

The engineers in the room did not shy away from the hard truth that areas outside a Narrows barrier could see an estimated two feet of extra flooding. If a wave rebounding off the new landmark hits a wave barreling toward it, it could make for a bigger wave of the sort that neighborhoods like Arrochar and Midland Beach on Staten Island and Bath Beach and Gravesend in Brooklyn may want to start fretting about.

I attended the conference not just because I was interested in the fate of New York, my onetime home, but because I was recently back from parts of Bangladesh decimated by a cyclone. By now it is commonplace to point out that climate change is unfair, that it tends to leave the big “emitter countries” in good shape — think Russia or Canada or, until recently, America — while preying on the low-emitting, the poor, the weak, the African, the tropical. But more grossly unfair is the notion that, in lieu of serious carbon cuts, we will all simply adapt to climate change. Manhattan can and increasingly will. Rotterdam can and has. Dhaka or Chittagong or Breezy Point patently cannot. If a system of sea walls is built around New York, its estimated $10 billion price tag would be five times what rich countries have given in aid to help poorer countries prepare for a warmer world.

Whether climate change caused Sandy’s destruction is a question for scientists — and in many ways it’s a stupid question, akin to asking whether gravity is the reason an old house collapsed when it did. The global temperature can rise another 10 degrees, and the answer will always be: sorta. By deciding to adapt to climate change — a decision that has already been partly made, because significant warming is already baked into the system — we have decided to embrace a world of walls.

Some people, inevitably richer people, will be on the right side of these walls. Other people will not be — and that we might find it increasingly convenient to lose all sight of them is the change I fear the most. This is not an argument against saving New York from the next hurricane. It is, however, an argument for a response to this one that is much broader than the Narrows.

McKenzie Funk is a journalist who is writing a book on the business of climate change.


Fractured Recovery Divides the Region.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Katya Slepak carried donated supplies to her cousins’ home in the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island. More Photos »

By , and
Published: November 3, 2012

The patchy recovery from Hurricane Sandy exposed a fractured region on Saturday. The lights flickered on in Manhattan neighborhoods that had been dark for days, and New York’s subways rumbled and screeched through East River tunnels again.

But in shorefront stretches of Staten Island and Queens that were all but demolished, and in broad sections of New Jersey and Long Island, gasoline was still almost impossible to come by, electricity was still lacking, temperatures were dropping and worried homeowners wondered when help would finally arrive.

Drivers in New Jersey faced 1970s-style gasoline rationing imposed by Gov. Chris Christie, while in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that the Defense Department would distribute free fuel from five mobile stations. But that effort backfired when too many people showed up.

It was a weekend of contrasts. Crowds streamed into city parks that reopened on a blindingly bright Saturday morning, while people who had been displaced by the storm said help was not coming fast enough and the desperation was growing.

David O’Connor, 44, had begun to use his living room chairs as firewood in Long Beach, N.Y., where the storm sent water surging down streets. A neighbor, Gina Braddish, a 27-year-old newlywed, was planning to siphon gas from a boat that washed into her front yard. Older people on darkened streets have been shouting for help from second-floor windows, at eye level with the buoys still trapped in trees.

“I’m looking around seeing people really down,” said Joann Bush, a social worker who lives in Coney Island. “They don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring.”

There were other contrasts: The grandstands were still in place for the New York City Marathon, even though Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had canceled the race on Friday for the first time in its 42-year history. But instead of promoting a race, Mr. Bloomberg visited the devastated neighborhoods in the Rockaway section of Queens, where he voiced concern about chilly temperatures and hypothermia. “It’s cold, and it really is critical that people stay warm, especially the elderly,” he said at a City Hall briefing, urging people to go to shelters if they did not have heat. He added, “We are committed to making sure that everybody can have a roof over their head and food in their stomachs and deal with the cold safely.”

In many places that the storm pounded in its relentless push into the Northeast, there was a profound sense of isolation, with whole towns on Long Island still cut off from basic information, supplies and electricity. People in washed-out neighborhoods said they felt increasingly desperate. “Everything involving our lives is a matter of exhaustion,” said Nancy Reardon, 45, who waited for gas for five hours on Saturday in Massapequa.

Vikki Quinn, standing amid ruined belongings in front of her flooded house in Long Beach, said she felt lost. “I just keep waiting for someone with a megaphone and a car to just tell us what to do,” she said.

Hank Arkin, 60, a photographer in Merrick, wondered how much of the damage could have been avoided. “I am screaming mad because this is an inhumane way to live in the highest property-taxed area of the entire state,” he said. “They had days of notice before the storm and nothing was done.”

Officials said they were trying to get help where it was needed. “One of the problems is that when you have lots of different agencies, it takes a while for them to get coordinated,” Mr. Bloomberg said at his briefing, adding that he understood how high the tensions were in the Rockaways. “Somebody this morning screamed at me that they could not get coffee,” he said. “Someone else screamed at me that there is nothing there, but one block away, there was a service.”

Hundreds of thousands of homes on Long Island were still without power Saturday, and frustration with the utilities, particularly Long Island Power Authority, continued to rise. “LIPA, get your act together,” Edward P. Mangano, the Nassau County executive, wrote on his Facebook page Saturday. “This response and lack of communication with customers is shameful.”

Mr. Bloomberg, too, attacked the power authority, which provides electricity to the Rockaways. “LIPA in our view has not acted aggressively enough,” the mayor said. He said the power authority had “no clear timetable” for restoring the power and that it had indicated that some homes and businesses might have to wait two weeks before the lights went back on.

“That is certainly not acceptable,” he said. “When it comes to prioritizing resources,” he said, the Rockaways “should be first in line” because the storm did so much damage there. But so far, he said, “that does not appear to be the case.” Mr. Cuomo also criticized the power authority on Saturday, as he has almost daily since the storm hit.

Mr. Cuomo said there were signs of progress. He said four subway lines that tie Manhattan to Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens — the Nos. 4, 5, 6 and 7 lines — returned to life completely on Saturday morning, with four others — the D, F, J and M lines — set to begin running between Manhattan and Brooklyn by nightfall. The Q train was also expected back by the end of the day on Saturday, and the Nos. 2 and 3 trains on Sunday. But the L line remained flooded on Saturday — “wall to wall, ceiling to ceiling,” the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Joseph J. Lhota, said.

Mr. Bloomberg said most public schools would reopen on Monday, only to close again on Tuesday for Election Day. He said some 65 schools would not open on Monday, some because they were being used as shelters, some because they had sustained damage in the storm. He said officials hoped that most of those schools could open Wednesday.

He said that building inspectors still had to check some 55,000 buildings in the low-lying areas that he ordered evacuated before the storm struck. He said that 8,500 buildings have been inspected and that more than 7,200 were “safe to inhabit.”

Utility crews from across the country struggled with a power network that had been battered. As they went from town to town and block to block, they trimmed trees and freed cables that had toppled in winds that approached 80 miles an hour.

Despite nonstop work, the numbers were daunting. In New Jersey, Public Service Electric and Gas still had more than 600,000 customers without power on Saturday. Hoboken remained the biggest challenge because of water damage, officials said.

Mr. Cuomo said that in New York, 60 percent of those who lost power in the storm had had it restored, but that 900,000 were still in the dark. On Long Island, where 1.2 million people lost power, about 550,000 had their power back by Saturday morning.

Mr. Cuomo also said 8 million gallons of gas had been unloaded from commercial tankers and an additional 28 million gallons would go to distribution terminals over the weekend.

In Midtown Manhattan, riggers went to work high above West 57th Street, near Carnegie Hall, where the storm broke the boom on a construction crane and left it dangling 74 stories up. They hand-cranked the boom closer to the partially completed building and planned to strap the boom to the structure. Once that was done, the surrounding streets, which had been closed since the boom snapped, could reopen — perhaps by Sunday, the mayor said.

Relief agencies poured into beleaguered neighborhoods, but so did hundreds of volunteers on their own. The narrow lanes of Midland Beach on Staten Island, which the storm slammed with particular fury, were busy. Groups of volunteers carrying brooms, rakes and shovels went from door to door, offering to pitch in with the cleanup. Others circled the blocks in pickup trucks full of food, blankets, clothes and cleaning supplies. Impromptu distribution centers piled high with food and secondhand clothes sprang up on every other corner.

“Anybody need anything?” a man shouted from a truck to a group cleaning out a house on Olympia Boulevard. A few minutes later, two women pulling rolling suitcases paused in front of the house and asked the same question. There appeared to be more volunteers offering help than residents in need.The storm’s toll in the city rose to 41, according to the police, when a 90-year-old man was found dead in his basement in Rockaway Park. He was identified as George Stathis. The police said his body was found when a cousin went to check on him.

Two patients remained in the evacuated Bellevue Hospital Center on the East Side of Manhattan on Saturday because they were too sick to be carried down the stairs, according to several people familiar with the situation. One of the patients was a 500- to 600-pound woman, and the other a man who was scheduled to have heart surgery powered by an emergency generator after the hospital lost power in the storm, according to these people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Bellevue employees had received an e-mail threatening them with dismissal if they spoke to reporters.

Ian Michaels, a spokesman for Bellevue, said power had been restored on Saturday. He said officials hoped to transfer out the last two patients as soon as the elevators were back in service.

The authorities estimated that as many as 100,000 homes and businesses on Long Island had been destroyed or badly damaged in the storm. Sand dunes were flattened and rows of beach houses crushed. The storm’s furious flood tide created new inlets that could become permanent parts of the topography.

Redrawing the maps will take time. The cleanup is immediate, and grim. In a grocery on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, men tried to slop out foul-smelling muck as thousands of dollars worth of food and produce lay rotting on the floor.

“Everything is damaged, everything is garbage,” said Boris Yakubov, who said he was the store owner’s brother. He was pushing a mop, trying to help clear out the mess.

Down the street, the pharmacy in the back of a store was open, but the customers had to wade through a tide of mud that remained in the front. Irina Vovnoby got her white tennis shoes dirty and wet dropping off a prescription for her mother-in-law.

“I never saw a situation like this,” she said. “This is a disaster.”

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Residents on Michigan Ave. in Long Beach banded together to keep a lookout for looters.  More Photos »

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