Keeping NYC’s head above water: Lessons from the deluge

by Amy Chester

Daily News, September 3.2020

Waking up to Thursday morning’s scenes of flooding and destruction was a shock to everyone, — including me, and I’ve spent more than 15 years working on climate change in New York City. Within the span of 13 days, we twice surpassed the record for the single biggest rainfall in a single hour in the history of New York City. New Yorkers should not feel alone as we try to make sense of what occurred. Our mayor used words like “suddenness” and “brutality” to describe the destruction that a few inches of water had on our infrastructure. Yet until we prioritize comprehensive climate planning, we will continue to see needless deaths fromweather events, disruptions to our livelihoods, and significant costs for recovery.

Here are three approaches our elected officials can take right away.

First, we need to educate New Yorkers about the risks of flash floods, and not just the New Yorkers living in the floodplain. Wednesday night’s flooding showed us that even higher ground inland neighborhoods are vulnerable to a changing climate. We know that being prepared works. Two weeks ago, in anticipation of Hurricane Henri, we canceled our plans, stayed off the roads and prepared ourselves and our homes. However, in the event of a flash flood like the one that just took us by surprise, we need an effective alert system that tells New Yorkers what to expect. Every summer, we get flash flood warnings that tell us to be careful not to drive our cars in areas where we cannot see the bottom. We have become desensitized to these alerts and can’t decipher what is a “regular” flood event as compared to what we just experienced.

Just like a terrorist attack and COVID, flash floods can be a life-or-death situation. Creating a system using color, as we have done for COVID or terrorism, or by numbers, as we do for hurricanes (category 4, 3, 2) will better help residents know what to expect and the actions we need to take to ensure we are safe.

Second, we need to better chart the course of resiliency projects already underway and expand our investments into climate-forward infrastructure. The majority of the focus of the Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts has been in the areas devastated by storm surge in our coastal neighborhoods. There are major projects underway that communities desperately need. That’s necessary but insufficient. We also need to focus on increased rainfall, which we are also way behind in planning for. When the amount of rain surpasses a tenth of an inch per hour or more, our sewer system cannot keep up. Wednesday night, 7.19 inches fell in Central Park. Solutions focused on our waterfront could not have protected us. Other cities do a better job. We should look to model programs such as Copenhagen’s “Cloud Burst” and “Amsterdam Rainproof” — both of which are comprehensive strategies that include education and the privatization of infrastructure projects to address heavy rain events. Although we have been slowly increasing our green infrastructure investments since Mayor Bloomberg’s release of PlaNYC, we only just released a beta version of Stormwater Flood Maps in May.

Meanwhile, we need to dramatically increase our green infrastructure. Here, we can also take inspiration from our neighbors across the river in New Jersey, who were inspired by the Dutch to create a Resilience Park system spanning eight acres in Hoboken. The park is under construction right now, and upon completion, it will  that transforms into an ice skating rink, a basketball court designed as a basin, and an incentive program for homeowners to collect and reuse rainwater on their premises.

Then, only when we exhaust all of our natural solutions, we should expand underground stormwater holding tanks and our sewage capacity to meet the needs of future predictions. Third, even if we do everything we can, we need to know that we will still get wet. In a city surrounded by 520 miles of waterfront, we will never be able to hold back or minimize disturbance, damage and death from what seems extreme today — which will become commonplace tomorrow.

Climate change is here, but perhaps there is newfound hope. With two flooding events just days into a new governor’s term, and a new mayor soon to come, New York may have a shot at no longer being surprised at climate events and finally be ready.

Chester is managing director of Rebuild by Design.

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