Hurricane Sandy Prompts Question: Does NYC Need a Levee System?

By Alex Brokaw  NOV 02, 2012 11:55 AM

In the wake of the superstorm, a Dutch engineer shares his opinions on the future of New York Harbor.


MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL As the US Northeast reels in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, discussions of cause and effect, and questions of what the major metropolitan areas can do going forward to protect their populations, have already begun.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “100-year flood” remark -- referring to the statistically low likelihood of storms like Sandy and 2011’s Irene occurring so close together -- has been making rounds since Tuesday. It’s been joined by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s frank comments, including those made at a press conference yesterday regarding “strange weather patterns” and the necessity to “protect our infrastructure to the extent possible.”

Forbes contributor John McQuaid was one of the first to write on the issue of preparedness, saying:

...the city has been only moderately proactive in prepping itself for the long-term risk posed by ocean floods, stressing how to respond when water breaches existing barriers rather than stopping floods altogether. That’s not surprising, really, because there is little political incentive to prep for something that hasn’t happened, even if you know it’s coming at some point. Now it has.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Cuomo laid out the realities witnessed by New Yorkers as Sandy pushed into the area, and the consequences which will now demand action.

When you start to fill the subway tunnels with salt water—much of the Con Ed (NYSE:ED) equipment is in the tunnels, is underground—when hot electrical equipment hits cold salt water, that is a bad combination. And that is a design flaw, I believe, for our system now, if you anticipate these extreme weather conditions.

Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and other companies with data center in lower Manhattan found their equipment, though not in subway tunnels, was flooded too (see Impact of Hurricane Sandy on Wireless Service Providers). And for those who might doubt the role of climate change in this week’s hurricane, an article from Businessweek does the concept justice by laying down the facts as well as offering the following sports analogy regarding human activity, global warming, and stronger, more erratic weather patterns:

“‘We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.’”

The question then becomes -- when New York City finds its footing in the following weeks, and for some, in the following months -- what feasible steps must be taken to protect the city from future ‘severe weather’ events?

“The rationale must be,” Mathijs van Ledden tells Minyanville, “you must build something that has a good cost-benefit ratio.” Van Ledden is an engineer for the Dutch water management consultancy firm Royal HaskoningDHV; he was active in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina and consulted for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Van Ledden helped design the ‘Hurricane Surge Atlas,’ an algorithm-based computer program that models the potential impact of an approaching storm based on data from 300 hypothetical hurricanes. It was predictions calculated by Atlas that led New Orleans to close its storm surge barriers as Hurricane Isaac approached in 2011. While rainwater flooding and extensive wind damage did occur -- and was responsible for the loss of three-fourths of the city’s power -- the $14.5 billion flood protection system was not breached, and seawater remained in the Gulf.

However, massive storm barriers like those in place in New Orleans, or the dikes famously built throughout the Netherlands over the past century, or the 3,000-foot sea barrier that has protected Providence, Rhode Island, since 1966, may not be the answer for New York City.

“At the end of day, it is a question not so much about whether you use a levee or a barrier or not. I think a lot of these [proposals] are feasible -- at least technically speaking,” van Ledden says.

Among these are Stony Brook University’s Storm Surge Research Group’s 2004 proposal for a three-tiered barrier system, that would see movable gates put in place in the upper East River, beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and at Arthur Kill between New Jersey and Staten Island.

According to the Associated Press, two European engineering firms have proposed seawalls to section off most of New York City at the cost of a little more than $6 billion. The two firms were CH2M Hill of Scotland, which worked on the 16-mile barrier shielding St. Petersburg in Russia, and Dutch engineering firm Arcadis NV (PINK:ARCAY), which has worked on extensive sea barriers in the Netherlands.

But, would this be money well spent?

“First, you need to ask what kind of protection a city like New York wants to have against the water, given the risks they face....Then, you need to find the cost-effective solution to reduce the risk,” says van Ledden.  “And maybe at the end of the day, a big barrier turns out to be very effective -- like its turned out to be very effective in Rotterdam -- but for other cases a barrier is not effective in terms of cost-benefit, and you
can start to look at all kinds of local [options] to protect critical infrastructure, or to put in place flexible barriers around the low lying areas.”

Flexible barriers could be used along Manhattan’s vulnerable seawalls, which were quickly overcome this past week by Sandy’s 14-foot surges. They might look like these temporary barriers being assembled in the Dutch city of Nijmegen (see photo).

Implementing local, customized options such as these is a strategy known as ‘resilience.’ It would favor small, localized solutions over larger projects like the 5-mile  barrier stretching from Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, to Sandy Hook in New Jersey proposed by CH2M. These smaller solutions might include the aforementioned flexible barriers, or the use of subway flood doors to protect New York City’s vital underground infrastructure.

Even huge, inflatable subway plugs currently being developed by the Federal government to protect subways against terrorist attacks could be used to prevent water from destroying vital transportation lines. Resilience might be thought of as the redistribution of surface area, or the reallocation of risk. While a single seawall (or even multiple seawalls) would assume a large amount of risk when buffering New York against an impending storm surge, local solutions would limit exposure in the case of a catastrophic failure. A resilience strategy is, in other words, a hedging strategy.

At first glance, van Ledden sees the New York situation as unique when compared to other high-profile areas recently subject to coastal flooding.

For areas like those in New Orleans, investing in a strong perimeter of flood defences, and closing off certain canals -- those kinds of investments appear to be cost effective. For the New York situation I don’t know...What I see on the maps, you see Manhattan, but the main areas that are at risk from a flood perspective are the entrances around Manhattan, so for those situations, just local measures can be much more effective than building a huge storm surge barrier....At the end of the day it's all about reducing risk. You can take one big measure, like a giant levee around Manhattan, or you can take 1,000 local measures to protect critical infrastructure, and to protect small local areas. 

Then, there are those with more fatalistic attitudes, like Columbia University climate risk researcher Klaus H. Jacob, as noted in that same AP article. He warned New York City officials that, due to the unpredictable nature of climate change, there is no way to be certain systems put in place today will be able to protect New York in the future.

While this is not something van Ledden addressed specifically, he did offer the following in regards to the short term benefits of implementing some system of protection:

If you look to the Hurricane Isaac situation, then I think it’s fair to say -- well, its not only the barrier, but the whole levee system around New Orleans -- if the system that was in place pre-Katrina was in place during Isaac, I think the damage would have been there in the high billions of dollars, just for the city.

The total nationwide cost for Hurricane Isaac was estimated around $2 billion. That’s next to nothing when compared to Hurricane Katrina -- the US’s most expensive storm -- which cost roughly $80 billion.

Time reports the estimated cost of Superstorm Sandy, as calculated by the forecasting firm IHS Global Insight (NYSE:IHS) totals as high as $60 billion, with $20 billion in property damage, and $10 to $30 billion in foregone business. That’s a short-term blow that could shave .6% off US economic growth in the fourth quarter.

And that’s not including the $20 billion the insurance industry is expected to pay out to victims of Sandy, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While van Ledden finds it hard not to see the benefits of spending $14.5 billion to institute protective measure down in New Orleans, he offers cautionary advice about the undertaking of these large scale projects:

You should be open for all the alternatives you can have. You must be very open-minded in the beginning, because such a barrier is going to take a lot of money, it’s going to take a lot of maintenance, it’s going to have possibly negative impacts on other things. So you need to make sure you do the right thing.

And the ‘right thing’ is, itself, often a shade a gray. As van Ledden phrases the questions New York City’s policy makers will come to face:

“What kind of risk do we want to expose people to? What do we find altogether acceptable in terms of loss of life and in terms of damage? And, what can we handle as a nation, or as an area?”

Twitter: @brokawbrokaw
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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