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

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

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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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