Following the impact of superstorm Sandy, more than 7 per cent of the US population were estimated to be without electrical power on Tuesday October 30th. In New York City alone 3 million people were left without power primarily in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. At one point it is reported that more than 1 million ConEdison customers lost power – and note that a customer may be an entire apartment block housing hundreds of people. The negative economic impact is estimated to be in the range of $30 billion to $40 billion for the entire impact of Sandy. This is not to mention the severe social costs of fatalities, hospital closures resulting in patients being moved under duress and the hardship suffered by millions of people without electricity and water.
Did scientists warn infrastructure owners that the city risked flooding? Yes. Research groups like Climate Central have modelled the impact of rising sea levels and identified the increased flood risk to New York City. Was there a precedent? Yes. In 2011, tropical storm Irene knocked out power to 250,000 customers, required New York City to shutdown parts of the subway and lower Manhattan was flooded. Could this level of disruption and economic impact have been averted? Yes. Research groups have created flood defense plans for New York City and the city itself has a storm defense plan. Will this level of flooding occur again? Yes. According to scientific research on rising sea levels and climate change, this type of flooding is likely to happen more frequently in the future.
New York City infrastructure owners, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and ConEdison, cannot operate on the basis of a disaster resolution plan. The City needs disaster prevention infrastructure. Mayor Bloomberg needs to assume another superstorm will hit New York in 2013, another in 2014 and another in 2015. Infrastructure owners cannot hope that there won’t be a storm surge in the future because science says the opposite. New York City cannot be without power and mass transport for one week every year with an economic cost to the city alone of $10 billion each time. New York can learn from the world’s two largest flood barriers: the Thames Barrier in London (constructed in 1982) and the Eastern Scheldt barrier in the Netherlands (built in 1986).
The problem? These storm surge barriers were built in response to the 1953 North Sea Flood. So New York may need to wait until at least 2042 before the political will, funding and construction work will protect the city. That leaves a 30 year period of disaster resolution which could easily cost $300 billion just for New York City.