Without PlaNYC, Hurricane Sandy’s Devastation Would Have Been Much Worse

The performance of waterfront areas influenced by PlaNYC during Sandy shows that we should be advancing, not retreating, in the face of danger

Doctoroff.

Doctoroff.

Grand visions have always been a part of our city’s DNA—and in the years ahead, City Hall and its partners must once again draw on that tradition to prepare New York for the growing threat of climate change. As Sandy all too cruelly showed us, we are at increased risk from climate change-driven events like storms, floods, droughts and more. Preparing to meet those challenges is a large and complicated task, but it is one we cannot shy away from. As Mayor Bloomberg said just last week, “We may or may not see another storm like Sandy in our lifetimes, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that we should leave it to our children to prepare for the possibility.”

Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch. Five years ago, the Bloomberg administration began working aggressively to prepare New York for the impacts of climate change. That effort was a key part of PlaNYC—a comprehensive program addressing every aspect of the city’s physical environment, from land use to energy, from water quality to transportation—and the first official recognition that adapting to climate change must be a key part of city policy.

PlaNYC made New York better prepared than ever for a major event like Sandy—even though the hundred-year storm we were planning for came all too soon. Mayor Bloomberg’s most lasting legacy won’t be a single park or cultural site—it will be his vision for a city prepared to survive and thrive in a world of new competition, threats and dangers.

One of PlaNYC’s 132 initiatives was the creation of the city’s first-ever Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, which envisioned and began implementing New York’s climate change mitigation efforts. It started by establishing a committee to determine the reality of the threats we face. Based on the committee’s assessment, actions were taken to address the most pressing risks. Huge swaths of the city were rebuilt, rezoned and refashioned to better weather those threats. Life- and infrastructure-saving initiatives were designed and put into action. A new approach to waterfront development allowed the city to do more with this valuable resource—safely, and despite the potential for flooding. Indeed the performance of waterfront areas influenced by PlaNYC during Sandy shows that we should be advancing, not retreating, in the face of danger.

For example the new 30-acre park under construction on Governors Island—which experienced peak flooding of almost 13 feet above sea level and saw five feet of water come over the South Island’s seawall—came through the storm nearly untouched, because events like Sandy were assumed during its design. From elevated fill to plantings that help maintain soil integrity, the park is built to last. Even unprotected construction equipment and trucks housed on the island survived the storm.

And Arverne by the Sea, a new real estate development in the Rockaways, saw almost none of the damage of its neighbors just blocks away. Built with natural barriers on an elevated land base and developed with a drainage system designed to handle the surges of a Sandy-like storm, Arverne by the Sea is a model of what can be built in even the most vulnerable coastal areas.

These two sites aren’t alone. Because of PlaNYC, the new Brooklyn Bridge Park was designed with the assumption that it would flood—and it was mostly open to the public just five days after Sandy. The 60-acre Willets Point development in Queens was elevated out of the flood plain. And New York’s first comprehensive Wetlands Strategy will restore and enhance nearly 127 acres and add 75 acres of new wetlands to the city’s parks system.

There were also some lower-profile, but perhaps more important, preparations. During Sandy, for example, there was no question that the Rockaways would be evacuated—after all, they are in Zone A. But if it weren’t for the work done by the PlaNYC team, citizens of the Rockaways might never have left their homes during the storm.

Here’s why: as part of PlaNYC, the city developed new infrastructure design standards for flood-prone areas, but could only compel utilities and transportation providers to meet those standards in official flood zones. Those zones, designated by FEMA, badly needed to be updated to account for current and future changes in sea levels. After FEMA refused to fund the update, we sought and secured funding on our own to fly twin-engine Shrike Commander aircraft over the entire city to laser-map the area.

We provided the new data to FEMA (which is still working to update its zone designations), but we also knew there was more we could do with the information. We decided to compare it with the city’s existing evacuation zones. The comparison revealed a serious problem: the Rockaways were not in an evacuation zone, and the new maps revealed just how vulnerable they are to flooding. We immediately decided to evacuate the Rockaways during the next incident—Irene. And following that storm, the city permanently added the Rockaways to Zone A. So as Sandy approached, there was no decision to be made, no bureaucratic hoops to jump through—thousands of Rockaways citizens were automatically evacuated.

It’s a complicated story, but one that shows what it takes to successfully prepare New York for the new normal: an ability to adapt to changing circumstances, to disrupt the status quo, to make connections and to envision a city prepared for whatever comes its way. PlaNYC is all that and more. It was recognized by the National Academies of Sciences’ America’s Climate Choices committee as “one of the most comprehensive approaches so far to adaptation in the United States.”

I am proud to have led the PlaNYC effort, and I truly believe it has permanently changed the way New York defends against the results of climate change. But while in retrospect our focus on climate change preparedness was an obvious choice, we faced tremendous resistance from various groups—developers, the media, and even within city government. After the city’s Panel on Climate Change issued a report advising the public and private sectors to take steps to mitigate the potential damage of climate-related severe weather events (including flooding and storm surges), The New York Post declared in a headline: “Mayor’s Hot-Head Scientists Push Climate Ahead of Jobs.” And that was one of the nicer stories.

If there is any good to come from Sandy, I hope it is that Mayor Bloomberg and his successors face less resistance as they prepare the city for the century ahead. And I hope that whoever becomes our next mayor will fuel the imagination of this stunning city and have the courage and decisiveness to get things done. We all need to demand that our leaders meet that standard. If they do, there can be no doubt that New York will always remain the greatest city in the world.

Daniel L. Doctoroff is CEO and president of Bloomberg LP. He previously served as New York City’s deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding.