With Condos Flooding Waterfront, City Short on Hurricane Protections

With Hurricane Irene still affecting New York—clean-up continues, the sun is only now shining, the Hudson runs red with upstate

That ought to do it. (Mayor's Office)

With Hurricane Irene still affecting New York—clean-up continues, the sun is only now shining, the Hudson runs red with upstate clay—the city is making preparations and procedural changes to prepare for the next disaster. Yet with evacuations being one of the biggest effects of the storm, so far no action has been taken to address neighborhoods in low-lying areas, the now-well-known Zone As of the city.

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At yesterday’s World Trade Center progress press conference, with no real news about progress at the site—it was more of an update for the media outlets of the world that are only now tuning in and have not been obsessing over ground zero for the past decade—The Observer asked the mayor if any changes would be made to the waterfront redevelopment plans his administration has led, which have revitalized these areas but have also put them in harm’s way. (The Village Voice dedicated its cover to the irony of building in flood-prone areas four years ago.)

In a word, no. “It’s the waterfront that makes this city,” Mayor Bloomberg said. “You may have to, if you think about it, build a little higher, but if the oceans do rise, as many climatologists predict, you may have to raise the barriers around buildings or the coast lines.”

It sounds as though that responsibility lies with the developers who are building in these areas more than with the city. In a follow-up, spokesman Andrew Brent acknowledged that “no plans for walls”  or other construction or development mandates have been discussed since the hurricane.

That said, the city has already undertaken Vision 2020, a comprehensive plan launched this year that looks at ways to further develop the residential, industrial and ecological waterfront across the city. “Vision 2020,” Mr. Brent wrote in an email, “outlines steps that can be taken to help build long term resilience, including developing a better understanding of areas that will be at risk of flooding and storm surge in the future.”

Among the efforts being undertaken are wetland restoration and protection, as these areas serve as natural buffers from storms; exploring zoning and building code changes that would indeed require developers to be more responsive to flood and sea-change risks; updating evacuation maps; and partnering with FEMA on flood insurance.

Such measures would go some way toward protecting an area like Battery Park City, which the mayor used as an example. “Battery Park City was not evacuated because there was a threat to people living in the buildings, it was evacuated because if, in an emergency, you had to get a doctor, ambulance, a firefighter there, or a cop, they would not have been able to go there through the water,” he said.

The mayor, who invoked global warming in his press conference the day after the storm, seems to believe that the potential for a future disaster is there, and even if it is not, why risk it.  “Even if it’s not global warming but normal cycles and weather patterns, there’s an awful lot of evidence, whether it’s draught or flood or winds or things, that something’s going on,” Mayor Bloomberg said. “Even if you don’t believe it, common sense just says, ‘Hey, supposing I’m wrong, and the scientists are right, irreversible things are taking place, and so we don’t want to do that.'”

The only thing is, while the mayor may be worried about these problems, his administration is not pitching any new solutions.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC

With Condos Flooding Waterfront, City Short on Hurricane Protections