She Sells Infrastructure by the Sea Shore: Chris Quinn’s $20 B. Disaster Plan

Speaker Quinn weathers the storm. (NYSUT/Flickr)

“Millions of New Yorkers have stories” from the hurricane, Council Speaker Christine Quinn declared this morning during a soaring, post-Sandy speech at the Association for a Better New York. Among those stories was Ms. Quinn’s own.

It was an emotional moment that came during what was otherwise a wonky, if powerful, policy-laden address to the city’s business leaders during which the council speaker (and presumptive mayoral candidate) called for at least $20 billion in new infrastructure across the five boroughs to protect against future disasters. The story, from the summers of Ms. Quinn’s youth, underscored her belief that the city must seize upon this disaster to create a stronger (or at least drier) future.

“My grandfather came over on a boat from Ireland with a third grade education and worked his way up through the ranks of the Fire Department,” Ms. Quinn explained. “Rockaway Beach offered him a chance to rent a bungalow in the summer, to afford a little place on the ocean just like the rich people he saw in the magazines. It was his own piece of the American Dream.”

And also Ms. Quinn’s. “I can remember walking along the boardwalk as a young girl with my late mother and aunt,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite memories of my mother, of how much that place meant to her and to my whole family.

But it is no longer a place for dreamers, at least not now. “Last week, visiting with families in the Rockaways, I saw that boardwalk lying in pieces, tossed into street corners or crashed into people’s homes.”

As if defying Mother Nature, Speaker Quinn wants to make sure that never happens again. She announced today that the City Council, in partnership with the Bloomberg administration, will accelerate two studies analyzing what kinds of risks the city faces from storms, and what could be done to mitigate them.

She expects New York will spend billions implementing new infrastructure to combat future disaster, which she predicts would cost around $20 billion. Ms. Quinn believes the federal government should cover most of those costs, pointing to the government response to Hurricane Katrina as a precedent. She also announced that Senator Chuck Schumer is putting together a study of his own with the Army Corps of Engineers that will help the city determine the best defense for the city from future disasters, as well as the general rising of the tides due to climate change.

“Let me be clear, this is not an academic exercise,” Ms. Quinn said. “It will produce a concrete blueprint for action, along with a price tag for any and all projects.”

The speaker pointed to the now very voguish topic of Dutch-style sea barriers as one possible solution for the city.

“In the Netherlands, they’ve spent billions of dollars on miles and miles of connected barricades like dams, dikes, walls, and levees,” Ms. Quinn said. “In more recent decades they added massive storm surge barriers at critical locations. The largest one, which has a really, really, long, unpronounceable Dutch name, stretches five and a half miles from end to end.”

“At the City Council,” she added, “we would have just called it the Ed Koch Barrier.” The crowd all chuckled, this being a reference to a fight earlier this year over whether or not to rename the Queensboro Bridge after the former mayor.

On the smaller side, the speaker called for major investments in the city’s sewers, to stave off sewage flow into the city’s waterways during storms, due to our combined sewer overflow system. She also wants soft infrastructure that will help absorb stormwater, like permeable pavement and green streets, or new marshlands, known as bluebelts, that help purify runoff. She called for buffers around subway grates, raising station entrances, even out-there technologies like industrial balloons that would seal the subways and other subterranean infrastructure off.

There should be revisions to the building codes and the development patterns, which the city’s Building Resiliency Task Force will undertake. Through the Urban Green Council and the Real Estate Board, the task force will be holding emergency sessions to assess the rebuilding effort following the storm.

“We also must rethink the way we build in neighborhoods that were destroyed by the storm,” Ms. Quinn said.

She called on Con Ed and other utilities to strengthen their substations, protect their power plants and to bury their electrical wires where it makes sense. “I want to send a clear message to ConEd today,” the speaker declared. “We will not tolerate you simply passing these costs on to ratepayers.” She also said the region needs to improve its gas and oil infrastructure to prevent the kind of shortages and long lines New York saw after the storm.

We must do all these things not only for us, Ms. Quinn said, but also, and more importantly, for the future.

“Millions of New Yorkers have stories just like mine,” the speaker said. “We will make sure our children and our grandchildren have those stories too–not of a Rockaway destroyed, but of a Rockaway reborn.”

She Sells Infrastructure by the Sea Shore: Chris Quinn’s $20 B. Disaster Plan