A deputy mayor calls storm barriers ‘financeable,’ in a discussion on keeping the city above water next time

The panelists at 'Gathering Storms' (Grace Bello)
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Grace Bello

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn't too keen on a multibillion-dollar proposal to build tidal barriers to protect the city's low-lying regions, a measure supporters say would mitigate the impact of future superstorms on New York City's lower-lying neighborhoods.

"Even if you spent a fortune, it's not clear to me that you would get much value from it," the mayor told reporters at City Hall in the days right after the storm. He's scheduled to deliver an infrastructure speech tomorrow.

But one top member of his administration doesn't think it's so outlandish. Monday night at Joe's Pub, in a panel discussion put on by The New Yorker, New York City deputy mayor for operations Cas Holloway said that barriers could be an important part of the city's disaster-mitigation infrastructure.

New York City experienced $6 billion in lost economic activity as a result of Sandy, he said. The city, he said, is well aware of the need for a practicable safeguarding strategy to avoid such a catastrophe in the future. And though a barrier is not the only possible solution, nor necessarily the best one to guard against natural disasters, Holloway said it wasn’t out of the question.

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"At the end of the day, if people decide this is what has to be done, it's financeable," he said.

The New Yorker editor was leading the panel discussion on climate change, "Gathering Storms," as part of the magazine’s Big Story series.

"What is the absolute worst thing that could happen right now?" he asked the panelists at one point in the discussion.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Remnick’s question might seem a bit late in coming, but that was also the point. The panel was trying to get a handle on natural-disaster mitigation with the assumption that, despite everything, we haven’t seen the worst yet.

Another assumption was that climate change is a real phenomenon and is really changing the nature of the city’s relationship with the elements; climate change deniers needed not participate.

Joining Holloway on the panel were Stony Brook University professor of physical oceanography Malcolm Bowman, Columbia University adjunct professor of international and public affairs Klaus Jacob, and New Yorker writer Elizabeth "Betsy" Kolbert, who is also author of the book Field Notes from a Catastrophe.

Kolbert responded first, citing that carbon emissions hit a record high in 2011.

"We show absolutely no sign of doing what we need to do to stabilize CO2 levels in the atmosphere," she said. Remnick asked what reducing carbon emissions might entail—forgoing heat and rubbing one's hands together instead?

"Think about your own personal carbon footprint every time you drive,” Kolbert responded. “When you heat your home, when you turn on your computer," since all of those things, until we shift to renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power, rely on the hazardous burning of fossil fuels.

Bowman was also concerned about CO2 emissions, and brought up the threat of thawing permafrost. In places like the arctic regions of Siberia, northern Canada, and Alaska, this icy layer is like a "frozen compost heap" which, as it melts, releases methane. This greenhouse gas is 20-30 times more potent than CO2, he said.

"We [humans] produce it, too, by the way. You want a demonstration?" he joked.

Remnick steered the conversation back to how global warming impacts New York City.

"I think the elephant in the room is really adaptation,” said Jacob, a specialist in disaster mitigation research who has been well ahead of the game on this issue. “It will cost much more money for decades to come to secure the livelihood and the welfare of this city." After all, he said, a large percentage of the population of New York resides in low-lying areas. Over the next few hundred years, he said, "it's a gradual Atlantis." Remnick asked whether the city is, in a word, doomed.

"'Doomed' is not a productive word," Jacob said. "I'm for 'managed retreat.'" To wit, he lives in a village 30 miles north of New York City.

"There is a tremendous amount of thinking going into this problem,” said Holloway of how this issue is being treated by the Mayor's office. “Not just [in response to] Sandy and the surge but the climate problem and the sustainability issue." He said that, in terms of short-term goals, the city is most concerned, of course, with getting those impacted by Hurricane Sandy safely back into their homes. As for the long-term picture, he cited PlaNYC, released in 2007, the city's blueprint for sustainability. The plan outlines energy infrastructure solutions that will reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

"The city has made very admirable strides,” Kolbert acknowledged. “A lot of that is fuel shifting."

“[We’ve been] switching from dirty fuels to cleaner fuels like natural gas," Holloway said, adding that, as a result, the city is about halfway toward their goal.

"There's a lot we can do before we have to run for the hills," Bowman said, including a barrier like the Thames Barrier in London, and which Bloomberg has said is prohibitively expensive (estimates are around $20 billion) and not that effective.

"So Mayor Bloomberg could pretty much pay for it?" Remnick asked.

Kolbert reminded the audience how difficult it has been in the past to align New York City politics, state politics, billions of dollars in funding, and court rulings in order to support such a huge project.

"Does anyone remember Westway?" she said, referring to the failed attempt to replace the West Side Highway.

Moreover, Holloway pointed out, even if such forces did align, "there's no magic bullet"; the city could spend money on such a solution and still have substantial flood risk.

Jacob agreed, "Storm surge barriers protect you from storms, but they don't protect you from sea level rise."

Neither, in fact, does PlaNYC, as some critics have pointed out.

But protection from disasters is still an important element of any plan to keep the city sustainable as climate change continues. According to Jacob, every dollar invested in hazard protection results in about four dollars of not-incurred losses.

Remnick at one point quoted author John Updike:

"The true New Yorker secretly believes that anyone living anywhere else must somehow, in a sense, be kidding."

The implication of what the panelists had to say was that without a clear strategy toward sustainable solutions, the joke would end up being on us.