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The Floods Next Time

Amy Chester

October 12, 2023

New York must do much more to protect itself from torrential rains

New York must do much more to protect itself from torrential rains

New Yorkers have once again been reminded that climate change is here, and we are unprepared. At the end of September, eight inches of rain forced our city to a standstill. Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. 

Our aging sewer system cannot process the amount of rain fast enough, so rainwater travels to the lowest point — usually our streets, basements and subways. To address the heavy rainfall that is going to fall with increasing frequency as the climate continues to change, we have essentially three options: upgrade that antiquated sewer system, which would be costly and disruptive; move out of harm’s way, which is unthinkable for most of us; or rainproof the city by investing in ways to store the rain above or below ground using what is known as “blue-green infrastructure,” which replicates natural systems to slow the water down before it reaches the sewer. 

That last option is the only practical path forward.

Rebuild by Design, the organization I lead, brings together communities and governments to design and build infrastructure to adapt to climate change. Started in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to incubate grassroots-centered approaches to climate adaptation planning, Rebuild has catalyzed over $8 billion of climate infrastructure investments in the New York City region. But now, 10 years later, New York is unable to handle record-breaking events like Hurricane Ida, or even moderate rainfall events that rarely make news headlines.

The problem

Here’s what is not working.

One, the federal government does not plan with an eye toward all climate hazards. Washington has proposed a massive $56 billion Army Corps of Engineers project for the New York-New Jersey area that will build flood walls, gates and the like to address coastal flooding from storm surges. But this ignores New York’s increasing heavy rain, which could be trapped behind these proposed structures, causing flooding to last longer.

Proposed solutions should be transparent, responsive and accountable to local residents, while prioritizing low-income New Yorkers who fare the worst during climate emergencies.

Last December, Rebuild by Design brought together over 50 neighborhood organizations, community boards, nonprofits and academics across the region to ask them what type of large-scale, regional flood protection they wanted to see in their neighborhoods. Not one endorsed the current plan. We instead heard that the Army Corps of Engineers’ design process and the proposed solutions should be transparent, responsive and accountable to local residents, while prioritizing low-income New Yorkers who fare the worst during climate emergencies. And wherever possible, the interventions should be nature-based to enhance ecology, should safeguard waterfront access and should provide local workforce development opportunities.

The second problem is that city government continues to allow New Yorkers to move into areas that already flood. In one of the neighborhoods that has been identified as at risk of regular floods, which was hit especially badly by Hurricane Ida, three relatively modest homes for sale on the same block have an asking price of over $1 million — passing off the headache of regular flooding to a future inhabitant. A National Resources Defense Council-commissioned report shows that in 2021, more than 28,000 homes sold in New Jersey, New York and North Carolina had been previously flooded. The analysis also found that the average buyer of a previously flooded home in New York can expect to incur nearly $47,000 of flood damages over a 15-year period.

This year, New York State elected officials passed a flood disclosure law, which many states already have, mandating transparency about a home’s past risk. This positive step filled in a loophole whereby New York home sellers in the past could pay $500 to not disclose flooding. 

Unfortunately, the legislation requires disclosure only at the point of sale, not at the point of advertisement. This means that the buyer has already put down a down payment, entered into a contract, received approval for a mortgage and is about to get the keys to their new home when they find out that the property has flooded. Most people won't walk away from the sale at that point. 

Who pays for that? We all do — through our tax dollars supporting Federal Emergency Management Agency payouts, post-disaster assistance from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, Small Business Administration loans, other state and local sources and higher insurance rates. In Louisiana, California and Florida, insurance rates are skyrocketing due to a new understanding of risk-pricing. Orleans Parish, Louisiana, which has had eight recent major disasters due to extreme weather, saw an average of an 82% increase in homeowners insurance from 2022 to 2023 — that is, for those lucky enough to get a renewal. The rate increase comes after nine insurance companies went insolvent in the past year, and other companies have announced that they soon will.

The third problem is that we are not adequately protecting the critical infrastructure we have. Just 20 days before the massive rain event that flooded the entire city, Mayor Eric Adams ordered all New York City agencies to reduce spending by 15% — including a $75 million reduction for New York City parks. But New York City’s forested natural areas soak up as much stormwater as $580 million worth of new green infrastructure. The city’s 29,000 acres of parkland do triple duty: They create recreational space, lower temperatures during heatwaves and absorb rainwater. They need to be nurtured, not neglected.

By implementing blue-green infrastructure throughout the five boroughs, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection can save up to 20% on the predicted upgrades needed to guard against future climate impacts.

The solution

To properly prepare for future floods, city government can and must change the way it makes decisions, embracing a paradigm shift in the way we budget and plan, moving from trying to catch up from the last storm, to proactively designing projects that center New York’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. 

A report released today by Rebuild by Design and Ramboll shows a two-to-one payback for blue-green infrastructure investments, which is to say stormwater management practices that connect urban storm management (blue) with natural vegetation systems (green) and local priorities. It finds that by implementing such infrastructure throughout the five boroughs, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection can save up to 20% on the predicted upgrades needed to guard against future climate impacts. That savings can go towards upgrading parks, maintaining schools and other needs — or just toward saving tax dollars in a time of anticipated budget cuts.

To be sure, this is not a simple fix, nor is it cost-free. But compared to the alternatives, blue-green and nature-based infrastructure is cost-effective and it has a variety of co-benefits in addition to absorbing stormwater in moments of crisis. Trees filter polluted air, lower ambient air temperature on hot days and beautify our neighborhoods, raising property values. Green spaces clean stormwater, provide recreational benefits, create jobs, lower energy costs, lower health and mental health challenges and sequester carbon — the main driver of climate change. They have even been credited with reducing crime.

Just across the Hudson River, Hoboken, N.J., like New York City, made a commitment to becoming a Vision Zero community — but, in contrast to our city, Hoboken actually met their goal of achieving zero traffic deaths for the past four years. How does this relate to climate change resiliency efforts? Because much of the infrastructure they utilized to make streets safer was also designed to absorb rainwater. Coupling these street improvements with three new “resilience parks” (and a recently announced plan for a fourth) with the collective capacity to hold 3 million gallons of stormwater proved a good investment. Last week, when Brooklyn residents were still up to their thighs in floodwater, the new infrastructure had worked as designed and Hoboken was dry by 3 p.m. 

New York can do this too. In May, the city announced the investment of $3.5 billion in green infrastructure and property acquisitions to address flooding, representing an enormously laudable shift in policy and funding. However, implementing this investment to leverage the most benefits will continue to sell New Yorkers short unless we change the government’s practices. It’s time to say “stop,” and start over. 

Our municipal government, like most all, operates in counterproductive silos. The Department of Transportation is responsible for keeping traffic moving while protecting bikers and pedestrians, the Department of Parks and Recreation for building and maintaining open spaces and natural areas, the Department of Buildings for enforcing safety codes, and so on. This outdated model cannot be expected to address the city’s most pressing problems, including climate change. 

An alternative model is for government agencies to have articulated shared goals that every agency works towards. For example, if we aspire to build multipurpose infrastructure, everything we build — such as affordable housing, new schools or rethinking our streets — could be designed to manage stormwater while improving public health, increasing public safety and including other priorities that are most pressing for our city. 

Imagine a city where agencies do not operate at cross purposes, where projects are built with equity and transparency in mind, prioritizing New Yorkers who need it the most. Now wouldn’t that be a great city to live in?