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Someone needed to say it — and start the ball rolling — and it was City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
In a landmark speech on global warming and its devastating impacts on New York City, which we’ve experienced here all too severely in the past two and a half weeks, Quinn stated that it’s time to end the “casual conversation” about whether or not we need storm surge barriers. We need them, she said, and the Army Corps of Engineers needs to start studying the idea A.S.A.P.
An Army Corps study is required for the project, which Quinn hopes would be federally funded to the tune of $16 billion. Huge gates would be built at key points in New York Harbor to protect much of the city from future storm surges, like the one we recently experienced to devastating effect with Superstorm Sandy.
That obviously seems like an enormous sum of money — but not when seen in context of the damages wrought by Sandy, which Quinn pegged at $26 billion, though some think that figure is actually too conservative. Add up the compounding cost of a few more storms of that caliber, and does $16 billion really seem that much? Rather, it would save us the huge cost of repairing and rebuilding that we are only now embarking on. New Orleans, for one, is spending $50 billion over the next 50 years on natural barriers.
We were happy to hear that Quinn has been working with U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, who will lead the effort in Congress — working with the Obama administration — to win support for the study.
Quinn also offered a number of other common-sense ideas for protecting our city from storm-related flooding, from ensuring that Con Ed better waterproofs its power plants, to ways to keep the subway system from flooding, to creating more “soft infrastructure” to help absorb massive inundations.
We’ve got to start thinking this way. New York is a low-lying city with a huge concentration of people all surrounded by water — plus the world’s financial capital, smack in the middle of Zone C, a potential flood zone.
Surprisingly, Mayor Bloomberg continues to express skepticism about surge barriers, not even endorsing an Army Corps feasibility study. The mayor has responded well, before, during and after the crisis — he warned New Yorkers to evacuate Zone A, the most vulnerable areas, to stay indoors during the storm, and then throughout the recovery has been a calm, competent, reassuring voice. His major misstep was to push for the running of the New York Marathon, until finally relenting at the last minute. Yes, the marathon is a tremendous economic engine for the city, and some could say it would have been uplifting, but it just was wrong on too many levels to hold it so close to the storm and blackout, with so many still grieving, plus so many still suffering from lack of essential services.
One can argue that the mayor has been too busy responding to the crisis to focus on how to prevent future storm surge calamities. His environmental work — from the million-tree effort, to increasing bike lanes and “greenstreets” plazas — has been laudable. But it sure looks like the city now should take things to the next level, bite the bullet and back a project of epic scale like storm surge barriers if we are to continue to exist as the city we know and love. Or do we just retreat from all of Zone A, from Battery Park City to Alphabet City to Staten Island?
Quinn’s bold statement is just what we needed now — while the memory of Sandy is still fresh. If we don’t act now, we’re apt to become complacent — until the next hurricane, whatever its name. After Irene last year and Sandy this year, with sea levels on the rise — how many more times will we need to get hit before reality sinks in? We need to start planning and preparing now, and Quinn’s proposals are a very good start.