New York moves on from Sandy

A changing city: New York Air National Guard respond after Sandy, which has prompted a major review of the city's disaster management.
 
By Maria Hasan

NEW YORK, 1 November 2013 – Exactly a year ago, Sandy proved to be the most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, severely impacting lives and economies in seven countries.

For the United States, it was the second-costliest hurricane in its history and affected the entire eastern seaboard, causing an alarming economic bill of up to $50 billion. New York City was one of the worst affected.

On the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy this week, however, the city appears occupied with its future rather than its past.

Heeding the signs of a changing climate, in June this year, New York City released its plan to protect the city from coastal hazards and climate change impacts called A Stronger, More Resilient New York.

The plan details 257 recommendations to shore up infrastructure and boost the resilience of neighbourhoods. It was reported this week that ‘73% of the short-term milestones have been met or are nearing completion’.

Along the east and south shore of Staten Island, which experienced inundation of over 10 feet during Sandy, for example, the city reports having begun replenishing the beach and adding dunes as defence against water surges.

Other recommendations being implemented include the building of levees and expansion of blue belts.

“What is really encouraging to note about the reconstruction around Hurricane Sandy is that building back better for next time is at the centre of the public imagination,” said Elina Palm from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) in New York.

“We are seeing residents and experts come together to figure out how to turn the rebuilding process into an opportunity for a stronger and more resilient city.”

One such forum for different stakeholders to innovate is an ongoing regional competition, Rebuild By Design, which was launched in August 2013 based on the realization that “we cannot simply rebuild what existed before”.

The competition, an initiative of the President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Team, has brought together scientists, designers, engineers, social scientists and residents of the affected areas to find out exactly what is needed to protect different areas against future water-related hazards.

Earlier this week, 10 team unveiled 41 design opportunities, all aimed at reducing vulnerability of exposed parts of New York and New Jersey.

Many of the proposals suggest a barrier of a certain height to protect the city against a surge. But their ingenuity lies in envisioning infrastructure that also serves as an upgrade to the social and urban environment.

The ‘Big Team’, for instance, proposes public art or monuments doing double-duty as flood walls or protection levees serving as public parks when the waters are calm.

One team, ‘OMA’, is proposing to tackle the issue that communications systems themselves are vulnerable to flood risk. OMA proposes to re-imagine alternative flood risk communication to account for the possibility that power or phone lines may give out during a flood. Some of their ideas include the use of megaphones and airdropping warnings or seeing bill boards and street vendors as important sources of critical information.

Of the 41 ideas, ten will move forward and develop into implementable solutions that will be considered for funding by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development which was officially tasked with overseeing recovery after Hurricane Sandy.

“This is not just a collaboration between designers and scientists,” said Professor Eric Klinenberg of New York University who serves on the Research Advisory Group of the competition.

“Instead, we were out all over the region on multi-day field trips. We can't just design climate security to protect our city and region against storm surge. We have to take this moment to improve the quality of life. It's the hard infra-structure but we must think of the social infra-structure as well.”
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