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Storm-proofing New York is slow going five years since Superstorm Sandy

Superstorm Sandy flooded coastline communities and led to billions of dollars in damage. Five years on, the city of New York has tried to mitigate the impact of a future disaster, from raising houses to building seawalls. But turning ideas into reality has been slow and complicated. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on how the city is building resiliency and the hurdles that remain.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But, first, let’s go back to New York for a different story.

    This week marks five years since Superstorm Sandy. It flooded coastline communities and led to tens of billions of dollars of damage.

    In New York, there are many plans on how to prepare for and withstand the worst of another disaster, but turning those ideas into reality remains a huge challenge.

    It’s the focus of our Leading Edge segment tonight.

    Miles O’Brien has our report, starting off in Queens.

  • Miles O’brien:

    On 15th Road in Broad Channel, New York, they’re working hard to keep their heads above water five years after Superstorm Sandy barreled in.

  • Daniel Mundy:

    What they’re doing is basically elevating homes and rebuilding homes, all with the our idea to get above the 100-year floodplain.

  • Miles O’brien: 

    New York Firefighter Dan Mundy is the third generation of his family to live on this spit of land in the middle of Jamaica Bay, not far from Kennedy Airport.

  • Daniel Mundy:

    We have a house that’s completed here. This was an elevation. The rest of the house was original house, just lifted up 10 feet in the air up above flood elevation.

  • Miles O’brien:

    But it has taken a long time to get to this point. The federal money and the myriad of government approvals to raise houses, raise the streets, and build seawalls moved a whole lot slower than the storm.

  • Daniel Mundy:

    I think everybody thought out of the get-go we’re just going to come in here and do a simple construction project. You are probably standing in the most complicated area in the city of New York to build residential homes.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Nothing here is simple or cheap. Down Cross Bay Boulevard, at Rockaway Beach, I met the city’s chief resilience officer, Daniel Zarrilli, at the recently completed 5.5-mile, $340 million boardwalk minus the boards.

  • Daniel Zarrilli:

    It’s been built out of stronger material, so it’s now no longer going to be that projectile that can get thrown across the neighborhoods here. But we have also integrated in with our coastal protections.

  • Miles O’brien:

    This concrete rampart against a steadily rising, sometimes raging sea is buttressed with sand dunes planted with seagrass.

    But it is only 5.5 out the more than 500 miles of coastline in New York City alone. It’s a reminder of the scale of the problem and the challenge of responding to it in an affordable, timely way.

  • Daniel Zarrilli:

    The dollars don’t show up when the storm shows up. And so, you know, it took three months for Congress to decide that they wanted to help the New York region. It took another two years to allocate the funds. And now we’re in the process of spending that money.

  • Miles O’brien:

    They are pushing plans to build floodwalls and other hard barriers in Lower Manhattan, East Harlem, at Hunts Point in the Bronx, in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, and in Staten Island.

    Dunes and bulkheads have been upgraded, but no concrete has been poured for the more complex projects. Meanwhile, the utilities have done some work. Verizon replaced its copper phone wires in Lower Manhattan with fiberoptic cables.

    And the electric utility, Consolidated Edison, has fortified the Manhattan power plant that flooded and failed in spectacular fashion, and has protected underground lines elsewhere, spending $1 billion.

    Bill de Blasio is New York City’s mayor.

    Is New York City better prepared for a superstorm than it was five years ago?

  • Mayor Bill De Blasio, New York City:

    Yes, and we take this very seriously. Let’s face it. Sandy was the ultimate wakeup call for New York City, and it was the worst natural disaster in our history, and we’re still feeling the effects. So, we had to change the way we did things.

    We’re a very different city today. We still have major issues to address, but we’re a very different city today.

  • Miles O’brien:

    While private homeowners are now finally making improvements, many people in public housing are still waiting for the work to begin.

  • Carmen Williams:

    A lot of the issues that are going on here in East River housing are not being addressed.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Carmen Williams is a longtime resident of the East River homes in Spanish Harlem.

  • Carmen Williams:

    The layout for what we saw, it looks good on paper, but that’s not going to help us.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Right.

  • Carmen Williams:

    We need the work to actually be done.

  • Miles O’brien:

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency earmarked $3 billion for flood mitigation improvements to New York City public housing. The promised work here includes floodgates and moving the boilers higher.

    Sandy filled the courtyard where we met with knee-deep water.

    You guys are just as vulnerable as you were five years ago, you think?

  • Carmen Williams:

    I think so right now, because it’s not completed. So, if it’s not completed, and we don’t know where we’re at, yes, we feel just as vulnerable as we did then.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Community organizer Cecil Corbin-Mark is concerned about delays in the East Harlem flood protection project.

  • Cecil Corbin-mark:

    It was a physical infrastructure project that was supposed to be completed by last year. It still hasn’t been done.

    And I don’t give the city good marks for that, because that means that, with the next event, that East Harlem residents along 1st Avenue on the Harlem River Drive Corridor could be seeing floodwaters at their doorsteps and beyond again, and that’s not acceptable.

  • Protesters:

    Climate change is not a hoax, hey-hey, ho-ho!

  • Miles O’brien:

    That frustration welled up on Saturday, as hundreds of protesters staged a rally at the Brooklyn Bridge, hoping to spur action on the threat posed by climate change, which could spur another superstorm.

  • Karen Blondel:

    We’re asking the mayor and the governor to get on it now. We don’t have time to waste.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Since Sandy, engineers, environmentalists and politicians have spent a lot of time debating the merits of building a massive harbor-wide storm surge barrier, modeled after the huge project that protects Netherlands from the North Sea. It would take decades and cost tens of billions of dollars.

  • Mayor Bill De Blasio: 

    I’m very interested in it. If there’s a way to do it, it might be one of the better solutions, but I know I can’t wait for it. So, I think we end up recognizing we have got to take all the actions we can here and now.

  • Miles O’brien:

    And here and now looks a lot more green than gray.

    Dan Mundy knows a lot about this.

  • Daniel Mundy:

    We’re in the middle of Jamaica Bay, and we’re going out to the most recently restored wetland island.

  • Miles O’brien:

    In 2013, he led a community effort to rebuild some of the islands of Jamaica Bay that he remembered from his younger days. Discharges from sewage treatment plants had polluted the bay, killing the marsh grass. The islands got swallowed up by the water.

  • Daniel Mundy:

    We were looking to restore these islands, and we used the old footprint of where they were before they were degraded, and got together with partners like the National Park Service.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Mundy’s two islands are now flourishing here. He hopes to build more.

    Scientists concluded the natural wetlands prevented $625 million in Sandy-related flood damage from Maine to North Carolina. It’s nature’s speed bump.

    New York City faces its own hurdles, as it looks to build out the defenses it envisions. Once it finishes its $20 billion plan, using city and federal money, there is no more resiliency funding for New York in the pipeline from Washington.

  • Mayor Bill De Blasio: 

    My fear is, in the absence of a federal policy, it ends up being a catch-as-catch-can approach. And the jurisdictions that are more focused will get more done, and the jurisdictions that have proportionally more resources will get more done, and others will be left very, very vulnerable.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Those vulnerabilities have been highlighted again and again this hurricane season, in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico.

    Many predicted superstorm Sandy would trigger us to harden our infrastructure, and perhaps, in some cases, retreat from the water. But the pull of this special place is strong for people like Dan Mundy.

    You guys aren’t retreating, are you?

  • Daniel Mundy:

    No. There is a strong opinion about that down here. These are generations of families that have lived down here. They love the water. We know we’re at risk. We will take the risk. We’re willing to take it.

  • Miles O’brien:

    With the help of taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance, of course.

    Five years after Superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers are determined to hold their ground against a rising tide of water and ebbing interest in Washington to join the fight.

    In New York, I’m Miles O’Brien for the PBS NewsHour.

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