Category Archives: Flooding

Asian Water Development Outlook 2013

Asian Water Development Outlook 2013

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Unfortunately, when compared to the rest of Asia, Cambodia near the bottom in nearly every ranking of Water-Related Disaster Resilience, Governance, and Urban Water Security

Pages from asian-water-development-outlook-2013Pages from asian-water-development-outlook-2013-2

1. Water Security Framework of Five Interdependent Key Dimensions
2. National Water Security in Asia and the Pacic
3. Regional Water Security Index by Subregion (population-weighted)
4. National Water Security and Governance
5. Household Water Security by Subregion (population-weighted)
6. Access to Improved Water Supply—Piped and Non-Piped (%)
7. Access to Improved Sanitation (%)
8. Household Water Security and Per Capita Gross Domestic Product
9. Economic Water Security Index by Subregion (population-weighted)
10. Economic Water Security and Per Capita Gross Domestic Product
11. Urban Water Security by Subregion (population-weighted)
12. Water-Sensitive Cities Framework
13. Urban Water Security—Progress toward Water-Sensitive Cities
14. Urban Water Security and Per Capita Gross Domestic Product
15. Resilience to Water-related Disasters by Subregion (population-weighted)
16. National Water-Related Disaster Resilience Index Relative to Per Capita Gross Domestic Product
17. Water-Related Disaster Resilience Index
18. Water-Related Hazard Relative to Resilience
19. Water-Related Disaster Fatalities Relative to National Resilience
20. Estimated Mean Annual Water-Related Disaster Damages ($ per person)

Thousands evacuated amid Jakarta floods


At least four people dead and 20,000 evacuated as a result of intense rain storm which has hit the Indonesian capital.
Last Modified: 17 Jan 2013 09:32
Seasonal rains have triggered massive flooding in Indonesia’s capital, triggering the evacuation of at least 20,000 people and bringing misery to many more.Floods regularly hit parts of Jakarta in the rainy season, but Thursday’s inundation following an intense rain storm appeared especially widespread.Authorities said four people had been killed by the waters, which washed into homes, offices, schools and roads across the city of 14 million people.Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Jakarta, said the entire city is currently flooded.”People cannot get to their offices. They are walking or attempting to use bikes to get to work,” she said.”In all the years of flooding, and the city receives floods every year, it has never been this bad, and it is a lot more serious.”Vaessen, who reported that water levels are up to four metres higher than the day before, said that it was also an economic disaster for the city.Monsoon rains, deforestation in the hills to the south of the city, chaotic planning and hundreds of rivers and waterways combine to cause floods, which expose the country’s poor infrastructure even as it posts impressive economic growth.

Sewage Flows After Storm Expose Flaws in System

Hey Phnom Penh, You hearing this? Billions of dollars…

Source: NY Times

Uli Seit for The New York Times

Workers this week replacing pumps at the Bay Park sewage-treatment plant in East Rockaway, N.Y., on Long Island, that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. More Photos »

By  Published: November 29, 2012

EAST ROCKAWAY, N.Y. — The water flowing out of the Bay Park sewage plant here in Nassau County is a greenish-gray soup of partially treated human waste, a sign of an environmental and public health disaster that officials say will be one of the most enduring and expensive effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Uli Seit for The New York Times

The home of Jeff Mitchel Press, in Baldwin, N.Y., was engulfed with raw sewage during Hurricane Sandy after the nearby Bay Park plant shut down.More Photos »

In the month since the storm, hundreds of millions of gallons of raw and partly raw sewage from Bay Park and other crippled treatment plants have flowed into waterways in New York and New Jersey, exposing flaws in the region’s wastewater infrastructure that could take several years and billions of dollars to fix. In New York State alone, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has estimated that about $1.1 billion will be needed to repair treatment plants. But officials acknowledge that they will have to do far more.

Motors and electrical equipment must be raised above newly established flood levels, and circuitry must be made waterproof. Dams and levees may have to be built at some treatment plants to keep the rising waters at bay, experts say.

Failure to do so, according to experts, could leave large swaths of the population vulnerable to public health and environmental hazards in future storms.

“You’re looking at significant expenditures of money to make the plants more secure,” said John Cameron, an engineer who specializes in wastewater-treatment facilities and is the chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council. “There is no Band-Aid for this,” he added. “This is the new normal.”

When the plants are fully functioning, they treat incoming sewage to remove solid waste and toxic substances and kill bacteria before it is discharged into the ocean or a bay. When the plants are shut down, the raw sewage goes into waterways in the same condition as when it comes in. At least six sewage plants in the New York region shut down completely during the storm, and many more were crippled by storm surges that swamped motors and caused short circuits in electrical equipment.

In New Jersey, workers at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission plant, the fifth largest in the country, had to evacuate as floodwaters surged in and wastewater gushed out.

The Middlesex County Utility Authority plant in Sayreville, N.J., let about 75 million gallons of raw sewage a day flow into Raritan Bay for nearly a week before power was restored, said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the State Environmental Protection Department.

Operations at both plants have not yet been fully restored.

The damage to the plants did not cause contamination to drinking water, which is run through separate systems, officials said. In some areas, officials imposed restrictions on water use to reduce strains on plants.

Bay Park, a sprawling complex off Hewlett Bay near the New York City border, serves 40 percent of Nassau County.

When the storm arrived, its force blindsided workers. They had spent days shoring up the plant with emergency measures, but did not anticipate the surge.

In less than 30 minutes, engines for the plant’s main pumping system were under 12 feet of water, and sewage began to back up and overflow into low-lying homes. In one low-lying neighborhood, a plume of feces and wastewater burst through the street like a geyser.

The plant shut down for more than 50 hours, and about 200 million gallons of raw sewage flowed into channels and waterways.

“Never, ever, ever has this happened before,” said Michael Martino, a spokesman for the Nassau County Department of Public Works. On Thursday, Mr. Martino said that the plant was back in operation and that the treatment of sewage was improving day by day.

Two other plants on the South Shore of Long Island, in Lawrence and Long Beach, were knocked out of service by the surge. Both are now working. And the Rockaway Wastewater Treatment Plant in Queens had significant damage.

Others, including the Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant, which serves another 40 percent of Nassau County, and Bergen Point, another large plant in Suffolk County, escaped relatively unscathed.

Still, even those plants may not fare so well in the future, said Mr. Cameron of the Long Island Regional Planning Council.

Almost all facilities in the region are close to sea level and are vulnerable to storm surges, he said. Many were built decades ago to serve fewer people.

Even before the storm, the Bay Park plant in Nassau County needed new equipment.

When it was completed, in 1949, the county’s population was half what it is today. The plant now serves 550,000 residents and has struggled to keep up with demand.

During heavy rains, there are occasional sewage leaks, particularly in low-lying areas, residents say. Last year, the county was fined $1.5 million for, among other violations, illegally pumping about 3.5 million gallons of partially treated sewage into East Rockaway Channel. Edward P. Mangano, the Nassau County executive, has invested $70 million to improve the sewage system, but officials said damage from the storm was a major setback.

For the residents of Barnes Avenue in Baldwin, a low-lying stretch about three miles from the Bay Park plant, the failure during the hurricane was the culmination of their worst fears, though hardly a surprise.

They said they had long complained to Nassau County about sewage that flooded streets and occasionally homes during heavy rains. After Tropical Storm Irene sent human waste splashing onto lawns and front porches last year, residents said, the county bolted manhole covers shut to prevent them from opening.

During the storm, the manhole covers stayed in place, but the force of wastewater rushing up through the ground around them washed away part of the road.

“With Sandy it was, I hate the cliché, the perfect storm,” said John Malinowski, 54, a graphic designer who lives with his wife in a two-story home on Barnes Avenue. “When Bay Park failed and they couldn’t get the sewage out of the system, that’s when this became a real catastrophic event here.”

The smell of excrement still hung over the tidy neighborhood this week as workers in white hazmat suits tried to decontaminate homes. Sewage, mixed with four- to five-foot-high floodwaters, infiltrated floors and walls, and many homes must be stripped to their wooden frames to be fully decontaminated.

Residents said they were unsure whether their homes could be salvaged, or even whether they were safe to enter. If allowed to remain in walls and between floorboards, raw sewage can breed diseases like salmonella, hepatitis A and giardia, said Vince Radke, a sanitarian at the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. He said contaminated items, including drywall and insulation, as well as furniture, should be thrown out.

Residents of Barnes Avenue said they had encountered difficulty getting aid.

“We started e-mailing and phoning everyone in the Town of Hempstead, the County of Nassau, the State of New York and at the federal level to try to get people down here to say is this healthy or is this not healthy and here’s what do about it,” said Jeff Press, 42, a photographer, whose home has not yet dried out.

Mr. Martino, from the Department of Public Works, said Nassau County had been “very aggressive” in informing residents of the dangers.

He said that Mr. Mangano, the county executive, had put in place a plan to clean up the damage in private homes caused by the sewage, and that the county was sending out crews to assist.

He said county officials had gone door to door to inform residents of the program and provide health information.

Elsewhere, officials are still evaluating the environmental impact of leakages.

In Raritan Bay, the Hudson River and the waters around the Bay Park plant, the Environmental Protection Agency has detected dangerous levels of fecal coliform, a bacteria associated with human waste, and has urged people to avoid contact with the water. Bans on shellfish have been imposed in some regions.

The tides will eventually flush much of the wastewater into the Atlantic Ocean, where it will break down. There is concern, though, that some contamination could go into the sediment and be buried, particularly around Bay Park, where the waters are flushed out more slowly.

“This is the largest sewage release in the history of Long Island,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group. “This brings to a new level the public health threat and the duration for the contamination, which will have a serious adverse impact on our beaches and our bays.”

Map Shows Block-by-Block Flooding from Sandy

Source: by Jillian Steinhauer on November 26, 2012

A close-up of the Belle Harbor neighborhood in the Rockaways shows the extensive flooding that occurred there.

A close-up of the Belle Harbor neighborhood in the Rockaways shows the extensive flooding that occurred there. (screen shot via New York Times)

Everyone knows that Hurricane Sandy caused major damage to parts of New York City, but if you want more concrete information about how much flooding really happened — how many feet of water and where — the New York Times has published an amazing map that offers precisely that.

Going block by block, and in some neighborhoods building by building, the map uses a color code to break down the flooding into different categories: turquoise for an overall flood zone, and then yellow, orange, and red to represent peak water depths of 0–3 feet, 3–6 feet, and 6–18 feet. You can zoom in on such hard hit neighborhoods as Chelsea, Red Hook, the Rockaways, and Oakwood (Staten Island) to get amazingly detailed and extensive breakdowns of the flooding.

You may find surprises: for instance, I didn’t know that water had reached as far east as 9th Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Streets in Chelsea. And even where you know the story, seeing a close-up of an area like the Rockaways with every little house a different color, all of them floating in a sea of turquoise, somehow drives home the extent of the destruction.

Unfortunately, the damage probably isn’t enough to convince city, state, and federal leaders that what we need even more than rebuilding efforts are preventative measures for next time — or at least that’s what the AP is saying, in a long piece that explores whether the political will exists to implement engineering schemes to protect the city from future superstorms. “[N]early all flood researchers interviewed by the AP voiced considerable skepticism about action in the foreseeable future,” author Jeff Donn writes. Now that is depressing.

Hurricane Sandy Highlights the Problems of Digital Archives

Source: by Kyle Chayka on November 20, 2012

Jonathan Minard’s documentary of Eyebeam’s recovery efforts (Screen capture by Hyperallergic)

The damage from Sandy’s flooding took Chelsea galleries by surprise. The swelling water knocked artworks from walls and poured into basement storage areas, where art spaces and artists alike often store the work that’s not on display. Zach Feuer Gallery’s sloped space meant that water washed directly toward fragile work. Printed Matter encountered a similar issue, with soaked stock going to waste on the sidewalk. But it wasn’t only physical property that was damaged in the hurricane.

Eyebeam, the new media-focused nonprofit that takes its home in a cavernous Chelsea warehouse extremely close to the water, got hit hard by Sandy. The water line on the inside of the building rose to three feet, and portions of the interior walls had to be removed. But the real damage wasn’t necessarily to architecture but to the space’s archives, which were stored on supposedly stable media formats like DVDs, harddrives, and tapes.

The salt content and the toxicity of the water that came into the building corrupted everything it touched. Years and years of exhibition records, files, and media-driven artist projects were put at risk. Though we think of digital creations as somehow non-physical entities, most of these works were made in the pre-cloud era, and stored as extremely physical things vulnerable to physical problems. The digital isn’t so digital any more when the metal computer tower files reside in is getting eaten away by chemicals. Eyebeam had to go into crisis mode.

Teams of conservators gathered and volunteered to clean, as best they could, the media storage formats that formed Eyebeam’s artistic and curatorial heritage. New media documentarian and Eyebeam resident Jonathan Minard participated in the efforts, and published a short video showing the problems the institution now faces.

Minard also gave Hyperallergic this stirring description of what happened:

Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology resides on the corner of the Westside Highway and 21st street in Chelsea, a neighborhood shared with New York’s most prestigious contemporary art galleries that we now know to be a flood zone.

After Sandy, as the floodwaters receded, Eyebeam’s staff and residents joined to assess the damage.

A record storm surge had swept through the building, leaving three feet of saltwater mixed with sewage and chemicals, claiming over $250,000 worth of AV equipment, computers, and books.

Among the wreckage, an archive of analog and digital media chronicling Eybeam’s 15 years of experimental art and technology had been kept in storage on the first floor. As an artist-in-residence working on a documentary about digital archiving, I had recently participated in conversations with the community about how to digitize this collection to preserve Eyebeam’s history.

Disaster became the impetus. Our organizations’ long-delayed plans to secure a collection stored on unstable formats now had critical urgency.

Kara Van Malssen and Chris Lacinak, media conservation professionals from AudioVisual Media Preservation Solutions, and Eric Piil from Anthology Film Archive, arrived the scene, helping us to implement a system for stabilizing 1,275 items. By promoting our triage effort through social media, we mobilized a volunteer army of archivists including students from NYU’s MIAP program, conservators from MoMA, Rhizome and Heritage Preservation.

In less than two weeks, we have inventoried all the submerged DVDs, VHS and Beta cassettes, Mini DVs, and digital storage media in preparation for transfer to servers. We hope to make the entire collection accessible online in the coming years, working with AudioVisual Preservation Solutions to develop a strategy for the long term preservation of our work, ensuring that the best practices of archiving become ingrained in the culture of Eyebeam.

We hope Eyebeam’s recovery will offer a lesson for other institutions, to secure their archives before the event of a natural disaster or gradual obsolescence renders their media inaccessible.

This story will become part of Archive: a compendium of short documentaries about archiving culture in the Internet age, and the challenges of massive digital storage.

Eyebeam has also opened an online pledge drive to help fund recovery.

Is This The End?

Source: NY Times

Owen Freeman

By JAMES ATLAS Published: November 24, 2012 28 Comments

WE’D seen it before: the Piazza San Marco in Venice submerged by the acqua alta; New Orleans underwater in the aftermath of Katrina; the wreckage-strewn beaches of Indonesia left behind by the tsunami of 2004. We just hadn’t seen it here. (Last summer’s Hurricane Irene did a lot of damage on the East Coast, but New York City was spared the worst.) “Fear death by water,” T. S. Eliot intoned in “The Waste Land.” We do now.


There had been warnings. In 2009, the New York City Panel on Climate Change issued a prophetic report. “In the coming decades, our coastal city will most likely face more rapidly rising sea levels and warmer temperatures, as well as potentially more droughts and floods, which will all have impacts on New York City’s critical infrastructure,” said William Solecki, a geographer at Hunter College and a member of the panel. But what good are warnings? Intelligence agents received advance word that terrorists were hoping to hijack commercial jets. Who listened? (Not George W. Bush.) If we can’t imagine our own deaths, as Freud insisted, how can we be expected to imagine the death of a city?

History is a series of random events organized in a seemingly sensible order. We experience it as chronology, with ourselves as the end point — not the end point, but as the culmination of events that leads to the very moment in which we happen to live. “Historical events might be unique, and given pattern by an end,” the critic Frank Kermode proposed in “The Sense of an Ending,” his classic work on literary narrative, “yet there are perpetuities which defy both the uniqueness and the end.” What he’s saying (I think) is that there is no pattern. Flux is all.

Last month’s “weather event” should have taught us that. Whether in 50 or 100 or 200 years, there’s a good chance that New York City will sink beneath the sea. But if there are no patterns, it means that nothing is inevitable either. History offers less dire scenarios: the city could move to another island, the way Torcello was moved to Venice, stone by stone, after the lagoon turned into a swamp and its citizens succumbed to a plague of malaria. The city managed to survive, if not where it had begun. Perhaps the day will come when skyscrapers rise out of downtown Scarsdale.

Humans are ingenious. Our species tends to see nature as something of a nuisance, a phenomenon to be outwitted. Consider efforts to save Venice: planners have hatched one scheme after another to prevent the city from sinking. Industrial development has been curtailed. Buildings dating from the Renaissance have been “relocated.”

The most ambitious project, begun a decade ago, is the installation of mobile gates in the lagoons. Known by the acronym MOSE — the Italian name for Moses, who mythically parted the Red Sea — it’s an intricate engineering feat: whenever the tide rises, metal barriers that lie in concrete bunkers on the sea floor are lifted by compressed air pressure and pivoted into place on hinges.

Is the Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico — the project’s official name — some engineer’s fantasy? It was scheduled for completion this year, but that has been put off until 2014. Even if, by some miracle, the gates materialize, they will be only a stay against the inevitable. Look at the unfortunate Easter Islanders, who left behind as evidence of their existence a mountainside of huge blank-faced busts, or the Polynesians of Pitcairn Island, who didn’t leave behind much more than a few burial sites and a bunch of stone tools. Every civilization must go.

Yet each goes in its own way. In “Collapse,” Jared Diamond showed how the disappearance of a civilization has multiple causes. A cascade of events with unforeseen consequences invariably brings it to a close. The Norse of Greenland cut down their trees (for firewood and other purposes) until there were no more trees, which made it a challenge to build houses or boats. There were other causes, too: violent clashes with the Inuit, bad weather, ice pileups in the fjords blocking trade routes. But deforestation was the prime factor. By the end, no tree fell in the forest, as there was none; and there would have been no one to hear it if it had.

“Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice,” declared Robert Frost. Another alternative would be lava. Pliny the Younger’s letters to Tacitus described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius: A plume of dirt and ash rose in the sky; rocks pelted Pompeii; and then darkness arrived. “It was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but like being in an enclosed place where the light has been doused.” Who did this? It must have been the gods. “Many were raising their hands to implore the gods, but more took the view that no gods now existed anywhere, and that this was an eternal and final darkness hanging over the world.” But of course it wasn’t the end of the world: it was just the end of them.

Contemplating our ephemerality can be a profound experience. To wander the once magnificent Roman cities strung along the Lycian coast of Turkey — now largely reduced to rubble, much still unexcavated — is to realize how extensive, how magisterial this civilization was. Whole cities are underwater; you can snorkel over them and read inscriptions carved into ancient monoliths. Ephesus, pop. 300,000 in the second century A.D., is a vast necropolis. The amphitheater that accommodated nearly 25,000 people sits empty. The Temple of Artemis, said to have been four times larger than the Parthenon, is a handful of slender columns.

YET we return home from our travels intoxicated by beauty, not truth. It doesn’t occur to us that we, too, will one day be described in a guidebook (Fodor’s North America 2212?) as metropolitans who resided in 60-story towers and traveled beneath the waves in metal-sheathed trains.

It’s this willed ignorance, I suspect, that explains why it’s difficult to process the implications of climate change for New York, even in the face of explicit warnings from politicians, not the most future-oriented people. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has been courageous to make global warming a subject of public debate, but will taxpayers support his proposal to build a levee in New York Harbor? Wouldn’t it be easier to think of Sandy as a “once in a lifetime” storm? Even as Lower Manhattan continues to bail itself out — this time in the literal sense — One World Trade Center rises, floor by floor. The governor notes that “we have a 100-year flood every two years now,” which doesn’t stop rents from going up in Battery Park City.

Walking on New York’s Upper East Side, I was reminded by the gargantuan white box atop a busy construction site that the Second Avenue line, first proposed in 1929, remains very much in the works. And why not? Should images of water pouring into the subway tunnels that occupied our newspapers a few weeks back be sufficient to stay us from progress? “I must live till I die,” says the hero of a Joseph Conrad novel. The same could be said of cities.

When, on my way home at night, I climb the steps from the subway by the American Museum of Natural History — itself a monument to transience, with its dinosaurs and its mammoth and its skeleton of a dodo bird, that doomed species whose name has become an idiom for extinction — I feel more keenly than ever the miraculousness, the improbability of New York.

Looking down Central Park West, I’m thrilled by the necklace of green-and-red traffic lights extending toward Columbus Circle and the glittering tower of One57, that vertical paradise for billionaires. And as I walk past the splashing fountain in front of the museum’s south entrance on West 77th Street, I recall a sentence from Edward Gibbon’s ode to evanescence, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” in which “the learned Poggius” gazes down at the remains of the city from the Capitoline hill: “The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.”

This is our fate. All the more reason to appreciate what we have while we have it.

James Atlas is a contributing opinion writer and the author of a forthcoming book about biography.

Vetoing Business as Usual After the Storm


“…the decisions ahead come down to nature and numbers, to density, economics and geology. Our relationship to the water can’t stay the same, and at the same time the city is not worth saving if it sacrifices its principles and humanity.”


Patrick Ward/Corbis

A flood barrier on the Thames, one of the ideas American experts are looking at in the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

Published: November 19, 2012

Not a month after Hurricane Sandy there’s a rough consensus about how to respond. America is already looking to places like London, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Tokyo, where sea walls, levees and wetlands, flood plains and floating city blocks have been conceived.

Tineke Dijkstra/Hollandse Hoogte

The Maeslant surge barrier between Rotterdam and the North Sea. Building similar projects to protect the New York region would test the limits of American democracy

West 8/Rogers Marvel/Diller Scofidio & Renfro/Quennell Rothschild/SMWM

A rendering of a proposed 40-acre park for Governors Island, with a shoreline promenade.

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

An aerial view of the Thames flood barrier in London.

MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archives

Robert Moses, about 1938. He accumulated unbridled authority to build major projects.

New York clearly ought to have taken certain steps a while back, no-brainers after the fact. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority ought to have installed floodgates and louvers at vulnerable subway entrances and vents. Consolidated Edison should have gotten its transformers, and Verizon its switching stations, out of harm’s way, and Congress should have ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to study the impact of giant barriers to block parts of the city from the sea.

Scientists, architects, planners and others have, of course, been mulling over these issues for years. They’ve pressed for more parkland and bike lanes, green roofs and energy-efficient buildings, and warned about the need for backup generators, wetland edges along Lower Manhattan and barrier islands for the harbor to cushion the blow of rushing tides.

Hurricane Sandy was a toll paid for procrastination. The good news? We don’t need to send a bunch of Nobel laureates into the desert now, hoping they come up with some new gizmo to save the planet. Solutions are at hand. Money shouldn’t be a problem either, considering the hundreds of billions of dollars, and more lives, another Sandy or two will cost.

So the problem is not technological or, from a long-term cost-benefit perspective, financial.

Rather it is the existential challenge to the messy democracy we’ve devised. The hardest part of what lies ahead won’t be deciding whether to construct Eiffel Tower-size sea walls across the Verrazano Narrows and Hell Gate, or overhauling the city’s sewage and storm water system, which spews toxic waste into rivers whenever a couple of inches of rain fall because the sea levels have already risen so much. These are monumental tasks.

But more difficult still will be staring down the pain, dislocation and inequity that promise to upend lives, undo communities and shake assumptions about city life and society. More than requiring the untangling of colossal red tape, saving New York and the whole region for the centuries ahead will become a test of civic unity.

In New York last week to tour the damage, President Obama named Shaun Donovan, his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a New Yorker and former housing official in the city, to spearhead federal recovery efforts. Mr. Donovan is an obvious choice. But then the president reflexively pledged (and the vice president followed up with the same promise on Sunday) to restore ravaged neighborhoods and homes in Queens and on Staten Island to the way they were before Hurricane Sandy.

 That was business as usual, and the last thing the region or the country needs. At this point there’s no logic, politics and sentiment aside, to FEMA simply rebuilding single-family homes on barrier islands like the Rockaways, where they shouldn’t have been built in the first place, and like bowling pins will tumble again after the next hurricane strikes.

“Retreat is a dirty word,” as Robert S. Young, a North Carolina geologist, has described American sentiment, but better finally to face reality and make plans for smarter construction, compensation and even, where necessary, relocation. Elected officials and utility companies shouldn’t just turn on the lights and heat and restore crippled elevators in forgotten public housing projects that were inadequately designed in the first place.

Common sense dictates upgrading many of these projects to withstand floods but also devising new homes elsewhere for some residents. Cost-benefit analyses, long overdue, should answer tough questions like whether it’s actually worth saving some neighborhoods in flood zones. Communities like Breezy Point should be given knowledge, power and choice about their options, then the responsibility to live by that choice.

This means embracing a policy of compassion and honest talk. It’s no good merely to try to go back to the way things were, because they are not.

This sort of conversation is a third rail of American politics, so it’s no wonder all presidents promise to rebuild and stick taxpayers with the tab. That billions of dollars may end up being spent to protect businesses in Lower Manhattan while old, working-class communities on the waterfronts of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island most likely won’t get the same protection flies in the face of ideas about social justice, and about New York City, with its open-armed self-image as a capital of diversity.

But the decisions ahead come down to nature and numbers, to density, economics and geology. Our relationship to the water can’t stay the same, and at the same time the city is not worth saving if it sacrifices its principles and humanity.

So the real test post-Sandy will be negotiating between the two.

Faced with cholera and calamitous urban living conditions in the early 1800s, city planners ran roughshod over property rights to install the street grid. Outrage gradually yielded to rising real estate values, Central Park and the modern metropolis.

During the last century Robert Moses, accumulating unbridled authority to get what he wanted done, bulldozed into existence parks and beaches, highways and housing projects by recklessly destroying old neighborhoods, starving mass transit, crushing opposition and “hounding the people out like cattle,” as Stanley Isaacs, the former Manhattan borough president, said of the hundreds of thousands of mostly poor New Yorkers that Moses displaced.

 The defeat of Westway, a Moses-scale proposal during the 1980s to bury the West Side Highway and cover it with parkland and new development, in a sense became the public’s epitaph for Moses. Whether that defeat was bad for the city is a question for another time. But New York became more attuned to community-based initiatives, to preservation, environmentalism and circumspection, all good things in ordinary circumstances.

At the same time it lost something of its nerve.

I walked around Brooklyn Bridge Park last week with the landscape architects Matthew Urbanski and Michael Van Valkenburgh, who designed it. We stood by the salt marsh they installed where an old pier had once been. An acre of formerly obscured shorefront opened to the sky. The park survived Hurricane Sandy with hardly a scratch, proving the virtue of soft edges.

In the design process Mr. Van Valkenburgh had asked the state Environmental Conservation Department, which polices the coastline, for permission to float a north-south footbridge, just 12 feet wide, between the embankment where the old pier ended and the next pier over, where the architects are installing sports fields. The idea: People wouldn’t have to walk all the way around the shore to get from one pier to the other.

The department said no. The narrow bridge’s shadow might disturb the habitats of fish. It was the argument that torpedoed Westway.

Now the task is to create a whole new ecological infrastructure for the region. The hurdles go beyond just a single state authority fearful to concede even a footbridge. They include an alphabet soup of agencies and public officials: Congress and the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut; the Corps of Engineers; FEMA; the Homeland Security Department; the New York State Public Service Commission (which in principle has the leverage to compel companies like Con Ed and Verizon to safeguard its equipment); Amtrak; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; the city’s planning, transportation, parks and environmental protection departments; and the Port Authority, devised as the organization in charge of such epic undertakings, today a shadow of its former self.

 The Australians have a mantra for battling climate change: Protect, Redesign, Rebuild, Elevate, Relocate and Retreat. Guy Nordenson, a New York engineer who has spent years researching the subject, talks about controlling floods and controlled flooding, accepting that the water will ultimately get in. This means thinking like the Australians, long term about evolving nature. Our election cycle tends to thwart infrastructural improvements that can take decades and don’t provide short-term ribbon-cutting payoffs for politicians, which is why it’s a wry commonplace among engineers and architects that autocratic regimes make the most aggressive builders of massive projects.

For New York sea gates alone won’t fix the city’s problems any more than will porous streets with catchment basins and waterproof vaults under sidewalks to secure electrical systems. At the same time this is a golden opportunity for the United States to leapfrog countries that have pioneered innovative architecture like garages doubling as floodwater containers and superdikes serving as parks and high-density housing complexes — a chance for designers, planners and engineers finally to get back, after so many decades, to the decision-making table.

 The question is: Can we accomplish this in time and fairly?

The young Moses was a political savant with the vision to operate beyond the boundaries of municipalities, cities and bureaucracies and get big things done. But that same genius enabled him to extend his power beyond reasonable limits and finally to sweep aside the precious, small-scale urban values and human decency that sustain a civic democracy. His biographer Robert Caro wrote in the 1970s that Moses “bent the democratic processes of the city to his own ends to build public works,” albeit “left to themselves, these processes proved unequal to the building required.”

“The problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting,” Mr. Caro added, “is one which democracy has not yet solved.”

And it still hasn’t.

A version of this article appeared in print on November 20, 2012, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Vetoing Business as Usual After the Storm.

Don’t Rebuild: Redesign


 Architecture Fellow, Akademie Schloss Solitude Posted: 11/13/2012

Perhaps the New York Times‘ Michael Kimmelman said it best, in the concise lexicon of 140 characters, when he tweeted on election day, “Hope post-election, we can finally take big steps as a city, region nation to deal w costs, plans re: climate change. Beyond giant levees.” Now that we have gotten past the election, perhaps New Yorkers and the rest of the country are ready to talk honestly and admit that sandbags in urban flood-zones are just not good enough.

This is not about the disaster response to hurricane Sandy or FEMA or even emergency preparedness. This is about forward-looking infrastructure, urban design and land-use that takes the effects of climate change seriously.

It is encouraging that President Obama mentioned the need for a response to a warming planet in his election night victory speech. This is a welcome shift from presidential debates that avoided mention of climate change entirely. Since the beginning of the hurricane Sandy, New York Governor Cuomo has been emphatic about the need to go beyond acknowledging the threat of climate change toward taking action to cope with it. “I think we do have to anticipate these extreme types of weather patterns. And we have to start to think about how do we redesign the system so this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Why are there so few voices demanding, like Cuomo, that this never happen again? I worry that it may be that the public remains unaware of the array of designs worked out over the past decade to potentially mitigate the damage of a storm like this. Perhaps there is no outrage, because people do not know that with planning and investment — not in emergency preparation, but in the landscape and land-use of the city, itself — this horrific damage could have been largely avoided.

Certainly, if you are only listening to Bloomberg you would not know that there were any possible alternative. “We cannot build a big barrier reef off the shore to stop the waves from coming in; we can’t build big bulkheads that cut people off from the water,” the mayor said during a press conference.

Why does Bloomberg talk about bulkheads, as if the design possibilities for the waterfront edge to mitigate storms have not advanced since the 1950s? Why does he say we can’t build a “big barrier reef off the shore to stop the waves from coming in”? Indeed, we can. Not only can we, but there is an array of strategies to choose from. The most innovative proposal from MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibit five years ago uses oysters to do exactly that. For years, architects and urban designers in New York have been carefully modelling options to “stop the waves from coming in” — from landfills to ecologically sensitive reefs toengineered flood gates — and the Mayor talks as if he has never heard of any of it.

The worst part may be that New York City under Bloomberg has been encouraging waterfront development without taking plans for flood infrastructure seriously. As someone who worked on the early stages ofQueenswest as an urban designer for the Department of City Planning, I can affirm that the city’s process in waterfront planning prioritized real estate value, public amenities and sheer housing unit numbers. We drew internal maps of projected flood levels creeping up on new parks and potential soccer fields, but that had little significance in the planning process.

A number of the city’s most respected planners spoke to the Observer during the hurricane evacuation, and questioned whether waterfront development should be allowed to continue without serious investment first in infrastructure. Ron Shiffman, founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development, told theObserver, “There has been a disconnect for some time between the actions of the City Planning Department and PlaNYC 2030,” referring to the sustainability plan that the mayor’s office released in 2007 and continued to revise through 2011. PlaNYC 2030 contains a handful of research ideas about flooding, but the actual initiatives are pretty much limited to improving information in the market for flood insurance and requiring new buildings to incorporate flood-proofing measures. The existing city is left to fend for itself.

Urban designers, architects and planners have been working for years on more proactive alternatives to coping with effects of climate change for New York and other coastal cities. If we could generate only half the interest for flood-ready urban design that we can for a sports stadium, it would get done. The architecture and urban design disciplines excel at the sort of long-term forward thinking needed for the complex problems presented by global warming. But the field needs public urgency to push investment toward something bold and purposeful. The conversations cannot only take place in museums and universities. Let’s hope that on this issue, we really do see the region and the country moving forward.

Flood Insurance, Already Fragile, Faces New Stress

Source: NY Times

U.S. Coast Guard/Getty Images

Homes in Tuckerton, N.J., after Hurricane Sandy. Estimates indicate the storm could rank as the nation’s second-worst for claims.

By  and 
Published: November 12, 2012

WASHINGTON — The federal government’s flood insurance program, which fell $18 billion into debt after Hurricane Katrina, is once again at risk of running out of money as the daunting reconstruction from Hurricane Sandy gets under way.

GRAPHIC: How Hurricane Katrina Overwhelmed the Federal Flood Insurance Fund


Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

Don Horneff, 74, in his yard in Tuckerton, which has not taken federally recommended steps to protect homes from flooding.

Early estimates suggest that Hurricane Sandy will rank as the nation’s second-worst storm for claims paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program. With 115,000 new claims submitted and thousands more being filed each day, the cost could reach $7 billion at a time when the program is allowed, by law, to add only an additional $3 billion to its onerous debt.

Congress, just this summer, overhauled the flawed program by allowing large increases in premiums paid by vacation home owners and those repeatedly hit by floods. But critics say taxpayer money should not be used to bail it out again — essentially subsidizing the rebuilding of homes in risky areas — without Congress’ mandating even more radical changes.

“We are now just throwing money to support something that is going to end up creating more victims and costing more money in the future,” Representative Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon, said of the program, which insures 5.7 million homes nationwide near coasts or flood-prone rivers.

Even with the new rules, critics argue, it will be many years, if ever, before many homeowners are required to pay premiums that accurately reflect the market cost of the coverage. Some communities have long resisted imposing more appropriate building codes to prevent damage, putting the program at further risk of devastating losses when storms like Hurricane Sandy hit. And despite some efforts in recent years, many of the flood maps the program relies on are out of date — which can have expensive, and even deadly, consequences in this era of rising sea levels if homeowners are not cognizant of the risks they face.

The program’s giant debt makes matters worse because simply covering the interest owed the Treasury consumes from $90 million to $750 million a year, depending on interest rates. This means it is much harder to build reserves for future catastrophes.

But others on Capitol Hill argue that the changes adopted in July are an important first step, and that Congress must give the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the program, a chance to apply them before any additional changes are considered.

Already, 44 members of the House of Representatives have called for Congress to appropriate whatever money is needed to help victims recover from Hurricane Sandy, and aides on Capitol Hill say that under such extreme losses, they expect lawmakers will do what they have to do to keep the program solvent — even amid a federal budget crisis.

“It is a program we require people to participate in, so we have to make sure it is adequately funded to handle claims,” said Representative Timothy H. Bishop, Democrat of New York, whose district in Long Island has more than 100 miles of coastline. “You can’t say: ‘Awfully sorry. Hope this works out for you.’ ”

The federal government’s flood insurance program, established in 1968, is one of the world’s largest. The insurance is mandatory for homeowners with a federally backed mortgage if they live in an area subject to flooding at least once every 100 years. The average annual flood insurance premium is about $615, but for homeowners in areas at higher risk of flooding, an annual policy can cost from $1,200 to $3,000, according to Steve Harty, president of National Flood Services, a claims-processing company, depending on the level of coverage.

The federal program collects about $3.5 billion in annual premiums. But in four of the past eight years, claims will have eclipsed premiums, most glaringly in 2005 — the year of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma — when claims totaled $17.7 billion. Private insurance companies have long avoided offering flood insurance to homeowners.

“It’s like rat poison to them,” said Tony Bullock, an insurance industry lobbyist, explaining how the risk outweighs the benefit for private insurers. “You need the federal backstop.”

But the program is still a moneymaker for the private insurance industry. Even though these companies bear none of the risk, they take, on average, $1 billion a year of the premiums the government collects, as compensation for help in selling and servicing the policies. Federal auditors argue the payments are excessive.

FEMA officials declined to address whether changes beyond the already passed legislation are needed to strengthen the program.

“These reforms are being implemented,” the agency said in a written statement. “Right now, we’re focused on helping survivors.”

More than one million property owners who live in homes at least four decades old also have historically paid only about 40 percent of the estimated true cost of the coverage the government provides — in large part because of lobbying by the real estate industry, mortgage brokers, homeowners associations and other groups to keep federal authorities from charging more.

Perhaps the most troubling problem, program officials acknowledge, is that only a tiny share of enrolled properties accounts for a giant share of the overall claims, as the properties are repeatedly flooded and rebuilt in low coastal regions and in hurricane flight paths.

One Biloxi, Miss., property valued at $183,000 flooded 15 times over a decade, costing the program $1.47 million, according to federal data provided by the agency to a member of Congress. Another in Humble, Tex., has resulted in over $2 million in flood payouts even though it was worth just $116,000.

An analysis of two decades of claims by the Wharton Risk Center at the University of Pennsylvania shows that certain states, like Texas, which has the second-largest number of policies, pay much less in insurance premiums than the homeowners there collect in damage claims, evidence of the inherent inequity in the national program.

The problem of repetitive claims is much less prevalent in coastal New York and New Jersey, where FEMA estimates Hurricane Sandy flooded 100,000 insured homes.

But homeowners in those two states have fought measures that would reduce storm damage. Barrier island communities in the Northeast, for example, have resisted overtures from the Army Corps of Engineers to build sand dunes as a natural flood barrier, arguing that the dunes would block ocean views or harm the local tourism industry.

Other communities, like Tuckerton, N.J., have failed to take steps recommended by FEMA to better protect homes after flooding through a program that pushes owners to elevate new homes above minimum required heights or to move flood-prone buildings.

Hurricane Sandy damaged more than 300 of the 660 houses in Tuckerton’s beach area, including 22 that were washed away, according to Phil Reed, the town building inspector.

Fifteen years ago, Don Horneff, 74, had his Tuckerton house raised on pilings nine feet above ground level. As a result, he said, Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters ran only through his basement.

That is the kind of protective measure that federal officials want mandated into all new or rebuilt homes in flood zones.

Last week, piles of mattresses, fencing, chairs, appliances and other debris sat outside many of the homes on Mr. Horneff’s street — and a backhoe worked to clear the mess. “All around me, the homes that were lower, most of them will have to be demolished,” he said, surveying his neighborhood. “It’s very sad. They have lost everything.”

The pending costs for Hurricane Sandy would have been even higher if a greater share of residents along the East Coast had signed up for the insurance, which is voluntary outside the 100-year-flood zones. There would also have been more premium dollars, though not enough to pay the claims.

The fact that many homeowners hit by Hurricane Sandy have no flood or homeowners insurance could prompt Congress to provide assistance to the uninsured, too, as happened after Hurricane Katrina, further raising the cost to the federal Treasury.

Officials in New Jersey and New York say the federal government must move quickly to put the flood insurance program back on stable footing, even if it means increasing the federal deficit.

“All we want in our community — not any more and absolutely not less — is what is due to Sea Isle,” said Leonard C. Desiderio, the mayor of Sea Isle City, N.J., one of the coastal towns hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane Katrina put the program so deeply into debt that federal officials have acknowledged they will never be able to fully repay the $18 billion Treasury-financed loan that bailed the program out.

FEMA, as a result of this year’s legislation, has the authority to raise premiums by as much as 25 percent per year over the next five years. The increases will be imposed mostly on vacation homes and other properties that repeatedly flood, but whose owners have paid far below market insurance rates. The legislation also authorizes the creation of a national reserve fund to help the program handle major flood catastrophes, and urges Congress to appropriate $400 million a year to update the thousands of out-of-date flood control maps. That would likely force new homes to be built elevated off the ground in spots where rising sea levels or recent major storms have had an impact.

Lawmakers who pushed the legislation call it major progress in fixing the program’s well-documented failings.

“The program is on a much more responsible path than it had been just one year ago,” said Zachary Cikanek, a spokesman for Representative Judy Biggert, Republican of Illinois, who co-sponsored the legislation.

But others say much more needs to be done. The federal government should ensure continuous coverage in flood-prone areas, spreading the risk among a larger pool of homeowners, who now often allow their coverage to lapse, said Robert Hunter, an insurance administrator in the Ford and Carter administrations.

The 20,000 communities that participate should also be adopting stronger building or flood prevention codes the way Florida has since Hurricane Andrew did $23 billion worth of damage in 1992. Mr. Hunter pointed to earthquake-prone Chile, where builders must assume the liability for catastrophic earthquake damage for 10 years after construction. “This program still encourages unwise construction instead of discouraging it, and to me that means the program has failed, even with the reforms Congress just adopted,” Mr. Hunter said. “People are being killed and their properties are being destroyed because of a government that gives the false impression that there is less of a flood risk than there really is.”


Eric Lipton reported from Washington, Felicity Barringer from San Francisco, and Mary Williams Walsh from Philadelphia. Jon Hurdle contributed reporting from Tuckerton, N.J.

Manhattan Evacuation Plan Reveals Island’s Old Contours


As Hurricane Sandy bears down on the Atlantic Coast in October, 2012, many residents are becoming familiar with the emergency evacuation map, a part of which is shown above (taken from Google and the New York Times Online.) In the evacuation map, the area in red is Zone A, the lowest-lying areas of the city that are the first to be evacuated in case of expected flooding. The orange area is Zone B and the yellow Zone C.

It is interesting to compare the evacuation map to a 1776 map of the island before much of the coastline was augmented by landfill. The eastern line of Zone A along the Hudson River runs along Greenwich Street, which was at the waterfront in 1776. The old slips on the East River extend inland to Queen Street, now Pearl Street, which is near where Zone A runs along the East River.

Also notable on the 1776 map is Bayard’s Mount, the high land rising in the area marked “Marshy Ground”  north and northwest of the old Collect Pond. The pond was drained in the early 19th Century and Bayard’s Mount was leveled to fill it in, but as can be seen in the evacuation plan, the pond and the marsh left their mark on modern Manhattan in the form of a hook-shaped low area delineated by the border of Zone