CITY OF WATER
Newsweek|May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)
As climate change triggers sea-level rise and extreme weather, even New York, one of the world's best-prepared cities, may not be doing enough
ADAM PIORE

THERE ARE A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN NEW YORK City but drowning in a rainstorm is not something many New Yorkers have ever worried about. That changed last September when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit the Big Apple, unleashing 80- mile-an-hour winds and dumping three-and-a-half inches of rain in a single hour, almost twice as much water as the city’s antiquated sewer systems could handle. The flood warning came too late to save a Nepali couple and their 2-year-old son, who drowned in Woodside, Queens when the sewers overflowed and water roared downhill, inundating their cramped, illegal basement apartment. It did not help a 43-year-old mother and her 22-year-old son, who died in Jamaica, Queens when floodwaters sent a car barreling into the side of their building, causing a partial collapse. Or the 66-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant who perished shouting for help in a basement bedroom near Cypress Hill, Brooklyn.

“This storm has now rewritten the map,” the city’s Mayor Bill de Blasio somberly declared five days later while touring the devastation. “We used to think that flooding was a coastal thing. It’s not anymore. It can happen all over the city.”

Over the past 50 years, the number of reported weather-related disasters has increased fivefold, according to a recent U.N. report. These include powerful hurricanes like Ida, a megaflood in Germany last July that caused $20 billion in damage, a monsoon in India that killed 1,291 and a heatwave last June that killed 800 in Western Canada. Rising temperatures, due largely to emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are increasing the amount of heat and humidity the Earth’s atmosphere can hold, turbo-charging storms and making them more frequent and intense. Meanwhile, as ocean water absorbs more heat, it expands, causing sea levels to rise. The reality of extreme weather is proving to be worse than what scientists predicted only a few years ago.

The combination of rising heat and more intense storms poses a direct threat to coastal cities. A growing number of cities around the globe are finding themselves faced with extreme weather-related events—with apocalyptic levels of flooding, high winds and storm surges—that used to be rare but now occur with alarming frequency. As a result, storms like Hurricane Sandy, which used to come along once every 100 years or so, are now expected to occur more frequently. These storms are powerful enough to overwhelm infrastructure that was built for a bygone era before climate change was a factor. Now that it is, even the best-prepared cities are finding they are sometimes not prepared enough.

The need to protect the world’s cities is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. In 2020, there were 22 climate disasters in the U.S. alone that cost more than $1 billion—the most ever, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Floods in Europe were the costliest weather disasters in European history.

In Manila, Philippines, a 2009 flood submerged 80 percent of the city. After an extended drought in 2018, Cape Town, South Africa almost ran out of water. In 2019, hundreds died of heat exhaustion in Eastern India and outdoor work was temporarily banned in several cities. India and Pakistan are currently experiencing record temperatures, power blackouts and wildfires. That’s just a prelude of what’s to come. By 2050, more than 68 percent of the world’s population will reside in urban areas, experts predict, up from about half right now. Roughly 90 percent of those cities are coastal, which means that by 2050, more than 800 million urban residents may be endangered by sea-level rise and coastal flooding on a regular basis. Twice that many will be vulnerable to chronic extreme heat, and 650 million could face water scarcity, according to a report by McKinsey Sustainability issued last July by C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of nearly 100 mayors from some of the world’s largest cities.

Cities are also expected to get an influx of climate refugees. Since 2010, more than 21 million people were displaced by climate change-related disasters. according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That number could rise to 1.2 billion by 2050, by some estimates. By then, 17 percent of Bangladesh may be submerged and 20 million people may have lost their homes.

In the decades ahead, in other words, the world’s cities will be challenged in ways previous generations never imagined. Although international organizations have recently begun sounding the alarm and pumping out reports with a wide range of suggestions, from planting more trees to combat heat, to permeable pavement and flood-limiting rain gardens, many of the world’s mayors have only recently begun to consider how they might prepare for a new age of extreme weather.

Those that have begun to take actions to protect their citizens are grappling with challenges ranging from the political to the practical, which are revealing just how unpredictable, grindingly slow and messy the process of climate adaptation is likely to be. Few cities illustrate the challenge better than New York City. After Hurricane Sandy laid waste to much of the region in 2009, the city put in place arguably one of the most comprehensive and advanced resiliency plans in the U.S. but still found itself ill-equipped to handle the fury nature hurled at it last fall. And it still struggles to find sustained funding for its climate adaptation programs.

“We are the canary in the coal mine,” says Joy Sinderbrand, vice president of recovery and resilience for The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

“We have 520 miles of coastline. And we are still learning important lessons.”

Wake-Up Call

KHALED HUSEIN KNOWS WHAT A WAR ZONE LOOKS like. After all, he immigrated at age 7 to Kuwait and eventually to New York City from the Israeli-occupied West Bank. And when the now 62-year-old engineer arrived in Coney Island back in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 Superstorm Sandy, it was as bad as anything he’d seen in his homeland.

Unlike Ida, which drenched the city from above, Sandy came barreling in off the Atlantic coast. It arrived on top of a high tide, close to a full moon, causing the water surrounding the city to surge 14 feet higher than normal. Roads, subway stations, electrical facilities and wastewater treatment plants flooded, releasing raw sewage into the waterways, submerging basements and transforming portions of downtown Manhattan into a waist-high lake. Close to two million people were plunged into darkness. The poor and frail were among the hardest hit. The flooding forced the evacuation of more than 6,500 patients from hospitals and nursing homes. And more than 400 New York City Housing Authority buildings containing approximately 35,000 housing units lost power, heat or hot water.

On Coney Island, water surged in from the north and south shores, picking up cars and scattering them like Tinkertoys. On Surf Avenue, a main thoroughfare lined with towering public housing complexes and apartment buildings, the ocean poured into the basements, wrecking boilers, choking off water and electricity and stranding the elderly on high floors without elevators. The receded floodwaters left behind piles of sand as high as 6 feet in some places, blocking doors and erasing any evidence of sidewalks or roads.

“What we saw here was beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” recalls Husein. His firm, ATANE Design & Construction Consultants, was called in to help get emergency generators online. “People were using the stairwells as bathrooms because they couldn’t flush their toilets.”

The first lesson of Sandy was just how little planners knew about the city’s vulnerabilities. The devastation was not confined to the coastline. All told, an estimated 51 square miles of New York City flooded—17 percent of the city’s total landmass, an area more than one-and-a-half times larger than what federal flood maps had predicted was possible during a “100-year” flood.

These discrepancies are not unique to New York City. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey pummeled Houston, the flood maps missed about 75 percent of the areas damaged by the storm. That same year, a Department of Homeland Security inspector general report found that 58 percent were outdated enough to be considered by the inspector general to be “virtually obsolete.”

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