New York City six years after Sandy. Is it ready for the next one?

More than six years have past since superstorm Sandy swamped New York City on October 22, 2012. If a storm of similar strength hit the city today, the streets that Sandy flooded would once again flood to the same depth. While there’s been lots of talk (and some planning), little actual construction work has been done to protect the city from another serious storm surge. However, parts of the city, lower Manhattan in particular, have been ‘hardened’ in a multitude of  ways that are generally invisible to the casual observer.

The city’s subway system suffered an estimated $4.8 billion worth of damage due to the flooding of tunnels with salt water. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo announced (May 16, 2013) plans to ‘flood-proof’ the subway and protect its critical elements against “similar storms that we expect to arrive in the future.” No easy task. The system is old and wasn’t designed with super storms and sea level rise in mind. Individual openings through which water can enter the system from the surface in flood prone areas are many — more than 3,500 according to an estimate made at the time — all of them requiring closure. The list of subway elements in need of flood proofing, included:

Station entrances, ventilator gratings, vents, elevator shafts and openings, access hatches, emergency exits, manholes, utility entrances, escalators, machine rooms, pump rooms, sewer lines, conduit ducts, utility services, lighting, HVAC systems, building entrances and other right of way equipment.

The smell and feel of fetid subway air puffing up through sidewalk gratings are sensations experienced daily by New Yorker’s. How to stop flood waters pouring down through those same gratings, was just one of the challenges faced by the Transportation Authority. One solution: metal hatches fitted under the gratings and ready to slide across the openings when needed. The following photo from 2017 shows MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, explaining the new system to the press.

Photo of MTA Chaireman and press examining subway grating flood prevention devices
MTA chairman Joe Lhota and members of the press examine subway grating flood prevention devices. Image: MTA

Because the openings are so large, flood proofing subway entrance stairways is critically important. The photo below shows an MTA employee deploying a stairwell Flex-Gate (ILC Dover Co) from its housing.

Photo of MTA employee deploying subway entrance flood prevention device
MTA employee deploying subway entrance flood prevention device. MTA Image

New York’s private sector business’s also suffered heavy damage from superstorm Sandy. Before Sandy, equipment such as electrical gear and emergency generators were typically installed in the basements of the city’s high rise buildings. That equipment was destroyed when basements flooded. Repairs took weeks, in some cases, months. Some older inhabitants of residential towers, unable to navigate dark stairwells, were trapped in their apartments for days. Architects and builders have learned from the reports. The American Copper Building provides a good example (photo below). This copper clad, residential duel-tower, built at 626 First Ave., incorporates several post-Sandy design features:

Photo of American Copper Bldg., New York City
American Copper Building.

(1) The building has no penthouse. Instead, the top floors are given over to emergency equipment designed to provide essential services to the whole building for at least a week in the event a serious storm shuts the City down. According to real estate sources, the owners, JDS Development Group (Architects: SHoP) are happy to provide the feature because, in this new age of climate change, they see it as a sales asset That compensates for the loss of penthouse revenue.
(2) Stone rather than wood is used as decorative material in the building’s lobby areas. The rational for its use is that stone will suffer less damage from being submerged in flood waters, and should therefore take less time to repair.
(3) Installing electrical gear on the second floor of new high-rise buildings rather than in their basements, guarantees that the equipment will remain safe from flood waters. This flood-proofing technique has been incorpoated into the design of the American Copper Building, as the building’s blank second-floor windows indicate (see photo below).

Photo of American Copper Building from E 36th Street
Americans Copper Building from E 36th Street. Google image

The storm that hit New York in 2012, was a category 2 hurricane. Is the city prepared for a category 3 or 4 hurricane? New Yorker’s do not want to find out.