FOR nearly a decade, scientists have told city and state officials that New York faces certain peril: rising sea levels, more frequent flooding and extreme weather patterns.
The alarm bells grew louder after tropical storm Irene last year, when the city shut down its subway system and water rushed into the Rockaways and Lower Manhattan.
As New Yorkers awoke to submerged neighbourhoods and water-soaked electrical equipment, officials took their first tentative steps towards considering major infrastructure changes that could protect the city’s fragile shores and 8 million residents from repeated disastrous damage.
Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state should consider a levee system or storm surge barriers and face up to the inadequacy of the existing protections.
”The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level,” Mr Cuomo said.
”As soon as you breach the sides of Manhattan, you now have a whole infrastructure under the city that fills – the subway system, the foundations for buildings” and the World Trade Centre site.
The Cuomo administration plans talks with city and federal officials about how to proceed. The task could be daunting, given fiscal realities: storm surge barriers, the huge sea gates that some scientists say would be the best protection against floods, could cost up to $US10 billion.
But many experts say, given what happened with the latest storm, that inertia could be more expensive.
After rising roughly 2.5 centimetres per decade in the past century, coastal waters in New York are expected to climb as fast as 15 centimetres per decade, or 60 centimetres by mid-century, according to a city-appointed scientific panel.
”Look, the city is extremely vulnerable to damaging storm surges just for its geography, and climate change is increasing that risk,” said Ben Strauss, director of the sea level rise program at the research group Climate Central in Princeton, New Jersey.
”Three of the top 10 highest floods at the Battery [southern New York] since 1900 happened in the last 2�0�5 years. If that’s not a wake-up call to take this seriously, I don’t know what is.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is known worldwide for his broad environmental vision. But one former official said it had been difficult to move from theoretical planning to concrete actions, and it was hoped that the storm this week would change that.
A state report on rising sea levels, issued on the last day of governor David Paterson’s administration in 2010, suggested that erecting structural barriers to restrain floodwaters could be part of a broader approach, along with relocating buildings and people further from the coasts.
”A fair question to ask is, have we been as focused as we need to be for emergency preparations?” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ”We’ve just been lucky. We need hardening for the risk we’ve always faced. Until things happen, people aren’t willing to pay for it.”