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Saturday, December 3, 2011

The city that plans to be flooded -- New York City has no plans for building storm surge barriers to protect against inevitable hurricane strikes

by Douglas Hill, wunderblog, December 2, 2011+15
[A guest post by Douglas Hill, a consulting engineer and an adjunct lecturer at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University in New York.]

Hurricane Irene, remember? Irene, diminished to a mere tropical storm when it struck New York City, came and went, soon disappearing from the news. But think back to August 26, 2011, when Irene, a Category 3 hurricane with winds of more than 110 mph, was approaching the North Carolina coast and headed directly for New York City. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg called a news conference to order 370,000 people to evacuate their homes. Then he stepped aside, and MTA chairman Jay Walder stepped to the microphone and announced that public transportation -- buses as well as trains -- was being shut down.

Figure 1. GOES-East visible satellite image of Irene taken at 7:45 am EDT on Sunday, August 28, 2011. At the time, Irene was a tropical storm with 65 mph winds, making landfall on Long Island, New York. Image credit: NOAA Environmental Visualization laboratory.

Evacuation without transportation: a novel concept that the mayor described as "preparing for the worst and hoping for the best." Fortunately, hoping for the best worked.

Unfortunately, the City is still hoping for the best, and it is not preparing for the worst. The coastal storm plan of the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) includes strategies for storm tracking, public information, evacuation procedures, people with special needs, recovery, and restoration, but nothing to prevent flooding.

In other words, New York City is planning to be flooded -- and according to the National Hurricane Center, it will be. Based on the historical record, hurricanes of Categories 1, 2 and 3 will strike the New York region on an average of every 17, 39 and 68 years, respectively. The City has been overdue for a Category 1 hurricane -- Irene should have been no surprise -- and we may expect hurricanes of Categories 2 and 3 within the next decade or two. In testimony to a U.S. Senate committee, Max Mayfield, the former director of the National Hurricane Center, said, "It is not a question of if a major hurricane will strike the New York area, but when" (his emphasis.)

The greatest potential for loss of life from a hurricane has historically been from the storm surge. If the eye of a Category 3 hurricane crossed the New Jersey shore, the surge could reach 24 feet -- compared with 4.5 feet in Hurricane Irene's -- flooding the World Trade Center site and Wall Street, with City Hall resting on a separate island south of the rest of Manhattan. The ripples from a crippled financial district in lower Manhattan would be felt worldwide. In a severe hurricane, the OEM has estimated that up to three million people would have to evacuate, if that can be imagined.

Figure 2. The height above ground that a mid-strength Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds would push a storm surge into New York City in a worst-case scenario. The image was generated using the primary computer model used by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) to forecast storm surge -- the Sea, Lake, and Overland Surge from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model. The accuracy of the SLOSH model is advertised as plus or minus 20%. This "Maximum Water Depth" image shows the water depth at each grid cell of the SLOSH domain. Thus, if you are inland at an elevation of 10 feet above mean sea level, and the combined storm surge and tide (the "storm tide") is fifteen feet at your location, the water depth image will show five feet of inundation. This Maximum of the "Maximum Envelope of Waters" (MOM) image was generated for high tide and is a composite of the maximum storm surge found for dozens of individual runs of different Category 2 storms with different tracks. Thus, no single storm will be able to cause the level of flooding depicted in this SLOSH storm surge image. Consult wunderground's Storm Surge Inundation Maps page for more storm surge images of the U.S. coast.

Other major ports have taken measures to prevent being flooded. After the 1938 hurricane, storm surge barriers were built in New England to protect New Bedford, Providence and Stamford. After a disastrous storm in the North Sea in 1953, the Thames Barrier was built to protect London, and the Delta Plan was started in the Netherlands, which includes three such barriers, one protecting Rotterdam, Europe's busiest port. Following Hurricane Katrina, a long-disputed barrier was constructed at the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain along with several others, which are now considered to make New Orleans hurricane-proof to Category 3 storms. Barriers are being completed to protect St. Petersburg, Russia, and Venice, Italy.

The heart of New York City could be protected in the same way. Moveable barriers, closed only when the city is threatened with major coastal flooding, could be placed at the upper end of the East River, across the Narrows and at the mouth of the Arthur Kill. Possibly, the latter two could be replaced with a single, longer barrier extending from Sandy Hook to the Rockaway peninsula. Modeling studies have demonstrated that the barriers would work. Four major engineering firms have presented conceptual designs and cost estimates for barriers at these locations. The estimated costs for these individual barriers range from $1 billion to $4.6 billion, with the total of the two or three needed less than $10 billion, comparable to other major infrastructure projects planned or underway.

Figure 3. Proposed hurricane storm surge barrier for New York City near the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Image credit: Arcadis, Inc.

But unlike the original, the 2010 revision of plaNYC, the City's principal planning document, makes no reference to storm surge barriers. The City's latest plans are seen in the March 2011 Vision 2020: NYC Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, which calls not for protecting the waterfront, but for climate "resilience," the ability to withstand and recover from the disaster. Unfortunately, this may be the best that can be done for those living in the coastal sections of the boroughs that face the Atlantic Ocean.

So the Great Evacuation of August 2011 is a test. In its postmortem on the storm on September 5, the New York Times concluded that "by almost any measure, the evacuation was a success," but it did not report on the principal measure. How many people were left behind? Unlike New Orleans after Katrina, we won't know by counting the bodies. Not this time, anyway.

Douglas Hill, EngScD, P.E., Stony Brook University

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