New York

5 years after Sandy, are we better prepared?

'Each year we don’t get a hurricane here we know we’ve dodged a bullet'
Workers deploy a Kevlar flood curtain to an entrance of Consolidated Edison's 14th Street facility in New York on Oct. 24, 2017.
Workers deploy a Kevlar flood curtain to an entrance of Consolidated Edison's 14th Street facility in New York on Oct. 24, 2017.

NEW YORK — At 8:30 p.m. on a Monday, millions of residents of the most man-made landscape in the United States were reminded how powerless they were against the forces of nature.

Hurricane Sandy shoved the East River across the FDR Drive onto the streets of Manhattan, reducing the ostensible hub of the universe to a blacked-out, waterlogged, immobile shambles. The extraordinary storm surge swamped Consolidated Edison’s power plant at 14th Street along its way to filling multiple ZIP codes with waist-deep brine, plunging Manhattan from Midtown south to the Financial District into darkness for days.

Transit systems were crippled, hospitals could not function and public-housing complexes had no working boilers or elevators.

Five years after Hurricane Sandy struck on Oct. 29, 2012, much of the region’s inundated infrastructure has been repaired and some of it has been improved. But most of the big plans to stormproof New York City remain just that: plans. And throughout the planning, the city has continued to advance toward the water, with glass high-rises stretching across the riverfront in Queens, Brooklyn and the Far West Side of Manhattan.

“Each year we don’t get a hurricane here we know we’ve dodged a bullet,” said Robert Freudenberg, the vice president for energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, an urban research group. “We’re racing the clock still to try and prepare for another storm like Sandy.”

The east end of 14th Street in Manhattan provides a telling portal into the breadth of the damage Sandy wrought and what has and has not yet been done to brace for the next big storm.

Con Edison’s power plant has stood there, within 50 yards of the water’s edge, for more than 90 years. It supplies electricity and steam to more than 250,000 customers, including banks on Wall Street and subsidized apartment towers on the Lower East Side. Beneath it, the L subway line carries overcrowded trains to and from Brooklyn.

Flooding had not been much of a problem there until Sandy’s storm surge exceeded predictions and washed away sand bags and rushed over floodgates. Within minutes the water was seeping into the plant’s nerve center.

A bright flash that could be seen from Brooklyn signaled the failure of a substation on the site and heralded the long blackout that began minutes later. More than 7 million gallons of salt water poured into the Canarsie Tunnel, which carries L trains under the East River. Twelve blocks north, the sprawling Bellevue Hospital Center complex, New York’s flagship public hospital, had to be evacuated for the first time because it had no power, elevator service or drinking water.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to close the Canarsie Tunnel for an overhaul of its interior in 2019 that will take more than a year and suspend service between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The agency’s $7.6 billion program in response to Sandy has included installing submarine doors, Kevlar curtains and mechanical gates to plug more than 3,000 openings into the subway below 14th Street.

Joseph J. Lhota, the chairman of the transportation authority, said, “We looked for every possible area where water could come in and we sealed it, or we will seal it.” When Sandy struck, the only defenses the subway system had were plywood and sandbags, he said.

“We learned our lesson,” Lhota said.

At Bellevue, a wall will be built behind the hospital as part of a flood barrier along the East River. “We would really rather shelter in place than evacuate,” said Roslyn Weinstein, a vice president of operations for NYC Health & Hospitals, the city’s public health system.

Today, the Con Ed plant has several layers of defenses against even worse flooding than Sandy delivered. Much of the critical equipment has been raised, some as high as 35 feet. A second-story control room is replacing the old one at ground level.

Forty-five doorways have been outfitted with 10-foot-tall curtains made of Kevlar that can be deployed in minutes. The utility installed a submarine door that can seal off a tunnel that runs under the highway to the river, which originally was used to shuttle coal from barges.

“Our belief now is if Sandy were to recur, we would be able to remain in service,” said Lou Villani, Con Ed’s chief engineer.

But, water from the river could still rush past the plant and into the streets and basements of the surrounding neighborhoods because the idea of building berms around Lower Manhattan is still in the planning stages. The first phase of that plan, known as the Big U, would involve installing walls and gates attached to existing structures, like the elevated FDR highway.

Daniel A. Zarrilli, the city’s chief resilience officer, said officials hope to start construction on that segment, estimated to cost $740 million, by the end of next year. He said it would take several years to complete.

“There’s the need for greater flood protection in New York City,” Zarrilli said, calling it “a real vulnerability that we’re working every day to solve.”

The city is not planning with Sandy alone in mind, but for more powerful and more frequent storms, Zarrilli said. In most cases, projects are designed for flooding 3 feet above the federal government’s projection for a once-in-a-century deluge.

In some places in the region, including the PATH commuter train station at Exchange Place in Jersey City, fortifications have been designed to hold back floods as much as 5 feet above that level. Images from 2012 of the overflowing Hudson River rushing down that station’s escalators are etched in the memory of Michael Marino, who runs the PATH system for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

“We had 13 million gallons of salt water in there,” Marino said, pointing toward platforms where commuters awaited a train to the World Trade Center. “Salt is a carcinogen. It’s like a cancer to a rail system.”

The station, just steps from the river’s edge, appears nearly as vulnerable today. But the Port Authority intends to replace the glass revolving doors and windows that surround the turnstiles with a 7-foot-high concrete wall and aquarium glass several inches thick, said Josh DeFlorio, the Port Authority’s chief of resilience and sustainability.

Inside, it will have two Kevlar curtains, similar to ones that Con Ed and the transportation authority have installed — “It’s like a bulletproof vest wrapped into a Zodiac raft,” DeFlorio said.

The New York City Housing Authority is knee-deep in work after a slow start. About 400 public housing buildings operated by the agency in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan with 80,000 residents were damaged by the storm. But officials said they could only begin tapping their $3 billion in federal relief aid for 33 sites less than two years ago.

And since the sites are different and the resiliency work new, they also had to plan and design each project. The work ranges from flood barriers that double as benches to a system of backup generators serving more than 200 buildings. Everything is expected to be completed by 2021.

At the Coney Island Houses in Brooklyn, portable boilers sit in a large white trailer. While there have been emergency repairs and cleanup, major construction on long-term resiliency projects did not begin until May and will not be completed until 2019. Contractors are erecting five buildings for the boilers and electrical systems, installing backup generators on the roof and reinforcing first-floor facades and basement walls. In total, the Housing Authority will invest $86.5 million in this one aging development.

But Melissa Jones, 36, a home health care aide, said the pace has been unbearable. “Coney Island Houses used to be beautiful and now it’s disgusting,’’ she said. “It hurts me because I grew up here.”

Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, said she has received dozens of complaints from residents in public housing on the Lower East Side. She said portable boilers in trailers send the wrong message — that the city does not care. “It’s been slow and frustrating and challenging,” she said.

Deborah Goddard, the Housing Authority’s executive vice president for capital projects, said work was progressing. “We have a lot of empathy for the time it’s taken,’’ she said, “but we’ve approached this with thoughtfulness, integrity and an eye for the future.”

After Sandy, NYC Health & Hospitals was awarded $1.7 billion in federal aid to repair and improve three of its 11 public hospitals — Bellevue, Coney Island and Metropolitan in Manhattan — and a skilled nursing center on Roosevelt Island. Since then, electrical systems and generators have been moved out of basements and elevators and loading docks protected with waterproof panels.

At Coney Island Hospital, where 260 patients had to be evacuated, an elevated trailer houses MRI and CT scan machines and a flood barrier surrounds the perimeter of the hospital while another one wraps around the first-floor emergency room. “We have protected the most vulnerable pieces,” Weinstein, of the public health system, said.

But the most ambitious work is still to come. At Coney Island Hospital a new building on higher ground will house the emergency room and critical patient services.

Near Bellevue, NYU Langone Medical Center, which had to evacuate 300 patients, got $1.1 billion in federal aid. But the privately-run hospital refused to say how it has spent that money, making it difficult to assess if the hospital is any better prepared today.

At New Jersey Transit, which had more than one-fourth of its fleet damaged in rail yards that Sandy swamped, officials are eager to discuss how they will avoid repeating that mistake. Steven H. Santoro, the transit agency’s executive director, said that by 2020 it will have a higher haven in central New Jersey. In the meantime, he said, the railroad is replacing substations and huts along the rails that contain electronic controls.

“Overall, we’re much better prepared for an event like Sandy,” Santoro said. “I can unequivocally say that we would recover faster than from Sandy.”

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