Hurricane Sandy Path Shows Need For Major New York City Infrastructure Improvements

Last August, Tropical Storm Irene barreled through the east coast and left over 1 million people without power (over 300,000 in the tri-state area alone), caused 50 deaths nationwide, and cost the nation over $15 billion — and that was over $1 billion in New York State when you take into account the amount of money that the MTA lost from shutting down its services. The effects were most devastating for New York state’s dairy farmers who suffered tremendously due to inundated feeds for their cattle and flooded routes that impeded dairy deliveries. But even with nearly 200 upstate family farms left under water, a quick glance at any native New Yorker’s Facebook newsfeed or New York City pub promotion ringed of a single motif: “Storms aren’t that serious here because New York is storm proof!”

But arrogance is an awfully expensive vice (or virtue). As Sandy continues her 800 mile voyage across the east coast and whistles at the speed of 75 miles per hour, it is time for New York to shed itself of its sense of natural disaster impalpability — which is the same mentality of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2011 blizzard blunder — and begin to get serious about truly creating a storm proof city that is technically structured the same way as the overly confident New Yorker boasts.

Following Tropical Storm Irene, I wrote a story that called for three basic undertakings to improve the City’s infrastructure and ensure that we shield ourselves from hurricanes, tropical storms and flooding: (1) improvements to our archaic plumbing system, (2) increased construction of soft infrastructure such as wetland edges and grass swales, and (3) pushing buildings to seek Leadership  in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification via green roof construction. Now that I am more acclimated with New York’s agriculture system, allow me to add (4) support for community farming initiatives as a much needed effort throughout the state.

The first suggestion is one that has been underway since the conception of New York’s civilization. New York’s outdated plumbing system — one that includes pipes that are over centuries old and have lead to busted water mains and emergency evacuations — needs an extreme makeover: celebrity edition. If our pipelines and sewer plumbing system is not up to snuff, then we will continue to emit 27 billion gallons of combined sewage overflows (CSO) into our waters. In case you don’t think CSOs are a pressing issue, just bear in mind that CSOs include the flowing of human and animal waste, over 40 identifiable disease causing pathogens, and storm runoff that passed through toxic metals and led into New York’s harbor.

Grass swale construction is another effective, yet admittedly less feasible, approach to making New York flood proof. Grass swales involve the use of vegetation and erosion resistant marshy lands in flood prone areas as a means to impede storm waters and filter pollutants. Building grass swales is cheap and easy; finding space in our crowded city and bottleneck traffic is another story.

While it may not be as practical in backed up highways like the Belt Parkway and the Gowanus Expressway, it is certainly wise to emphasize their construction along dairy delivery routes in the outer counties such as Westchester. In the meantime, areas of the city that is too crowded for grass swales should focus their energy on emphasizing green roofs as an effective way for City buildings to rack up the LEED points for certification. With the ability to soak in and filter 70% to 90% of the precipitation that falls on them during the summer and 25% to 40% during the winter depending on the vegetation that is used, green roofs are an ideal solution for New York City.

Another overdue push for New York State, particularly New York City, is stronger support for community supported agriculture (CSA) and local farming initiatives. Following Irene, Governor Andrew Cuomo committed over $1 million to matching up to 50 percent of the damage costs that New York farmers suffered under the hands of Irene. The US Department of Agriculture and, on a smaller scale, the Federal Emergency Management Agency also helps in providing emergency crop insurance for farmers. However, all of these measures are reactionary. A lot more can be done to preempt the inflation and devastation that America’s most forgotten, yet pivotal, industry undergoes with the turn of every tide and gusts of the wind. If the City would make it easier for local farmers to find land and funding for CSAs and local farming initiatives, then City grocers would not have to be hit hard every time an upstate and outer county delivery route closes down for flooding.

Unfortunately, the hustle and bustle of New York shuts us off from one another — so much so to the extent that a disaster isn’t an issue until it happens under our very own apartment roof. Most New Yorkers do not recognize how every storm can and will affect them, from the food in their fridge to the gas in their pumps. New Yorkers seem to have a hard time comprehending how a state that uses over 23 percent of its land for farming, receives roughly 80 percent of its local produce from upstate farms, and is among the top two dairy producers in the country can suffer during a natural disaster and directly affect their grocery bills; or how a plumbing system that religiously pumps gallons of CSO that have flown through city structure and old pipes into the Hudson will add an extra scoop of mercury and bacteria to their favorite seafood dish. Go figure.