With a little over three months left in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to release a task force report on how the city should immediately respond to the death and destruction visited by rains caused by Hurricane Ida earlier this month.
The storm, which caused 13 deaths in the city, revealed the extent of the threat the city faces from inland flooding from heavy rains after a decade of focus on the city’s coastline in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
The report comes as the de Blasio administration has faced criticism from City Council members and climate resiliency experts on the extent of its efforts in adapting city infrastructure to climate change.
As Climate Week events take place around the city, de Blasio has announced two major sustainable energy projects — including new transmission lines meant to provide city government with renewable electricity, and installing hundreds of electric vehicle charging stations — but no infrastructure initiatives.
At a Tuesday news conference, de Blasio said he sees emissions reductions efforts as more effective ways to combat climate change.
“We can do all the mitigation in the world. We could try and redo our entire sewer system, which would cost a massive, massive amount of money,” de Blasio said. “But the very best thing we can be doing is going for the root cause, and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, rapidly, quickly. That's the best way to address extreme weather once and for all.”
De Blasio has said that the task force report, set to be released Monday, focuses on near-term changes to how the city identifies and prepares the city and its residents for extreme weather events.
Those changes are relatively inexpensive, a useful feature when the city has no guarantees of new federal resiliency dollars coming soon, and passed a budget earlier this summer that is already seeing concern over billions in out-year funding gaps from budget watchdogs.
Yet experts in adaptation, resilient design and policy say that the city desperately needs big and immediate overhauls to infrastructure, from sewers to streets to rooftops, that are within de Blasio’s power to get underway before the end of his mayoralty — and that the city needs to figure out how to start funding such changes on its own.
“The time for small thinking is over,” said Rob Freudenberg, vice president of the Regional Plan Association’s environment and energy programs.
‘There’s a lot we can do now’
De Blasio convened the task force the day after the rains from Hurricane Ida, and it includes leaders from 20 city agencies and offices, including climate resiliency, emergency management, buildings, environmental protection, immigrant affairs, community affairs and housing.
De Blasio said Tuesday that he has already received a preliminary briefing on the report.
“It’s very powerful, in my view,” he said. “There’s a lot we can do now.”
Resiliency experts say that de Blasio has pointed to a few key changes the city needs to make, such as going into high alert ahead of rain storms with the potential for sudden, hyperlocal deluges, known as cloudbursts, and treating them with the same response level as a blizzard.
“That’s the top level lesson of Ida,” said Rohit Aggarwala, director of long-term planning and sustainability under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “When a rainstorm like that hits the city, you have to put normal life on hold.”
In a report published Tuesday by the planning firm Rebuild By Design, Jason Volk, CEO of the emergency alert software company Alertus Technologies, says that state and federal governments should allow cities to make use of advances in mobile technology to direct such warnings to vulnerable neighborhoods. During Ida, mobile alerts for flash flooding went out citywide, even though they can now be pinpointed down to within the range of one-tenth of a mile, Volk wrote.
Using that technology to alert residents to flash floods also depends on improving forecasting, which would also require federal assistance, de Blasio said.
Combined, those changes would avoid the kind of notification fatigue that could sensitize residents to alerts, Aggarwala said: “That’s the boy who cried wolf problem.”
But the city needs to think even bigger, the experts say, even beyond so-called “green infrastructure” initiatives that emphasize replacing asphalt and concrete with surfaces that absorb water, and increasing both curbside and rooftop gardens.
Those efforts are crucial to taking every bit of water off the street we can, said Steven Cohen, director of sustainability research at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. But after a month of rains that saturated the city, green infrastructure would only have been able to hold part of Ida’s rain.
The city needs to quickly build large underground storage tanks for water, as Tokyo has, Cohen said, and expand its sewer capacity to prevent stormwater from overwhelming sewer systems and pushing sewage waste into waterways. About 60% of the city sewer system relies on pipes that transport both sewage waste and stormwater together.
Without those investments, Cohen said, “all the progress preventing pollution is literally down the toilet.”
The city should rethink the urban landscape altogether as a network for moving water out of the city safely, Freudenberg said.
“What if we did remove a lane of traffic and created a stream, a way to move stormwater at a higher capacity than green infrastructure could?” he said.
The mayor has wide latitude under the city charter to reshape city streets this way, such as by removing parking to add a block-long rain garden, Freudenberg said, and now is the moment to make use of that power.
“These are the moments where politics and leadership can align to do things that normally you couldn't do,” he said.
Finding the funding, preserving the will
Yet even with a grand vision, money to support it is uncertain. The city says that every dollar of the $15 billion in federal post-Sandy relief and resiliency funding is attached to a project, though just under half of it remains to be spent in construction.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency is taking applications from individual homeowners and businesses for damages caused by Ida, it has not revealed any plans for major grants to the city itself for new adaptation projects. De Blasio, as well as resiliency experts, are counting on the federal infrastructure bill to funnel billions to the city for such initiatives, but the bill’s future in Congress is now murky.
Part of the answer, experts say, is asking city residents to help cover the costs of upgrading the city.
That could be done in part by overhauling the rate payment structure for water, Kate Boicourt, the regional director for coasts and watersheds at the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote in the Rebuild By Design report. The city, she said, should ask higher income families to pay higher rates, so as to offset costs for low-income families, and offer reduced rate incentives to developers to install green infrastructure on private land.
Raising costs on residents is politically unpopular, Cohen notes, but necessary.
“If we don't do it, we’re just gonna be sitting ducks for the next big one,” he said.
The report’s success, however, will depend on how well the administration implements the findings and recommendations, according to Aggarwala.
New York City has already been hobbled in its climate response by bad timing, Aggarwala said: Superstorm Sandy struck in the final months of Bloomberg’s term, interrupting and ultimately slowing the city’s response in the transition between administrations. Ida, the city’s deadliest climate event since Sandy, may present the same challenge.
“So the real question is, how can you make real deadlines and real commitments to hold this next administration accountable for it?” Aggarwala said.