In the wake of the city’s abysmal response to the Boxing Day Snowstorm, Mayor Bloomberg and his administration have been taken to task by the local papers and the citizens of the city. Bloomberg’s approval rating currently stands at an all-time low of 37 percent. Last night, in their first show of the new year, Saturday Nigh Live went after Bloomberg in their cold open, and today’s New York Post includes at least two articles going after City Hall for how they handled the snowstorm.
With all this commotion about snow not plowed, where the mayor was, and who was overseeing the city’s response to the storm, a story that is critical to long-term safety of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers has slipped through the cracks.
Last week, New York state’s Sea Level Rise Task Force released a report on how to address rising sea levels. In the next 20 years, New York Harbor is expected to rise 2 to 5 inches. For some perspective, over the last 150 years, sea levels in the city have risen over 15 inches.
DNAinfo.com reports that late last year, the task force released a preliminary report calling for “extra regulatory hurdles for development projects in potential flood zones and [to] encourage local governments to move critical infrastructure elsewhere.” The Bloomberg came out against the panel’s initial findings, for proposing rules and regulations that they believed would hurt the region’s economy. In a letter sent to the Department of Environmental Conservation, Adam Freed, the deputy mayor of the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning, argued that the recommendations “have the potential to add substantial costs and time to development projects and infrastructure investments.” Translating that from bureaucratese into English, Freed and the Bloomberg administration seem intent on saving some money today and leave the expected cost of rising sea levels on these developments to a future New York. This is a dangerous bet that will come back to haunt New York in the coming decades.
All of this seemed strikingly familiar. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions. In March of 2007, at the halfway point of what was supposed to be Mayor Bloomberg’s last term, the Village Voice’s Wayne Barrett turned a leery eye to Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, a roadmap of goals for the city to reach by 2030. Spearheading the project for City Hall was deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff. Barrett’s critique of the plan was that in an era of rising sea levels and global warming, an issue Bloomberg acknowledges, the city was rushing to development burgeoning residential neighborhoods along the city’s at risk waterways.
At the time, these developments were happening across the city. In places like
Manhattan’s Far West Side, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Red Hook, DUMBO, and in the Rockaway section of Queens. At the same time City Hall was leading the city’s charge to place more and more residents in flood plains, the man behind the plan, was grossly underselling the expected rise in sea levels. In 2007, Doctoroff was touting water levels rising by just five-tenths of an inch by 2020. Not quite. At the time, the city’s environmental consultant told the Village Voice the current projections predicted a rise of five inches. Barrett points out that end of century predictions are of two to three feet increases and these figures don’t include the impact of melting ice caps on sea levels.
Now, in 2011, the Bloomberg administration, in its third term, is still pushing forward with a desire for unabated development, even if it puts these projects in dangerous flood zones. It isn’t as if the Bloomberg administration is blind to the future problems. Their solution, instead of building further inland or providing more checks to ensure residential safety and protect property from destruction, is to install storm surge barriers. With massive municipal budget cuts sweeping the city, one wonders where the city will get the funds to pay for these projects. Or would they, like promises of affordable housing in those new waterfront developments in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, never materialize after assurances they were in the pipeline?
The state panel rejected this suggestion in the belief that the barriers are too expensive and haven’t been proven fully necessary. The group released its final report to Governor Cuomo, which is non-binding, on December 31. It included the regulations and rules that the Bloomberg administration opposed. In the report, the panel wrote, “ The likelihood that powerful storms will hit New York State’s coastline is very high, as is the associated threat to human life and coastal infrastructure.”
With rampant development having occurred along the city’s shorelines in the last decade, the two most ominous figures should give all pause. The first, coming from Barrett’s 2007 article is from a 2000 FEMA study. it predicted one in four buildings within 500 feet of the coast will be lost to sea-level rise. That figure does not take into consideration property lost from storm surges. This is especially jarring when we consider the second figure. DNAinfo reports that 215,000 New Yorkers already live in areas that have a 1 percent chance of flooding each year. As sea levels rise and more people flock to new developments that, even in this economy continue unabated, the chance of flooding will increase at the same time the number of people impacted rises.
At the beginning of 2011, Mayor Bloomberg is being taken to task for the government’s response to a storm that they had a few days to prepare for as it moved toward the east coast. Future historians will judge Bloomberg, his deputies, and this crop of bureaucrats based on their willful ignorance of a different type of storm. One that they were warned about, but instead of earnestly preparing the city for, they blasted full stead ahead blatantly disregarding the consequences on public safety and the city’s livelihood. This will be Bloomberg’s legacy.