ADAPTATION:

Bloomberg details $20B vision for defending NYC against storms

NEW YORK -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg yesterday proposed spending upward of $20 billion on adaptation programs and projects in a sweeping 430-page report meant to stand as New York City's defense blueprint against extreme weather and climate change.

In what was his most significant address on the subject, the independent mayor said he was hoping to continue or start work on no less than 250 recommendations related to storms, flooding and global warming before leaving office at the end of this year. He vowed to not let his lame-duck status as an outgoing, three-term mayor stop him from establishing a process could govern the city's adaptation plans for decades to come.

The mayor delivered his speech at Brooklyn's Navy Yard, a symbolic choice because of how hard the low-lying area was hit during Superstorm Sandy. Among the proposed projects are man-made islands on the outer edges of New York, 15-to-20-foot levees to protect Staten Island, removable flood walls in Lower Manhattan and sea gates in Brooklyn.

The plan then calls for a system of dunes and beefed-up waterfronts along the city's natural coastal defenses -- in regions like the Rockaways and Breezy Point that were devastated during Sandy and have yet to fully recover. Bloomberg also wants to see levees and bulkheads close to South Street Seaport on the tip of Lower Manhattan and a movable city built there much like Battery Park City, in an attempt to transform Lower Manhattan's ability to blunt storms.

Beyond hardening infrastructure, Bloomberg proposed a $1.2 billion joint federal-state project with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help New Yorkers flood-proof homes and commercial buildings. The mayor also wants to revise housing codes and insurance bylaws to lower premiums for any work done on homes and buildings to prepare for floods, creating incentives for work that elevates homes or moves boilers and electrical systems out of basements.

More New Yorkers to live in floodplain

Bloomberg acknowledged that nobody knows if and when another Sandy will hit New York, but he vowed to help the city start protecting itself out of his personal conviction that man-made climate change is real and likely to lead to further extreme events.

"If and when a storm arrives in the future, it's going to find a very different New York," he said.

Bloomberg added that much of the real work will fall on a generation of politicians that will follow his administration, but he pledged to jump-start a process that may force lawmakers to hew to his blueprint closely, whether they like it or not.

"Much of the work will extend far beyond the next 203 days we have in our administration," he said. "We'll use every one of the next 203 days to get as much work as possible underway."

Detachable platforms and barriers are also part of the plan, to be built in Brooklyn's Red Hook and low-lying neighborhoods like Chinatown, the Lower East Side and East Harlem in Manhattan. Bloomberg said these platforms would extend flood perimeters as they do in Battery Park City with porous green infrastructure backing them up to help reroute stormwater to emergency sewers.

The recommendations were produced by a group of scientists -- the New York City Panel on Climate Change -- commissioned by Bloomberg to study infrastructure following the storm last year. Earlier this week, that group estimated that 800,000 New Yorkers will live in the 100-year floodplain by midcentury, up from less than 400,000 today by federal estimates.

The group also noted that New York saw an average of 18 days a year above 90 degrees Fahrenheit between 1971 and 2000. The scientists believe this number will rise to 33 days a year above 90 degrees by the 2020s and 57 days by 2050.

A new office, a new plan

It was against that backdrop that Bloomberg made his remarks. He warned the audience in Brooklyn to take heed and follow his plan, which will be overseen by a newly created Office of Resiliency within New York's long-term planning agency.

"We've got a plan; we know what needs to happen," Bloomberg said. "It's up to you to hold our successor accountable for getting it done."

But just where the entirety of the $20 billion will come from is anyone's guess. The likelihood seems to be that federal appropriations would have to foot the bill, and Bloomberg urged New York's congressional delegation to stay after the funding issue in Washington, D.C.

Observers of the speech gave the mayor credit for setting high goals, but some wondered if all the projects would really come to pass.

Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he hoped Bloomberg's plan would lead to other cities and governments following suit. He warned that New York and other cities could face dangerous heat waves and storms if they do not prepare -- or if they do not act to lower carbon emissions, as New York has done under Bloomberg.

"Other cities, states and the federal government should be like Mike and start making plans to adapt their infrastructure, their building codes, their protective structures, their power grids, their emergency procedures and all the rest," Lehner said, before adding that they should not "do what the state of North Carolina did last year, which was to enact a law that prevents all state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents that consider the possibility of a significant rise in sea levels."

Looking for federal backup

But to Lehner and others in the environmental community, adaptation on its own isn't enough. He urged governments to attack "the source of climate change" by lowering carbon emissions and poked at President Obama in particular to get going on power-plant regulations.

"Six months have passed since President Obama won re-election and promised to do something about power plants," Lehner said. "It will take all the time he has left to develop and implement a plan."

Rachel Cleetus, an economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the Bloomberg plan and the costs associated with it demonstrate that "solutions are neither cheap nor easy." She urged Congress to help fund adaptation projects and authorize funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update flood maps not only for big cities like New York but for smaller communities that can't afford such work.

Shaye Wolf, climate science director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the plan is all well and good for a wealthier city like New York with political pull, "but who is looking out for the rest of America?"

"President Obama needs to step up and offer a bold national strategy for reducing extreme weather dangers by cutting greenhouse gas pollution," Wolf said.

Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, was focused on parts of the plan that have received less attention, including proposals on information sharing and communication that might help avoid the kind of fuel supply crisis that enveloped New York after Sandy hit. Bordoff said the plan will "facilitate faster post-emergency restoration efforts" as well as coordination among federal, state and local agencies.

Others close to New York politics saw the far-reaching plan as Bloomberg's last-gasp attempt to cement his legacy and continue to influence city policies after he leaves office.