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1 year after Sandy, bruised city sees long, expensive road to resiliency

NEW YORK -- The anniversary of Superstorm Sandy makes landfall here next week, prompting the question: Is New York City better prepared to cope with a massive storm event one year later? The simple answer, experts say, is yes and no.

On long-term planning, sources in city government, academia and industry say the city has enacted a series of proposals that could go a long way toward protecting against future mega-storms. But in the short term, the harder truth is that not much has changed.

The storm itself was unprecedented. It knocked out power in lower Manhattan for a week, burned down houses in Queens, hammered the city's coast, flooded the subway and caused widespread fuel shortages at a cost of $19 billion in citywide damage.

The resulting policy frenzy produced a long-term $20 billion "climate resiliency" plan from outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- a signature proposal that stands as his final public statement on global warming and the more intense storms said to result from it.

It has also left a region still wounded from the experience and still digging out, especially in lower-income, outer-borough neighborhoods that continue to wait for insurance dollars and federal relief. In sum, Sandy remains an event New Yorkers are not likely to forget anytime soon.

Steve Cohen, executive director at Columbia University's Earth Institute, said if another Sandy ripped through the city next week, the results could be the same because the levees, embankments and barriers envisioned by Bloomberg are not yet built. But 10 years from now, in his view, the city is more likely to be prepared because of the policies put forward, assuming the funding and political will persist to move them ahead.

"Certain parts of reconstruction have worked well and certain parts have not," he said. "Many of these steps are going to take a long time. You wouldn't expect a year after that this stuff would have been done by now."

Another keen observer on city policies, Klaus Jacob of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was asked whether the city is better off a year later. He bluntly replied, "No."

"Engineered solutions take time, and engineering and time take money, and money takes political will," he said. "All of the above except time so far are in short supply."

Jacob added: "That does not mean that many people haven't thought very hard about what is the best thing to do."

Quick fixes? Not so many

In terms of hot spots, the immediate reaction has been a mixed bag. Consolidated Edison has beefed up defenses around its lower Manhattan substation on 14th Street -- the collapse of which caused the blackout -- with higher concrete walls and new sump pumps. But much of the region's fuel distribution network remains essentially unchanged: Of the city's 56 fuel terminals, which distribute gasoline, only two or three have been enhanced to protect against floods, according to AAA New York.

The story is just as mixed for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's sprawling subway system. Work continues to bring East River tunnels flooded during the storm back to standard operation -- with projects expected to continue through 2016 -- but little has been done so far to actually keep future floodwaters out of low-lying stations.

The good news is more likely found in direct, local action and public awareness. The problem with gas distribution had largely to do with power shortages, for instance, so many gas stations in the city have purchased backup generators in case electricity shuts down again.

Dan Zarrilli, director of the city's resiliency campaign, acknowledged the fuel issue but said there is little the city can do to affect the regional distribution hub or bottlenecks in the system. He noted that most of the fuel infrastructure is outside the five boroughs, so he urged federal authorities to press the matter with states and industry.

"We need to make everyone more involved; it's more than just the city," he said.

Rae Zimmerman, a professor of planning and public administration at New York University, said this area identifies a weakness in how all the strategies, plans and programs interact, especially as tactile memory of the storm recedes.

"The city will need to find a mechanism to reach out to the many entities that are not under its control, such as authorities and private businesses, to integrate the vital roles these play," she said. "Each new disaster brings them a little closer to one another."

Zarrilli also rejected the notion that short-term steps haven't made the city more prepared. He cited ongoing work at the Rockaways by the Army Corps of Engineers to place 3.5 million cubic yards of sand on the beach there by next May and noted improvements to Consolidated Edison's infrastructure and telecommunications systems.

Wish list for long-term defenses

Telecom seems to stand out for having responded quickly. AT&T says it has plans for more generators and 700 "plug-ins" that can keep cellphone towers running, while Verizon Wireless points out that 98 percent of its cellphone antennas were back up just a few days after the storm.

Otherwise, Zarrilli sought to focus on the long-term resiliency plan at a cost of $20 billion, of which his office says $15.5 billion has already been "identified." It would likely come from a mix of federal, state and private sources.

"We've laid out what we think is a comprehensive and cost-effective approach to providing protection," he said, "with the recognition that we can't make the city climate-proof but we can make it climate-ready."

On electricity, other direct steps include elevating the 14th Street circuit breaker that tripped the fire that led to the blackout and spending $240 million on the 13 substations deemed most vulnerable to storm surges. Consolidated Edison in all wants to spend $1 billion or more on more defenses for its infrastructure, but how it will finance those projects is a lingering problem.

The utility has filed for rate increases to collect the $1 billion over four years, but that proposal is still pending before the New York Public Service Commission. In all, the utility has spent just $65 million on actual hardening of its infrastructure in year one after Sandy, with $457 million spent on "normalizing the system" after the storm.

That's a far cry from misstated news reports that claim ConEd has spent $550 million to prepare for the next storm to date. Most of that money was spent on recovery and cleanup.

"The work obviously continues," said Allen Drury, a ConEd spokesman, explaining that the company will spend $240 million to protect its substations, $200 million on burying power lines underground and $100 million on isolation switches to isolate certain parts of the power grid during a major storm -- if the utility gets its rate increase approved.

Zarrilli said the city supports ConEd's direction and seemed to back the rate increase.

"We encourage them to keep it up," he said. "They're making the right investments."

Elsewhere, many see evidence of bureaucratic bungling and laziness. Cohen of the Earth Institute credits the city for emergency response and the basic mechanics of good local government, which was keeping people safe and restoring normal order. He also believes Bloomberg policies on changing building codes and shoring up the shoreline are positives, and he credits ConEd with beefing up its substations.

But in other respects, Cohen sees a recovery limping along. Many homes in lower-income communities have not been rebuilt, and Cohen blames the federal agency behind doling out the funding -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- for performing poorly.

"You see this in all these disaster areas," he said. "We're very good at getting people out of harm's way but bad at reconstruction."

Home reconstruction stalled

This question of recovery funding is testy here and sparked a confrontation between the candidates to replace Bloomberg just this week. Democrat Bill de Blasio has been criticized for saying he would use federal Sandy recovery money already passed by Congress on job creation, public housing and health care -- an issue he was on the defensive about during a midweek debate timed two weeks before the election.

De Blasio, ahead in the polls by a wide margin, explained that he would support using the money -- $648 million of which sits unspent -- to help improve public housing and create jobs for those most affected by Sandy, in heavily damaged Staten Island and the coastal Rockaways section.

"We have to do a lot with that federal money coming in," De Blasio said. "It's a crucial moment in this city to get some things right."

To his opponent, Republican Joe Lhota, that was code for diverting the $648 million, which is specifically earmarked to help rebuild homes, to de Blasio's pet issues.

"It's going to destroy the entire process," Lhota warned.

The $648 million is part of a $60 billion aid package passed by Congress in January. The money for home reconstruction has been hung up by what some call a burdensome bureaucratic process established after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In all, the city expects to spend about $1.8 billion on clearing storm debris left by Sandy and rebuilding homes. Most of that is expected to be reimbursed by the federal government.

Cohen thinks he knows what the problem is: FEMA and the policies behind it. He says the agency has been poorly funded on the mitigation end since the George W. Bush administration and believes Congress should create a reconstruction fund.

"The federal government has been disgusting on this," he said. "There needs to be regular reconstruction money that doesn't have to go to Congress every time there's a disaster."

As for the other major infrastructure hot spot, the subway system, the agency in charge says it is still focused on bringing the system back to normal. MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz described an unprecedented level of damage to the nine tunnels that flooded during the storm under the East River given salt water's tendency to destroy metal.

He said hundreds of thousands of miles of cables, switches and signals had to be examined after the storm, which saw 90 million gallons of water soaked into the nine tunnels alone. MTA also had to cope with the entire washout of the Rockaways line along Jamaica Bay, which took seven months to bring back into service after construction of a sheet wall to prevent future washouts.

Work also continues on the R and G lines into Brooklyn, both of which have been severely limited ever since the storm.

"That's been the focal point of our efforts, to really get the system back to where it was the day before the storm," Ortiz said. "Anytime you have metal submerged under salt water for that length of time, it's going to cause problems."

Salt-soaked subways a high-priced challenge

Ortiz estimated the cost of the recovery work at $4.7 billion, $3.8 billion of which is expected from the Federal Transit Administration. The expense is in many ways due to the age of the infrastructure, much of it built about a century ago.

Still, Ortiz was upbeat about all the work and insisted MTA is better prepared today than it was in October 2012. He hit on a theme that is prevalent throughout government circles: that what the city learned from the Sandy experience is valuable in and of itself.

"We are better off at this point compared to last year before the storm," he said. "We know where our vulnerabilities are."

Jacob has studied the subway system extensively and stressed that the primary challenge for MTA will be capital funding. He estimated it will cost more than $10 billion to fix the entire system and harden the stations most likely to flood.

Like Ortiz, Jacob noted the age of the system, explaining that the subway was not constructed in uniform fashion. That means some parts of the city will do just fine with the ventilation grates and shafts that enable air circulation in the system, while other sections might have to be shut off and equipped with giant fans -- or have entrances made watertight with floodgates or other barriers.

"It's a tricky engineering problem that has to be carefully designed and financed and tested," he said. "That takes a decade."

Still another concern is how the city's 100-year flood zone maps have been revised, which likely means escalating insurance premiums for homeowners unlucky enough to live within the zone.

Vivien Gornitz, a scientist at Columbia University and member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, said she likes all the work already completed on "buffer zones" around the city -- such as promenades, bicycle paths and "living shorelines" -- but worries that FEMA caused confusion with its preliminary work maps issued in June.

"The implication is that these will not be the final maps, so homeowners are in a limbo as to how they should rebuild," she said, adding in an email that "since the mayor's resiliency plan is so comprehensive and ambitious (also very costly!), the big question is how much of it will eventually be carried out by his successors."

That is the final question, which looms over the upcoming election. While some have suggested the new mayor might not have the ability or will to drive the issue like Bloomberg, the current mayor's aides are optimistic both de Blasio and Lhota will take the issue as seriously as they claimed they would during this week's debate.

"It's going to be a challenge because Bloomberg has the mystique of his personal fortune," Cohen said. "This proof will be in the performance."

Zarrilli said, "There's no reason why these items can't move forward, so shame on us if we can't get this done."

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