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Sea-level rise poses expensive questions for New York City

NEW YORK -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg has given his city one of the most detailed and highly publicized plans to reduce carbon emissions and to adapt to rising sea levels and other risks posed by climate change.

He launched his program in 2007 and used it as a platform to vault into the chairmanship of C40, an international group of 40 big-city mayors determined to deal with the complex welter of climate issues they face. "Mayor Bloomberg is shaping the global dialogue and action on climate change in cities," boasts the latest version of New York City's plan, known as "PlaNYC."

While Mitt Romney and other major Republicans sow doubts about climate issues and many Democrats -- including at times President Obama -- have soft-pedaled them, Bloomberg's plans appear to confront the difficulties of climate change head-on. "The scientific evidence is irrefutable," PlaNYC says. "Rising sea levels are extremely likely," says the New York City Panel on Climate Change, appointed to advise the city on carrying out the plan.

Bloomberg has one built-in advantage. He oversees a city that has only one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions of the average U.S. city because New York has the largest underground subway and commuter train network in the United States. More than half of its densely packed population doesn't own a car.

But there is also a steep downside. Because New York City has more than 520 miles of coastline, it is among the top 10 port cities in the world that are most exposed to coastal flooding. Measured in terms of private property subject to damage from more potent storms and torrential rains that scientists predict are coming with climate change, the low-lying Big Apple ranks second in the world, with $2.3 trillion of property at risk, according to its own data.

About this report

Cities hold half the world's population and produce more than 70 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. While they have heightened risks from floods, storms and sea-level rise, they are often left out of national and global warming talks. This series shows how some are beginning their own plans to deal with a more hostile climate.


Previous stories in the report


Rising San Francisco Bay threatens the Silicon Valley high-tech mecca

MENLO PARK, Calif. -- The headquarters of Facebook sits on a sprawling campus beside San Francisco Bay, a scenic location with water bordering three sides.

The 57-acre site features two- and three-story office buildings in shades of red and orange, outdoor basketball hoops, and sofa-sized benches on large lawns. Just outside the property, however, is a reminder that this location has a major drawback.

A roughly 8-foot levee curves next to Facebook's land. Built when Sun Microsystems owned the spot in the 1970s, the grass-covered buttress holds back water from the east. Another barricade on the north blocks the daily high tide.

As seas rise because of climate change, however, those barriers won't be enough, said those studying options to protect California's Silicon Valley.

Facebook's site at 1 Hacker Way "is pretty much surrounded by tidal waters," said Eric Mruz, manager of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which abuts the social media giant's campus.


Superstorm Sandy settles long-standing argument over building a dune

MANTOLOKING, N.J. -- There's no light or heat on this strip of island shaped like a spaghetti strand six weeks after Superstorm Sandy sliced it into a string of shortened noodles with a burst of seawater that residents say hit their town (population 296) like a small tidal wave.

But other progress is happening fast, like changing people's minds about the need for a big sand wall to protect them from the ocean.

This small borough of cedar shake homes, many of them ruined, remains under an emergency evacuation order, and residents are able to cross a bridge from the mainland only after displaying a pass at a National Guard checkpoint. A roof, cars and whole houses are said to be somewhere at the bottom of the bay crossed by the bridge. Residents must leave the island every day before the sun drops behind the two-story piles of homes turned to sticks.

This middle point of the Jersey Shore sustained powerful winds during Sandy, but it was the bulging ocean that raked this quarter-mile-wide section of island. All the town's 562 buildings were damaged, and 134 homes will need to be bulldozed, according to Lt. John Barcas, a local police official. Those are the ones that still stand. An additional 60 homes and buildings disappeared during the storm, leaving "no evidence" of them, he said.

"The ones that survived had a decent dune in front of them," explained Barcas, who huddled on the top floor of a mainland business during Sandy with about 20 people he helped rescue from a flooded road. "The ones that didn't learned that they need a decent dune."


Scenic city debates erecting barriers as sea levels rise

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- On a gray morning just after dawn, Andy Haub hopped off his bike and walked to where this capital city hits the sea. From the end of a pathway built over the water, he looked out on a marina filled with boats.

The spot is one of Olympia's most popular, drawing hundreds of people on weekends, said Haub, city planning and engineering manager. Residents ride bikes here, shop the nearby farmers market and eat fresh seafood at Budd Bay Cafe. Tourists snap photographs with Washington's Puget Sound as backdrop.

But Haub, as he scanned the horizon, also envisioned a time when there might be a very different scene. Olympia's downtown in several places sits just inches above water, a precarious spot as climate change swells the seas. High tide already brings risk of flooding.

Leaders in this city of 46,000 people are investigating options for protection. They include erecting barricades around parts of Olympia.

"At some point in the future, I think it's inevitable to either erect walls or move out of downtown, given the projections for sea level rise that I've seen," said Haub, who is studying the issue for the city. "We're so close to the water now that it won't take much more water -- much more height of water -- to start flooding downtown."


Key West ponders a submerged future

KEY WEST, Fla. -- The director of airports here, Peter Horton, puffed a cigarette on a rooftop vantage point outside his office and watched a commercial jet taxiing below before takeoff.

The air was dry on this 90-degree summer day, but water was on Horton's mind. Several days of heavy rains had flooded the grassy infield abutting the runway in Key West International Airport.

For Horton, the water turning the infield into a soppy oval is more than just a nuisance. Because the pool consists of fresh water, it's turning the land into a natural nesting target for birds that pose a threat to incoming aircraft.

It used to be that the infield would rarely flood, and when it did, it would dry out in 48 hours. Now, the field floods several times a year, and the water remains for the better part of a week, Horton said.

"I've been here since 1988, and it's getting harder and harder to move the water out of here," said the 65-year-old Horton, speaking over the sound of roaring jet engines. "I'm very concerned about the long-term prognosis for this airport and the rest of Key West."


Boston to shrug aside climate risk, proceed with waterfront development

BOSTON -- This city's foremost environmental official yesterday said low-lying Beantown has no intention of backing away from waterfront development because of risks associated with sea-level rise and saltwater infiltration.

Jim Hunt, chief of environment for Boston, told attendees at a Ceres investor's conference that the city is "quietly" planning for climate change resiliency, but that does not mean rethinking a 1,000-acre project in the so-called Innovation District.

The district, on the south Boston waterfront within hailing distance of the Boston Harbor, has seen a remarkable transformation over the past two years since longtime Mayor Tom Menino (D) declared it a priority to attract business to the area.

Already home to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, the district -- once known for old, brick warehouses and its share of vacant lots -- has attracted businesses, restaurants, plans for a tower called the Watermark Seaport and the Westin hotel that is playing host to this week's Ceres conference. Ceres is a coalition of investors and environmental, social and public interest groups trying to create a greater awareness of climate change issues.

Hunt said Boston has already put climate risk policies into motion with new zoning laws that force buildings to take sea level rise and other factors into account. But that acknowledgement will not deter Menino from pushing forward in south Boston, he said.

"We're not going to stop development," Hunt said. "We are going to develop it."


'City of the Big Shoulders' struggles against Mother Nature

CHICAGO -- This largest of American lakefront cities has long relied on feats of engineering to keep its sewage away from Lake Michigan, its primary freshwater resource and recreational crown jewel.

In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the Chicago River's flow, sending wastewater from homes, businesses and streets west toward the Illinois and Mississippi rivers rather than continue to foul the city's waterfront along what today is Lakeshore Drive.

As Chicago grew over the next 110 years, so did its sewers -- morphing from a rudimentary straight-pipe sewage system into something far more complex, if only moderately cleaner. The conduit for the new plumbing system was the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which linked the Chicago and Calumet rivers to the Mississippi, which provided a trench for Chicago's wastewater to flow downstream.

Today's sewer network, built and maintained by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, is a behemoth among urban wastewater collection systems. Girded by more than 109 miles of deep underground pipe, Chicago's massive "Tunnel and Reservoir Plan" (TARP) ranks among the nation's largest public works projects, both in term of scale and cost, estimated at $3.58 billion.

But questions remain as to whether -- having installed all this -- Chicago can keep up with the increasingly stringent demands of Mother Nature, especially as climate change ushers in greater weather instability marked by repeated record precipitation events.


Philadelphia uses tough love to overhaul its water and sewer system

PHILADELPHIA -- The day Stuart Parmet's water bill hit the stratosphere, his mind became a swirl of numbers.

American Box and Recycling Co., his business, gathers, recycles and distributes cardboard boxes. The factory only had a dozen or so toilets and used no water in the machinery. What was going on?

"One day we get a bill, out of the clear blue sky, that 'your bill will go from $300 in 2009, $1,100 in 2010, $2,400 in 2011, up to $3,900 in 2013,'" he said. These were monthly charges -- he estimated the annual cost at $70,000. "That's five times my real estate bill, and I thought it was a joke."

As Parmet fired irate phone calls to the city, he learned that Philadelphia's $2 billion, 25-year water plan was under way. It aimed to cleanse the city's waterways of urban pollution in compliance with state and federal law. Another objective was to make Philadelphia more resilient to heavy storms and flooding.

To pay for that, though, the Philadelphia Water Department was fundamentally changing how it assessed water bills. Where Parmet had traditionally paid for his water use, now he was also going to have to pay for what happened to the water after he used it.


Houston tackles storm and population surges in its customary ways

HOUSTON -- Standing in her kitchen, here, Michelle Dugan shows off the electronic gadget that might help her save on the substantial heating and cooling bills for her drafty, 120-year-old home.

A small touch-screen monitor on the energy-tracking device her utility, Reliant Energy, gave her allows Dugan's family to follow the energy consumption of the 2,700-square-foot house in real time. Thanks to her neighborhood's participation in Reliant's experimental program, Dugan says she now knows precisely how much electricity each of her appliances uses at any given time.

"I have three children," Dugan explained during a tour of homes in Reliant's "Innovation Avenue" project, on a historic street just at the foot of downtown Houston. "I've been telling them forever to turn off the lights, shut down your computers, shut down the TVs, and they don't believe me. So this is a good backup."

Reliant's "Innovation Avenue" is a very small step toward lessening the environmental impact and energy needs of the city of Houston. It's also indicative of the hard road ahead for the city, and its government's overwhelming reliance on private companies to meet various eco-friendly targets.

In this sprawling, car-dependent, polluted city known for dirty air and as a center of the oil and gas industry, promoting environmentally friendly initiatives is often an uphill battle. At 640 square miles in area, Houston alone is more sprawling than Los Angeles and over half the size of Rhode Island, not including its largest suburbs.


Officials try to keep south Fla.'s lush seaside life above the tide

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- With its fast food restaurants, churches and strip malls, this city in southeast Florida looks like much of America. But on a sunny day last month, city official Hector Castro talked about its resemblance to Italy's slowly sinking Venice.

"At some point in the future, some places may be uninhabitable," said Castro, director of the city Department of Public Works, Utilities and Engineering. "Maybe people could live in the top part of buildings. But what do you do about the roads?"

These predictions about an underwater city may sound dire, but officials here say they already are changing infrastructure with climate change in mind.

Recent storms battered the 4.4-square-mile city -- which sits about 7 miles north of North Miami Beach -- to such a degree that some homes were abandoned for the first time, said Castro, looking at photographs of cars floating in a parking lot. It was the kind of heavy rainfall that could become more frequent with climate change, even though scientists say no one weather event can be tied to warming temperatures.

Simultaneously, the city's freshwater supply is being contaminated by saltwater intrusion -- a problem that was not created by climate change, but that is likely being accelerated by it, according to researchers.


Where the 'Live free or die' ethic is being tested by the sea

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Driving past an undulating sea wall on New Hampshire's coast, Steve Miller pointed at the blue ocean and said the placid waters were deceptively calm.

During winter storms now, the ocean gets busier than it has gotten in the past. Sometimes it flings baseball-sized rocks over the barrier onto the road, he said. Just across the road are miles of mansions with their manicured lawns and gazebos. Because of its high property values and the tourism dollars it attracts, the stretch is known as the Gold Coast.

As the climate warms and the sea level rises, though, the Gold Coast could quickly become an expensive problem.

Farther north, Miller turned onto a causeway connecting the city of Portsmouth with the island community of New Castle. The bridge artery is a few feet above the water line on a sunny day, but looks like a floating strip of highway during heavy rains and recent high "king tides."

"Imagine if you add climate change and storm surges to the situation," said Miller, a coastal training program coordinator at the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve who spoke as a private citizen for this article.