Date: 2021-10-04 09:45:00
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — When the remnants of Hurricane Ida moved into New York City, homes and cars were flooded under unprecedented rainfall that fell viscously in a brief span. More than one dozen people were killed in New York City, most of who drowned in basement apartments.
In response to the devastating storm, the mayor’s office released, “The New Normal: Combatting Storm-Related Extreme Weather in New York City,” a 66-page report detailing an expansive list of initiatives, recommendations and projects to bolster New York City’s resiliency in the face of increasingly-destructive storms.
The blueprint recommends $2.1 billion in new funding for the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), $238 million in accelerated funding for vital DEP projects and $400 million in new funding for other prioritized capital projects from city agencies, among other funding.
“Extreme weather is more common than ever, and more severe than ever. Business as usual is over,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio during a press briefing unveiling the report. “Keeping New Yorkers safe means profoundly changing the way we prepare for — and react to — this new normal.”
While the blueprint garnered acclaim and is instituting programs and taking steps deemed vital by climate scientists, including the Wetlands Management Framework, experts suggest it also has its shortcomings.
Concerns about the report’s proposed warning system, its door-to-door outreach to reach vulnerable New Yorkers in basement dwellings and the timeline laid out in the blueprint could potentially undercut its effectiveness in practice.
“There’s a few things that I have some concerns with; there are other things that are very exciting,” said Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit that works on making infrastructure more resilient to storms and climate change.
PRIVATE FORECASTING SERVICE
Ida caused unprecedented rainfall in New York City and on Staten Island, overwhelming sewer infrastructure and catching some residents off-guard.
De Blasio plans to immediately hire a private weather forecasting service to offer a second opinion to the National Weather Service’s briefings, which are used nationally, according to the new blueprint.
“What we’re realizing now is — even with the information we get from the National Weather Service — we’re going to have to be much more cautious because the warnings we get are not sufficient, so we’re going to be upgrading our own storm tracking and alerting systems, building our own state of the art modeling,” said de Blasio.
However, de Blasio’s report noted the National Weather Service issued multiple warnings the night Ida hit and even one “flash flood emergency,” the first ever issued in New York City. It is unclear how a second forecasting agency will bolster preparedness or deliver more effective warnings.
And despite the warnings issued by the National Weather Service, Staten Island residents said they did not expect the level of inundation that hit the borough. One of the chief proposals in the report call for more drastic action to be taken by officials ahead of storms.
“We will plan for the worst-case scenario in every instance,” a primary bullet in the blueprint reads, explaining, “This will mean earlier warnings, more evacuations, and more travel bans — all coordinated by a new senior position at City Hall, the extreme weather coordinator.”
Warning fatigue, a concept explored by Rebuild by Design’s 48-page report, which came out about a week before the mayor’s blueprint, entitled, “An Anthology of Ideas after Ida,” is an especially worrying element of the battle to protect residents in the face of danger.
“I’m concerned that if we’re not preparing for the actual scenario, but we’re preparing for the worst case scenario, we’re going to end up evacuating people too often, moving people out of subways and not allowing people to get to work in climate events that are not as severe as what we saw,” said Chester.
“And what happens when you do that is that people stop paying attention to it,” added Chester.
Within the mayor’s blueprint, it says the public will be alerted to more aggressive emergency orders via the standard channels — a press conference, Notify NYC and a Wireless Emergency Alert — in addition to door-to-door canvassers when possible.
Jason Volk, CEO of Alertus Technologies, a company that has made innovative emergency alert systems across of a wide range of sectors, said “warning fatigue” — the process in which people become desensitized to alerts — is a persistent challenge that can be solved with the right approach.
In the hours before Ida, New York City Emergency Management issued 30 Notify NYC messages about the forecast, flood and tornado warnings, service disruptions, road closures and other impacts. On Sept. 1, the National Weather Service issued five Wireless Emergency Alerts to all cell phones in New York City.
“I do think it’s very important to be careful with sending very large, broad-based alerts,” said Volk. “Sending an alert to all of Manhattan is not a best practice.”
Instead, Volk said technology is currently available and in-use that could allow for hyper-local warnings to target certain areas, making notifications to residents more timely and pertinent. That pertinence, he added, is key to making people take necessary action in the case of an emergency.
“It’s very important that the information be targeted to the individuals who do actually need to act in that occasion,” said Volk.
Chester, of Rebuild by Design, also raised concern about the city’s plan to do door-to-door canvassing to reach basement-dwelling residents.
“I fear that landlords who are renting their basement out illegally will begin to fear that the city is going to be up in their business. They are going to push the tenants out immediately,” said Chester. “And these are tenants that don’t have leases because they’re illegal apartments, and they’re living in illegal spaces because they don’t have a lot of alternatives.”
“I’m very worried about where they’re going to go,” added Chester.
While illegal, the mayor’s office said it acknowledges “the role these units play in housing over 100,000 New Yorkers.” In the blueprint, the mayor said New York City Emergency Management expects to begin reaching out to trusted community-based organizations in 2022 with a completion date of 2025.
The mayor’s office did not respond for a request to comment on the concerns surrounding warning fatigue, its door-to-door canvassing or the blueprint’s timeline.
WILL UPCOMING PROJECTS CONTINUE?
The mayor’s report lists a series of projects that are either underway or will begin in the coming years; however, with only months left in de Blasio’s administration, it is unclear how much steam the proposals will maintain.
Additionally, plans for the immediate future, most notably the last three months of de Blasio’s tenure, do not appear concrete. Only one uncompleted key initiative — partnering with a second weather forecaster — is set to be completed before de Blasio leaves office, the report shows.
Other plans, like adding stormwater green infrastructure in New York City parks, have completion dates years after de Blasio leaves office.
“You would think that it would have some concrete things that they plan to do before they leave office to put in place before the next person comes, but that piece is quite unclear,” said Chester.
Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Adams, who did not respond for a request to comment on the mayor’s blueprint, recently released a climate plan of his own entitled “The Adams Resiliency Plan for NYC.”
Within the plan, Adams lays out short, medium and long-term plans to address a variety of needs, from updating the city’s early warning system (including using geo-targeted, hyper-local messaging), to creating a comprehensive citywide resiliency plan at the neighborhood level and developing a natural asset policy that defines the value of city ecosystems when considering the costs and benefits of new construction, among other initiatives.
Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa said de Blasio’s report “recognizes the obvious” about extreme weather in NYC; however, Sliwa claims the mayor, “completely ignores his own administration’s culpability in resilience and mitigation efforts.”
“The mayor’s report is less of a resiliency plan and more like a sixty-something page manual for passing the buck to everyone else,” said Sliwa. “The biggest shame of this report and the recent tragedy of Ida seems to be that New York’s leaders learned almost nothing from Hurricane Sandy and repeated so many of the same mistakes nine years later.”
Sliwa said he would prioritize Staten Island’s East Shore Seawall Project and implement a plan to have sector cars patrol proactively to observe quality of life issues like unkept catch basins if he was elected mayor.
“The mayor’s plan does nothing to address the crisis we’re facing in this city with basement apartments. As mayor, I’m committed to phasing out basement apartments, particularly in flood zones, and cracking down on illegal dwellings everywhere,” said Sliwa. “We need to discover the locations of these apartments right away so that we don’t see more lives lost in the next storm.”