A Year Later, Has The East Coast Learned Anything From Hurricane Sandy?

If another massive storm hit the region tomorrow, the outcome could be much the same. But it’s not that we haven’t learned–it’s that creating a culture of resilience is an extremely slow process.


One year after Hurricane Sandy hurled itself at the Eastern seaboard, causing more than $68 billion in damage and leaving millions of people in shock, communities are still reeling from the aftereffects. It’s fair to say that New York, New Jersey, and other hard-hit states were unprepared for the storm.


For millions of residents, the power grid failed. Some people were left without electricity for a week or more. Vulnerable industries were nearly destroyed, and have yet to pick up the pieces. Meanwhile, critical pieces of infrastructure–including hospitals–were flooded and rendered useless.

The city’s subway system flooded, rendering much of it inoperable. Parts of it are still out of commission, a year later. Photo: MTA.

But is the East Coast any better prepared now? What would happen if another Sandy hit the region tomorrow? Based on discussions with experts in a number of sectors affected by the storm, the answer is that not much has changed. It seems that creating a culture of resilience is an extremely slow process.

The Grid

During the storm, millions of people lost power. But in Manhattan, power loss split the island in two. Lower Manhattan remained in the dark and without heat and hot water for days after the storm, while the rest of Manhattan by and large had its power restored quickly.


Part of the problem was flooding–Lower Manhattan had the questionable honor of being in close proximity to rising seawater, which rendered much of the area’s infrastructure unusable. Con Ed, the local utility, had to deal with a downed power station in the city, a flooded headquarters, and other obstacles (the fact that many of the city’s power lines are buried underground did help, however).

A storm like Sandy will always knock the lights out for some people. But in the future, smart communities will have microgrids, which are self-contained clean energy production sites that store power in onsite fuel cells or batteries. Microgrids can be small or large–it just depends how many buildings they are intended to power. By 2020, six gigawatts of electricity, or enough to power nearly 5 million homes, will move through microgrids, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Photographer Phillip Van captured what blacked-out Manhattan felt like, with photos of darkened buildings and tiny moments of light.

Microgrids can remain connected to the main energy grid, but if Con Ed loses one of its power stations, the microgrid can provide all necessary power (by going into “island mode”). That’s exactly what happened to some savvy organizations during the storm: A few microgrid-connected buildings on New York University’s campus, for example, had power through the entire ordeal, providing a beacon of light in an otherwise dark swath of the city.


As Co.Exist pointed out in the days after Sandy, the U.S. military has enthusiastically embraced microgrids. Last year, the military set aside 16 million acres of its own land for renewable energy installations.

But are microgrids a feasible solution for entire cities? From a technical standpoint, you can create a microgrid in any campus environment, explains Paul Orzeske, president of Honeywell Building Solutions. You could even create a Manhattan-sized microgrid. The problem is regulation. “If three or four businesses wanted to coordinate their buildings and wanted to connect, to cross a road–in many jurisdictions by crossing a road you become a power utility, and that makes it not feasible to run a microgrid,” he says. “We still don’t see enough around relaxing laws around the definition of a utility.”

Microgrid adoption is still ramping up in the wake of the storm. In a report, President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force noted that both New York and New Jersey are exploring financing opportunities for microgrids. And in August, the Department of Energy announced a partnership with New Jersey, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, and New Jersey Transit to create a microgrid that powers transit systems in the state. In New York City, the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency has announced a goal of 800 megawatts of installed capacity for microgrids and distributed energy generation by 2030.


Critical Buildings

Not all of NYU fared so well during Superstorm Sandy. The backup generators at NYU Langone Medical Center failed after the facility was flooded, forcing more than 300 patients to be evacuated. Other hospitals in the city, including Bellevue Hospital, New York Downtown Hospital, and Coney Island Hospital, also lost power.

Robin Guenther, a member of the NYC Building Resiliency Task Force and a principal with architecture and design firm Perkins+Will, believes that many hospitals suffer from something called “fracture-critical design,” where all it takes is one thing to go wrong and the whole system goes down. “That’s the story of the hospital failures in New York City. It wasn’t a series of things going wrong. In the end, it came down to one thing,” she explains.

The problem stems from a line of thinking in health care that defines efficiency as the removal of redundancy: If you have mechanical ventilation systems, why open the windows? Once you add electric lighting to the mix, why do you need windows at all?

An aerial photography company called Pictometry captured amazing before and after images of the destruction throughout the Tri-State area, like these, on the Jersey shore. See more here.

As a result, hospitals generally rely only on emergency diesel generators for backup power, and these systems are never used except in dire situations. “If you ask any building owner to buy something additional that they’ll never need to use except in an emergency, the building owners are going to try to minimize that equipment however they can, because why would they want to pay for something they’ll never use?” says Guenther.

Leading hospitals are starting to question the wisdom of diesel generators, instead opting to install combined heat and power systems that can run on natural gas and oil, and make both electricity and thermal energy. These systems run everyday–not just when the power goes out. The irony of what happened with NYU Langone, Guenther says, is that the hospital was in the process of switching over to a combined heat and power system when Sandy hit. If Sandy had hit this year, the hospital may have not lost power.

Hospitals in the northeast are also taking cues from hurricane-prone areas in other parts of the country, where there are “upside-down” hospitals with all of their infrastructure on the roof (instead of the basement) and emergency departments on the second floor. “But it’s more likely that in retrofits you see people taking infrastructure out of the basement and moving it to the first or second floor,” explains Guenther. New York City’s Strategic Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency recently put rules in place that requires hospitals in flood plains to move their infrastructure above flood elevation by 2020.


The Building Resiliency Task Force is also making progress on strengthening New York City’s non-hospital buildings. The city council passed five of the task force’s proposals so far, including one to ensure that building toilets and sinks work without power, and one to prevent sewage backflow.

Guenther believes that another proposal–a requirement to provide access to water in residential buildings over six stories high when the power goes out–will pass soon. This was suggested because high-rise residential buildings lost access to water during the storm (buildings in New York City that are higher than six stories generally need an electricity-reliant pumping system to provide adequate water pressure to residents on higher levels). If the new proposal passes, residential buildings will have to retrofit a location lower than six stories where residents can get potable water capable of running off pressure in the water mains–no electricity required.

Industry Preparedness

For most industries on the East Coast, Superstorm Sandy was a blip–a nasty one that interrupted business, but nothing permanent. For some industries, the storm hammered home the need to build more resilient infrastructure. In the case of the IT industry, for example, this means moving data centers to higher ground.


But not every industry can just pack up and move. For the unlucky few industries that need to be close to the water by necessity, Sandy was a reminder that resiliency is incredibly difficult.

Few industries have been as damaged by Sandy as New York’s marina industry, which has no choice but to be directly on the water. Today, the industry is still picking up the pieces, trying to assess the total amount of damage so the state knows what resources are required. In some places, facilities averaged $350,000 worth of damage. “There’s not much done because marinas haven’t received much recovery money at all,” says Jay Tanski, the Coastal Processes Specialist at New York Sea Grant. “It’s starting to show clearly that programs that were put in place to help marinas recover won’t have nearly the resources that are needed.”

Some marinas were built to flood standards, which involves elevation and flood-proofing. But not all were–especially the ones built prior to the 1970s. While flood-proofed marinas fared better than those with no protection, there’s only so much flood-proofing that can be done. “A marina can’t be easily moved away from the water,” says Tanski. “You can have pilings higher so floating docks don’t go off the pilings, but you can’t build a dock too high or have ramps too steep.”


According to Tanski, people in the commercial full service marina industry are trying to figure out the balance between the cost of flood-proofing and the likelihood of a Sandy-like storm happening again. Right now, though, the challenge is simply to build enough infrastructure for marinas to have cash flow.

“Are there going to be retrofits to bring insurance rates down enough to absorb costs and do business? That’s going to be an issue coming up,” says Tanski. “Part of the delay in [rebuilding] is that the Small Business Administration is saying you have to get federal flood insurance to get a loan, but the loan wouldn’t pay for flood insurance premiums.”

For certain water-dependent industries, then, disasters like Sandy may be too expensive to survive–unless the government intervenes.


Storm Surge Barriers

Dr. Malcolm Bowman, a storm surge expert at Stony Brook University, has been looking at solutions to coastal flooding for over a decade with a team at the New York Sea Grant-funed Stony Brook Storm Surge Research Group. For nearly as long, the group has focused on the potential for storm-surge barriers to protect New York City from high waters (see more details on that in our post-Sandy article on storm surge barriers here).

One year later, Bowman still believes in the value of these barriers, which would cost billions of dollars to install. But he says that Mayor Bloomberg “has explicitly rejected the concept of regional protection. In his plan to rebuild the city’s infrastructure, there is one page dedicated to rejecting storm surge barriers. I’d love to know who wrote that, because it’s not scientifically defensible,” he says. Bloomberg’s reasoning: the barriers are too expensive, and they won’t work. Bloomberg’s suggested proposals for preventing water from rushing into the city include dune systems, bulkheads, and increased vegetation on the streets to absorb water.

What the next mayor of New York City will do is up for debate. Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio says on his campaign page that he advocates for “improving protective infrastructure with assets like surge barriers and sand dunes.”


On the New York State side, Governor Cuomo has asked for an engineering analysis of storm surge barriers in areas that Bowman has recommended (one in Sandy Hook, New Jersey to Far Rockaway, New York and one in the Upper East River).

Bowman admits that there could be major implementation issues. “You may have challenges from the environmental community saying it’s going to impact water quality, sewage treatment, and we need green solutions, not engineering solutions,” he says. “It has to be a win-win. No one is going to agree to this if there are going to be serious negative consequences.”

Adam Freed, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Securing Water Program, also believes that storm surge barriers will be a challenge. “They’re very expensive, they take decades to build. You need to look at a more comprehensive strategy, of which storm surge barriers may be a part of that. It’s not going to be the only thing that gets done, nor may it be the best thing,” he says.



For some communities, land buyouts have been the easiest and ultimately perhaps the cheapest option for recovery: Instead of building sand dunes and watching NIMBYers complain, the state buys land back from residents and returns it to nature. New Jersey’s Blue Acres program buys flood-prone homes, tears them down, and turns the land into wetlands, which protect from the effects of flooding. The program existed before Superstorm Sandy, but has now taken on a new relevance, with federal storm aid funds helping to pay for future buyouts. And in New York, the state is buying back properties in flood-prone areas of Staten Island and Long Island.

Buyouts don’t always make sense. “They’re not appropriate for everywhere, particular in an environment like New York City, with high economic activity…it’s all driven by the local context,” says Freed. He adds: “But we should never hamper ourselves by taking something off the table.”

Is The East Coast Ready For The Next Big Storm?

If a Sandy-like storm hit the East Coast this year, disaster would once again ensue. Nearly every preparedness measure mentioned here has yet to take effect, or is in the process of being implemented. While it’s unlikely that another storm will follow Sandy’s exact same path, storm surges could become more common as a result of climate change.


If most of the mitigating measures discussed are in effect the next time a superstorm hits, the aftereffects still won’t be pretty. But most people will have power, hospitals may not need to evacuate so quickly, flooding could be minimized, and fewer people will lose their homes (as a result of moving inland). There will still probably be billions of dollars in damage–but fewer billions.

Whether the East Coast–and the many other regions that will be hit hard by climate change-related weather phenomena–are taking enough action now will become increasingly evident over the next 50 years. And if we’re lucky, it will only take a few more big disasters before state and city preparedness kicks into overdrive.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more