The Floods Next Time

Vital City: New York must do much more to protect itself from torrential rains.

New Yorkers have once again been reminded that climate change is here, and we are unprepared. At the end of September, eight inches of rain forced our city to a standstill. Yet it doesn’t have to be like this.Our aging sewer system cannot process the amount of rain fast enough, so rainwater travels to the lowest point — usually our streets, basements and subways. To address the heavy rainfall that is going to fall with increasing frequency as the climate continues to change, we have essentially three options: upgrade that antiquated sewer system, which would be costly and disruptive; move out of harm’s way, which is unthinkable for most of us; or rainproof the city by investing in ways to store the rain above or below ground using what is known as “blue-green infrastructure,” which replicates natural systems to slow the water down before it reaches the sewer.That last option is the only practical path forward.Rebuild by Design, the organization I lead, brings together communities and governments to design and build infrastructure to adapt to climate change. Started in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to incubate grassroots-centered approaches to climate adaptation planning, Rebuild has catalyzed over $8 billion of climate infrastructure investments in the New York City region. But now, 10 years later, New York is unable to handle record-breaking events like Hurricane Ida, or even moderate rainfall events that rarely make news headlines.The problem

Here’s what is not working.

One, the federal government does not plan with an eye toward all climate hazards. Washington has proposed a massive $56 billion Army Corps of Engineers project for the New York-New Jersey area that will build flood walls, gates and the like to address coastal flooding from storm surges. But this ignores New York’s increasing heavy rain, which could be trapped behind these proposed structures, causing flooding to last longer.

Last December, Rebuild by Design brought together over 50 neighborhood organizations, community boards, nonprofits and academics across the region to ask them what type of large-scale, regional flood protection they wanted to see in their neighborhoods. Not one endorsed the current plan. We instead heard that the Army Corps of Engineers’ design process and the proposed solutions should be transparent, responsive and accountable to local residents, while prioritizing low-income New Yorkers who fare the worst during climate emergencies. And wherever possible, the interventions should be nature-based to enhance ecology, should safeguard waterfront access and should provide local workforce development opportunities. Read more >>