18 Lessons NYC Can Learn From Hurricane Sandy

Nov 16, 2012 | Updated Jan 16, 2013

1) Plan for 10,000-year storms, not 100-year storms
One hundred-year storms no longer happen every 100 years; they happen every couple of years. Our planning needs to shift and we need to plan for 10,000-year storms to have a more accurate sense of the boundaries of new super storms. 

2) Understand that sustainability is not just a low carbon foot print
How many L.E.E.D houses were destroyed by hurricane Sandy? True thinking about sustainability, needs to embed the thought that what we build, has to withstand future climatic events.

3) Rebuild Policy before we rebuild buildings

Real change doesn't happen at a building level. it happens at a policy level. Let's start applying total design thinking into our built environment, understanding that buildings are the smallest, last step in the equation. 

4) Switch power generation from centralized systems to decentralized systems
Let's admit that our grid was busted before hurricane Sandy rolled into town and turned off the lights. The notion that there are relatively few power generation sources for NYC is out of date. We need a decentralized power grid, with power generation on a block by block level if necessary, so that we never see the city go dark for so for so long. We also need power lines buried so that areas outside of Manhattan don't go dark as well.

5) Protect vital infrastructure
New York's infrastructure is old and has lacked serious investment and improvement and it shows. While the storm couldn't be stopped, much of the damage, especially to automobile and subway tunnels, could have been prevented. While auto tunnels are at low-lying areas in the city, they only need protection at their entrances to prevent water from coming in. The tunnels need to have water-tight plugs or doors to seal them that can be activated in advance of any storm surge. The same with the subway tunnels. Before hurricane Sandy arrived there were photos of MTA workers putting plywood and sand in front of lower Manhattan subway entrances and ventilation grates (which are street level). This last minute hail-Mary move showed that there wasn't a plan to protect vital NYC transportation infrastructure. New York City need a plan and a way to prevent water from entering subway stations and tunnels in Zone A during storm surges. 

6) Protect vital systems
While no one was asking the question why people are driving 8,000 lbs SUVs in America's densest city when the gas lines started, the lesson here is that there needs to be protection for systems in addition to protection for physical infrastructure. What caused the gasoline shortages was a system collapse. Vital systems either need redundancy, or the ability to self organize.

7) Electric cars are really good in disasters
Speaking of gasoline, electric cars do not run on it. An emergency fleet of electric cars is needed for the next disaster. This was a lesson first seen after the tsunami in Japan and was made abundantly clear with Hurricane Sandy. Electric cars can also be used as an emergency power source.

8) Barrier islands are called barrier Islands for a reason
There should be no rebuilding on barrier islands. There was a reason that the people that built there in previous generations built so humbly. It wasn't because they couldn't build bigger and fancier places, they just knew better. What happened to our barrier island communities was the inevitable outcome of bad planning policies and greed. Perhaps owners of such homes could say they didn't know, with a straight face. Now they know. Visit the shore, sleep over, have simple shacks, but this high end residential development on the oceans edge has got to end. And what also has to end is the federal government offering insurance polices at tax payer expense for people who build so irresponsibly.

9) NYC Department of Transportation should be split into three separate agencies
The Department of Transportation is responsible for: Installing and maintaining street signs, traffic signals and streetlights, resurfacing streets, repairing potholes, installing and maintaining parking meters, managing municipal parking facilities, maintaining hundreds of bridges, including the East River bridges, and operating the Staten Island Ferry.  The department is too big and needs to be split into three agencies so that there can have separate oversight of the city's:

a) Ferries
b) Bridges and tunnels
c) Surface Streets

Let the group of cycling advocates that are running the DOT keep working on the surface streets -- as they are doing a much better job than the car centric people that came before them -- but let's also acknowledge that their focus on all things bike is not right for the less sexy and less glamorous work of maintaining bridges or tunnels and running ferries which need their own advocates.

10) Department of Homeland Security needs to secure our homeland
The lack of planning for infrastructure protection was shocking for an agency that has wasted $40 billion taxpayer dollars making people take off their shoes and irritating them before they get on airplanes. The name of the organization is Homeland Security, not airport security. They have done nothing to secure our homeland. They need new leadership and a new strategic direction.

11) People with serious disabilities, specifically people that can't walk, need mandatory evacuation from Zone A
No one needed to die with the storm's approach or in its direct aftermath. Almost all of Sandy's deaths were avoidable. This is a way to ensure less deaths during the next storm.

12) Use cruise ships for Emergency Housing
Ever been on a cruise? They function like floating apartment buildings. Next time New York City needs emergency housing for 20,000, bring in four cruise ships.

13) Hospitals need to be built or moved to high ground
If they are not moved, no mission critical equipment can be kept in the basement. Nor can MRI or any other type of medical devices be housed there. The loss at NYU's hospital was completely avoidable and a 1 billion dollar strategic planning mistake.

14) Basements are not a place to store valuable things
Basements are below sea level. Basements flood. If something is valuable do not store it in a basement. This goes for art, and also goes for things like emergency generators, data storage and the like.

15) Cars need to be parked above the elevation of storm surges
Out of all the property destruction of hurricane Sandy, the most wasteful and unnecessary were the cars that were destroyed. With more than a week's notice of an impending storm and accurate tide surge information, there was no reason for anyone to lose their automobiles. Next time a storm comes, park your car above sea level. 

16) NYC needs mobile pharmacies
No one should have to go without medicine after a natural disaster. The city should set up mobile pharmacies (like food trucks) that can go out to disaster zones and dispense medicine to people in need.

17) Turn all public pay phones into public charging stations
No one uses public pay phones. The reason these filthy, unsanitary devices still litter our sidewalks is because they are sources of advertising revenue for the city and the companies that manage them. Turning them into public charging stations will give them a use beyond bombarding city residents with shrill advertising messages.

18) Don't invite 40,000 tourists to your city the week after a major disaster
People without power, people without homes, need hotel rooms.