In the wake of the flash flooding that killed at least 22 in New York and New Jersey last week, local news publication City and State spoke with a variety of “climate experts and activists” about what what can be done to prepare New York City for future flooding events and protect New Yorkers from deadly floodwaters.
Asked about the city’s greatest vulnerability to heavy rain events, energy expert at the Regional Planning Association Robert Fraudenberg drew attention to the city’s infrastructure. On a normal day, he said, the water systems that infrastructure is built into—subways and roads, namely—is kept under control by engineering solutions like pumps and pipes. During heavy rain events, floodwaters overwhelm the system. Fraudenberg said that studies show the future will bring more events like the remnants of Hurricane Ida, and that “By 2050, over two million people, 60% of the region’s power-generating capacity, and dozens of miles of critical roads and rail lines, will face a high risk of flooding.”
In response to the same question, conservation activist Julie Tighe criticized the city’s power grid, which she said “is not resilient when it comes to flooding and heavy rains.” Given the city’s dependence on fossil fuels, she continued, it remains “vulnerable to outages during and after major storms.” Then there are communities on or close to the coast, which will be increasingly vulnerable to flooding events as sea levels rise.
Environmental justice activist Anthony Rogers-Wright pointed out the racialized nature of the climate crisis, which “disproportionately harms the lives of Indigenous, Black, Brown and Asian peoples as well as poor folk of all races and ethnicities.” While pointing out the “massive disruptions” that will affect the city’s infrastructure if no action is taken to strengthen them, he said his chief concern is for the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable.
Drawing even more attention to the city’s infrastructure, urban design professor Jeffrey Raven noted that New York City’s asphalt streets both “cannot absorb stormwater,” but do absorb heat, making their surrounding areas hotter than other communities. This heat leads in turn to increased air pollution, placing vulnerable residents at risk of disease. Asked what the city can do to prepare for future flooding events, he called for the prioritization of “sponge city” initiatives that help collect stormwater: “green roofs, underground stormwater basins, permeable pavements, and bioretention facilities” that have the dual effect of reducing carbon emissions. He also called for the construction of “stormwater storage structures in low-lying neighborhoods,” like depressed roadways and parking lots that collect stormwater during extreme weather events.
In response to the same question, Tighe called for the modernization and localization of the power grid to prevent outages during extreme weather events. She also proposed an investment in renewable energy resources that improve “grid resiliency,” as well as storm-absorbing infrastructure. Rogers-Wright, meanwhile, called for the state legislature to pass already-proposed legislation that would replace the city’s “peaker” plants—power plants that only operate when there is high demand for electricity—with renewable energy sources.
More information on experts’ recommendations to mitigate the risks of mass flooding events in New York is available via City and State.