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Are Mega-storms the New Normal for New York? How to Prepare for the Next

Ronda Kaysen in Building Operations on October 30, 2012

New York City

Oct. 30, 2012

For residents in low-lying areas — parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan — the consequences of a major storm and a tidal surge can be disastrous. Basements can flood, leading to damaged boilers and electrical systems and thus rendering buildings temporarily uninhabitable.

Few co-op or condo boards have grappled with how to protect their properties, partly because it would be expensive and difficult. Ultimately, any effort by a single building is a stopgap measure against a coming tide. Environmentalists argue that the city, not residents, should protect valuable real estate.

“What can [the residents] do? They’re basically sitting ducks,” says Pamela Wolff, a property manager with Wolff Management.

Buildings in Manhattan neighborhoods like Battery Park City, the Financial District, and parts of Chelsea, Tribeca, and Soho are particularly vulnerable to this type of damage. Historic townhouses date back to the 19th century and were never intended to battle climate change. Old apartment buildings have porous basements filled with vital mechanical equipment. The potential loss of valuable real estate to climate change is enormous. Eventually, garden-level apartments may be periodically inundated.

“The economics of a brownstone and a lot of buildings in New York City don’t work unless you can rent out the garden apartment,” says Robert Trentlyon, a Chelsea resident who has successfully lobbied the city to study building storm surge barriers.

Storm Surge

Sandy may have been the most devastating storm to hit New York in anyone's lifetime, but it's unlikely to be the last. The storms New Yorkers experience now are larger than before and have a greater flood risk because global sea levels have risen by eight inches. By mid-century, they could rise by more than two feet.

“Anyone whose property is damaged by a coastal flood ... part of that damage came from global warming,” says Ben Strauss, director of the program on sea level rise for Climate Central, an environmental group.

The 100-year storm — an event with a storm surge of 6.5 feet — could happen every 3 to 20 years by the end of the century, according to research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And the almost unfathomable 500-year flood, with nearly 10-foot high sea swells, could happen every 25 years.

Because the city has not built infrastructure such as storm surge barriers or new sea walls, buildings have no protection from the rising tide. If a building is flooded by a surge of water, all the mechanicals stored in the basement — boilers, elevator equipment, and waste, water, and sewage pumps – could be flooded. If the electrical equipment was short-circuited, there would be no lights, no functioning elevators, no running water, and any pumps intended to get the water out would stop working.

“You’re talking about the whole shebang here. Everything is off if your basement gets severely flooded,” says Philip Kraus, owner of Fred Smith Plumbing in Manhattan.

Getting water out is no easy feat if there is no electricity to power pumps. Drying out a flooded building can take 12 hours — assuming the water has receded and someone can help. A building may be hard-pressed to find a company with pumps and fans when dozens of other properties are also flooded. Just getting the water out of a large apartment building could cost $10,000, says Kraus.

After that, the painstaking process of assessing damage and drying out equipment begins. A building will need to call in an electrician, a boiler repair company, a plumber, a painter, a pump company, and an elevator repair company. If replacement parts need to be shipped in, it could mean several more days before everything is running. The floodwater could be contaminated, further complicating cleanup. The total damage could cost more than $100,000, says Kraus.

Preparing for Next Time

Retrofitting a building to withstand flood damage is neither cheap nor easy. If a building wants to keep the water out, it could retrofit the slab foundation with reinforced concrete. Or it could coat foundation walls with a waterproof membrane. To do that, a contractor would need access to the exterior walls or could inject a sealant from the inside.

Any of these projects could cost north of $100,000, says Alan Poeppel, a civil engineer with Langan Engineering and Environmental Services. “Most of the time, when presented with the cost and duration to do it, owners decide not to do it,” says Poeppel.

Other options are also a headache. Large pumps, for example, require substantial storage space and won’t work if the building loses power. A generator to power those pumps needs dry storage space, costs about $100,000, and requires access to a natural gas line or stored fuel. But a generator isn’t a cure-all, anyway. It will allow critical equipment like emergency lights to operate for a few hours, but will not have enough power to operate the pumps for very long.

Just buying flood insurance can cost a building $10,000 a year. And for a building that isn’t mandated by federal flood insurance maps to buy such a policy, there is little incentive.

Another option: move the equipment upstairs. When a building plans to replace its boiler or upgrade elevator mechanicals, it could relocate them to the roof. But moving mechanicals topside means sacrificing valuable penthouse real estate for a boiler. “Can you do it? Can you afford to do it? And is it worth doing?” asks Dan Wurtzel, president of Cooper Square Realty, which manages apartment buildings in New York City.

Portrait of Resistance

The picture of a storm-resistant building looks a lot like the Frank Gehry-designed IAC headquarters building on 18th Street and the West Side Highway. Designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, the building’s mechanicals are on the 10th floor and the lobby sits above the 100-year flood line. It also has a five-foot-tall retractable steel floodgate that closes during a storm to keep out a rush of surging water. “Imagine a castle. It’s like having a moat,” says Christian Bryan, head of real estate facilities for IAC.

Without investing in capital improvements, there is little an existing building can do to stave off the effects of climate change. If 10 feet of water crashes into a building that has all its equipment housed in the basement, there is going to be damage.

“Short of putting sandbags around your building and hoping the water doesn’t get in, there isn’t a lot you can do in the short term,” says Adam Yarinsky, a principal at the Architecture Research Office who participated in “Rising Currents,” a Museum of Modern Art exhibit on climate change.

A building can keep on top of regular maintenance, like keeping gutters and pipes clear, and have spare parts, like pumps, on hand. “If everything’s working properly, you may skate by with some limited damage. If everything’s clogged, you’re going to have big problems,” says Kraus of Fred Smith Plumbing.

The city has taken modest steps to address rising sea levels, such as moving some sewage station pumps to higher ground, for example. In its comprehensive waterfront plan, the city suggests residents take steps like waterproofing foundations and moving critical systems above the flood line. Critics say more should be done.

“Talking about moving the mechanicals upstairs, that’s the best you can do for the people on the Atlantic Coast?” says Douglas Hill, an engineer and lecturer at SUNY Stony Brook. Hill has researched constructing three storm-surge barriers at key locations around the city, a proposal that is estimated to cost around $10 billion.

In May, the Department of City Planning began a yearlong study to examine ways it can prepare for climate change. The study will consider, among other things, surge barriers and retrofits buildings can undergo.


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