Sandy’s Wake

Columbia scientists have long been sounding the climate-change alarm. Will we listen now?

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2012-13
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Radley Horton / The RockawaysJacob, with help from Rosenzweig and Earth Institute research scientists Radley Horton ’07GSAS and Vivien Gornitz ’69GSAS, wrote a chapter on climate-change adaptation, with an agreement from the MTA that it would publish an online white paper explaining the study’s technical details.

“The MTA engineers were wholeheartedly on board with the risk assessment,” Jacob says. “But they had difficulty bringing it up to the board of directors, and therefore laying the groundwork for change in Albany. The MTA always struggles with not having enough money from Albany. The fares don’t cover it, and each time you spend money on something like flood protection, you can’t spend money on new trains or hybrid buses, and the public gets up in arms.”

In 2009, New York State, witnessing the city’s efforts, asked for its own climate-impact study. Rosenzweig formed a team of colleagues, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority provided a grant of around $1.5 million.

“We look at what we call ‘pathways to climate resilience’ in a very holistic and integrated way. We can’t just pick one solution or one policy.” — Cynthia Rosenzweig

“NYSERDA collects money from you and me each time we pay our utility bills,” Jacob says. “A small percentage goes into a fund, and that has to be spent, and they realized it ought to be spent meaningfully, and foresightedly. So they funded this study.”

From the October 30, 2012, Statement by MTA Chairman Joseph J. Lhota

The New York City subway system is 108 years old, but it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night. Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on our entire transportation system, in every borough and county of the region. It has brought down trees, ripped out power, and inundated tunnels, rail yards, and bus depots.

As of last night, seven subway tunnels under the East River flooded. Metro-North Railroad lost power from 59th Street to Croton-Harmon on the Hudson Line and to New Haven on the New Haven Line. The Long Island Rail Road evacuated its West Side Yards and suffered flooding in one East River tunnel. The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel is flooded from end to end and the Queens Midtown Tunnel also took on water and was closed. Six bus garages were disabled by high water.

So It Was Written

“When this NYSERDA funding came through,” Jacob says, “and we had enough money and time to really focus on a detailed study, we were ready.”

That study became Chapter 9 of the 2011 ClimAID report, in which much of Sandy’s havoc on transportation was foretold.

“George Deodatis put several of his undergraduate and master’s-level students on it,” Jacob says. “We got the dimensions of the tunnels, of the surfaces of the ventilation grates in all the flood zones of New York City, square foot by square foot. With the help of those students, we crunched the data and put the right physics formula in to find out how fast the water flows through grates. We calculated forty minutes to flood the tunnels under the East River and the Harlem River.”

That was pretty much on the nose.

“The students really worked their butts off. It was twenty years of work in two years.”

Chapter 9 did help guide the MTA in its attempts to secure subway entrances and grates with plywood barricades and sandbags.

“But of course,” says Jacob, “these were Band-Aids. They somewhat reduced the impact, but Sandy was too overwhelming.”

De Watersnoodramp

In the winter of 1953, over the North Sea, a powerful windstorm drove a shelf of water toward the Netherlands at the time of highest tides. The storm surge came with little warning, at night, while many people were asleep. It breached dikes and swallowed houses. More than 1,800 people died. The Dutch called the event Watersnoodramp, meaning “flood disaster.”

“After that storm,” says Klaus Jacob, “the Dutch pulled themselves together politically and financially and rebuilt their flood-control system for a ten-thousand-year storm. They called it the Delta Project, and they worked on it for decades. Of course, keeping the ocean out is a job that never ends.

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