Battery Park after Hurricane Irene, by then a tropical storm, hit in 2011. Low-lying areas of New York City are vulnerable to storms. Michael Appleton for The New York Times

By MIREYA NAVARRO
10 September 2012

With a 520-mile-long coast lined largely by teeming roads and fragile infrastructure, New York City is gingerly facing up to the intertwined threats posed by rising seas and ever-more-severe storm flooding.

So far, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has commissioned exhaustive research on the challenge of climate change. His administration is expanding wetlands to accommodate surging tides, installing green roofs to absorb rainwater and prodding property owners to move boilers out of flood-prone basements.

But even as city officials earn high marks for environmental awareness, critics say New York is moving too slowly to address the potential for flooding that could paralyze transportation, cripple the low-lying financial district and temporarily drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Only a year ago, they point out, the city shut down the subway system and ordered the evacuation of 370,000 people as Hurricane Irene barreled up the Atlantic coast. Ultimately, the hurricane weakened to a tropical storm and spared the city, but it exposed how New York is years away from — and billions of dollars short of — armoring itself.

“They lack a sense of urgency about this,” said Douglas Hill, an engineer with the Storm Surge Research Group at Stony Brook University, on Long Island.

Instead of “planning to be flooded,” as he put it, city, state and federal agencies should be investing in protection like sea gates that could close during a storm and block a surge from Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean into the East River and New York Harbor.

Others express concern for areas like the South Bronx and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, which have large industrial waterfronts with chemical-manufacturing plants, oil-storage sites and garbage-transfer stations. Unless hazardous materials are safeguarded with storm surges in mind, some local groups warn, residents could one day be wading through toxic water.

“A lot of attention is devoted to Lower Manhattan, but you forget that you have real industries on the waterfront” elsewhere in the city, said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, which represents low-income residents of industrial areas. “We’re behind in consciousness-building and disaster planning.” […]

“It’s a million small changes that need to happen,” said Adam Freed, until August the deputy director of the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. “Everything you do has to be a calculation of the risks and benefits and costs you face.”

And in any case, Mr. Freed said, “you can’t make a climate-proof city.” […]

New York Is Lagging as Seas and Risks Rise, Critics Warn

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