Atlantic Cities

From Urethane Caulking to Temporary Generators: New York's Incredibly Detailed Plan to Protect Buildings From the Next Sandy

From Urethane Caulking to Temporary Generators: New York's Incredibly Detailed Plan to Protect Buildings From the Next Sandy
Courtesy City of New York

It's been roughly seven months since Superstorm Sandy ravaged New York City, and plans to protect against the next storm surge are proliferating. In recent days the city has released a 438-page, $20 billion resiliency initiative; a new evacuation map with six threat zones instead of three; and a 33-point action report on preparing buildings for extreme weather events. All three reports contain an enormous amount of detail, especially the latter.

We're talking specifics on the level of using "urethane caulking" instead of "latex caulking" to seal windows, wood screws at a minimum of "#12," and the price of relevant "Tapcon fasteners" (22 cents each). Take that, universe.

The building-focused report comes courtesy of a 200-plus member task force assembled in the wake of the storm. "New York needs resilient buildings that resist damage, protect occupants, and allow residents who must evacuate to quickly return to their homes," the task force writes. In that spirit they offer a series of recommendations tagged with five levels of implementation and sorted by building sector — with separate ideas for commercial structures, multifamily residences, and single-family homes alike.

Most of the 33 proposals offer recommendations for new construction or renovation without demanding changes of existing structures. But five of the ideas were considered so "crucial" that the task force suggests they not only fit into future plans but also be retrofitted into old buildings. They are:

  1. Safeguarding Toxic Materials in Flood Zones: As things stand, the city's environmental protection department requires buildings to file a risk-management plan if they store hazardous chemicals. But there's no special protection for storage facilities in flood zones — and there clearly should be, lest the next storm wash a mess of toxins out to sea or into sewers. The task force recommends a city rule change requiring chemical operations to relocate "above or beyond" floodplains (or, at the very least, having a plan for immediate relocation in advance of a storm).
  2. Keep Gas Stations Open During Blackouts: Fuel shortages caused a major disruption for taxis, truckers, and daily commuters in the aftermath of Sandy, with maybe half the city's service stations out of, well, service. Supply of gas itself was part of the problem, but electricity for pumps was a big part, too. For that reason, the building task force recommends the city amend building codes to require gas stations to have backup generators — with retroactive compliance by 2019. (A state law that would supercede this recommendation is being considered.)
  3. Add Hookups for Temporary Generators and Boilers: Having a generator during a storm is one thing, but getting it up and running is often another. The task force recommends that certain buildings — namely, hospitals and health care facilities — install external electrical hookups to facilitate a conversion to backup power during weather emergencies. This improved building code should apply to new construction and ideally be retrofit to those providing acute medical care.
  4. Supply Drinking Water Without Power: When residential buildings lose power during a storm, they also lose their ability to pump water into individual units — especially those on high floors. But even in these cases, water supplies can remain accessible near the ground, via street pressure from public water mains. The task force suggests a new plumbing code that requires apartments to provide a common area for tenants to make this water supply freely available.
  5. Create Better Emergency Plans: Most buildings have emergency plans, but few had the types of plans that included scenarios like Sandy. That's understandable, of course, but is also a point of concern moving forward. The task force wants the city to work with building owners on plans detailing nearby evacuation centers, emergency utility provisions, flood precautions, and building staff contact information for tenants.

Even urgent recommendations involving building codes can't go into effect without approval from the city council. Given the involvement in the building task force by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker (and mayoral candidate) Christine Quinn, the revisions would seem to have more than a puncher's chance. Last week the New York Times quoted Quinn as saying the council will move "as quickly as possible" on new legislation in response to the report, despite potential objection from real estate owners.

Better building codes would obviously be a great boon to the city's storm preparedness. In some sense, though, the city has already fulfilled the bulk of its civic responsibility by commissioning such a detail report. There's enough information in there for residents and building owners who want to prepare for the next Sandy — legal coercion notwithstanding. Whether these ideas become mandates or remain merely guides, they're out there now for everyone, and that's a sign of good government.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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