Bloomberg outlines future disaster plan

Michael Bloomberg wants to fortify key infrastructure.
John Moore/Getty Images
Michael Bloomberg wants to fortify key infrastructure.

NEW YORK — New York City, still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Sandy, will expand its evacuation zones, tighten building codes, and look for ways to fortify critical infrastructure like transportation and electrical networks from future natural disasters, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Thursday.

But while the mayor said he would aggressively pursue a rebuilding of the city’s damaged waterfront, he warned that ‘‘there are no panaceas or magic bullets’’ to fully protect the city. And while he did, for the first time, specifically suggest dunes or levees as protective measures worth exploring, he again dismissed the use of expensive experiments like sea gates stretching across New York Harbor.

It was Bloomberg’s first major address on what the city should do in a post-hurricane world that, after the end of 2013, will also be a post-Bloomberg world. And the speech, which was televised live from a Lower Manhattan hotel that had been closed for two weeks because of the storm, had the bearing of a future-oriented State of the City event, with accompanying slides and even a surprise guest: former Vice President Al Gore.


Gore, now an environmental activist, repeatedly lavished praise on the mayor for his work on climate change, saying he does not ‘‘know of anybody who has done more.’’ Gore, a Democrat, even gently chided the Obama administration: ‘‘We cannot have four more years of mentioning this occasionally,’’ he said.

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Bloomberg, an independent, offered a kinder assessment, saying the federal government had been very responsive to the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. But he also repeatedly sought to temper expectations of a quick solution, at one point stating bluntly, ‘‘Saying we’re going to spend whatever it takes just is not realistic.’’

Among other ideas, Bloomberg said the city would consider the construction of dunes, jetties, levees, and berms along coastal areas to help reduce damage from future storm surges. He did not specify where any such barriers would be built, much less how much these would cost. But aides to the mayor said that three deputy mayors — Howard Wolfson, Linda I. Gibbs, and Robert K. Steel — had recently traveled to New Orleans and met with officials there to discuss recovery, rebuilding, flood protection measures, and lessons.

Height restrictions on some residential homes would be relaxed, Bloomberg said, so owners can elevate their houses above the flood plain. He also said the city would update its building code to require more stringent protection against floods. In particular, Bloomberg officials said that residential buildings — including single- and two-family homes — would need to be able to withstand waves and wind, and that new and reconstructed homes would need to be built above the current elevation levels required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reduce risks and insurance premiums.

Ordinarily, if small businesses that occupy residential zones were destroyed, they would not, under zoning rules, be allowed to rebuild there. But under Bloomberg’s proposal, those businesses would be allowed to do so, so long as they met floodproofing requirements in the soon-to-be-updated building code.


Bloomberg also vowed to update the city’s flood maps and said the city might extend the so-called Zone A evacuation area to include Howard Beach, Queens, and the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Gerritsen Beach and East Williamsburg, communities heavily and unexpectedly damaged by flooding from Hurricane Sandy. His speech elicited audible gasps when two maps showed that the areas flooded by the hurricane had far exceeded FEMA’s projected 100-year and 500-year flood zones for the city.

‘‘Let me be clear,’’ Bloomberg said. ‘‘We are not going to abandon the waterfront. We are not going to leave the Rockaways or Coney Island or Staten Island’s South Shore.’’ But he said that the city ‘‘cannot just rebuild what was there and hope for the best.’’

‘‘We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainable,’’ he said,while conceding that the city had yet ‘‘to determine exactly what that means.’’

The mayor was characteristically frank in saying New York would remain vulnerable to extreme weather, particularly in an age of global warming. ‘‘No matter how much we do to make homes and businesses more resilient, the fact of the matter is, living next to the ocean comes with risks that we cannot eliminate,’’ he said.

Bloomberg said the city would ‘‘assess what steps need to be taken’’ to ensure that infrastructure networks, like transportation, telecommunications and hospitals, could withstand the impact of a Category 2 hurricane or a significant summer heat wave.