The city will work on upgrading building codes and evacuation-zone maps, hardening power and transportation networks and making sure hospitals are better prepared for extreme weather after Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday.
As a start, utility Consolidated Edison has agreed to spend $250 million toward getting its electrical, steam and gas systems in shape to withstand a Category 2 hurricane, Bloomberg said.
City officials, meanwhile, will work on more comprehensive plans to help Sandy-ravaged areas recover and prepare the city for future weather disasters. That will include examining the pros and cons of building berms, dunes, levees and other coast-protection structures, Bloomberg said, though he remains cool to the idea of massive sea walls.
"Let me be clear: We are not going to abandon the waterfront," the mayor said in a speech Thursday at a meeting sponsored by the Regional Plan Association and the League of Conservation Voters. But "we have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainable."
The city is still focused on recovering from the Oct. 29 storm, but officials have started to think about what lessons to draw from Sandy in preparing for future natural disasters. Those considerations are overlaid with the prospect of more extreme weather and higher seas because of global warming, Bloomberg said. He has long been outspoken about the perils of a changing climate, teaming up at times on environmental initiatives with former Vice President Al Gore, who praised Bloomberg's efforts before his speech Thursday.
While Gore said Sandy "was related to global warming," Bloomberg was less explicit in drawing a connection.
"Whether or not one storm is related to climate change or is not, we have to manage for risks," he said, noting that severe storms, rainfalls and heat waves in recent years show "that the dangers from extreme weather are already here."
Before Sandy, the city had already made and touted its efforts to prepare for global warming and storms. Measures have included requiring some new developments in flood zones to be elevated, restoring wetlands as natural barriers and examining other coast-protection strategies, which the city says it now will study in more depth.
But Sandy's storm surge, a modern record, flooded beyond the area officials had expected — emergency managers had figured there was only a 1 percent chance of the 14-foot stack of water Sandy sent into the Battery in lower Manhattan, Bloomberg said. The experience made it clear that utilities, hospitals and transit systems need to be better prepared.
Toward that end, Bloomberg said he has instructed economic development and planning officials to assess what it will take to make power grids, transportation networks, telecommunications systems and hospitals able to handle a Category 2 hurricane, record-breaking heat wave or other natural disaster.
He called on phone companies to provide more than eight hours of backup battery power for cellphone towers and said the city would look for ways to encourage hospitals and big buildings to create their own power-generation systems.
Con Ed said its $250 million effort would include raising key equipment higher off the ground, installing stronger flood barriers and pumps and possibly putting some major overhead power lines underground. While those steps are planned in the coming months, the utility said it expects more measures will be needed over the longer term.
The importance of a functioning power system was emphasized at a meeting Thursday night of the Moreland Commission authorized by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to investigate utility companies and how they dealt with Sandy.
In his testimony, Dr. Irwin Redlener, an expert on disaster preparedness, called the power system "the glue that all the systems depend upon."
Power "may be considered the most important need of infrastructure functionality in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster," he told the commission.
Bloomberg says officials also will take another look at evacuation zones — the most vulnerable area, called Zone A, already was expanded after Tropical Storm Irene last year. He also wants to revisit building and zoning codes, particularly height restrictions that could discourage people from elevating their homes.
Other city, state and federal officials also have called for a range of changes in Sandy's wake. In a Nov. 13 speech similarly styled as a wide-ranging response to Sandy, City Council Speaker and expected mayoral candidate Christine Quinn broached ideas including burying power lines in vulnerable neighborhoods, re-examining building codes and calling for storm-proofing of fuel refineries.