Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding: 3 Bold Ways to Restore Cities Hit Hard

rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy
rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy

By Jessica Kraft

Hurricane Sandy's horrific destruction will cost an estimated $60 billion in property damages and lost business. But one silver lining may be the opportunity to rebuild New York and New Jersey to not only withstand the next hurricane, but to also create jobs, spur the economy and save the government a lot of money in the next storm.

Organizations like Architecture for Humanity and Global Green are proposing to rebuild devastated areas with smarter designs, and The New York Times covered three innovative ideas by design and engineering firms for rebuilding after Sandy. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week after the storm hit: "I'm hopeful that not only will we rebuild this city and metropolitan area, but we use this as an opportunity to build it back smarter."

But what does building a smarter city mean, exactly? And how much would such designs cost? Would investing in them be less than the cost of potential damages? We look at some potential proposals and weigh their costs and benefits.

A Smart Grid

Nearly 8 million people lost electrical power to their homes and businesses as a result of the storm's damage. In its current state, our electrical grid relies on fossil-fuel-burning power plants that serve very large areas. This setup is both extremely wasteful (8 percent of electricity is lost on average during long-distance transmission) and highly vulnerable. For example, sending out power through overhead distribution lines is just a disaster waiting to happen -- those high-voltage wires should be buried wherever possible.

And the grid is also what New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman calls "dumb," meaning it doesn't have sensors at local sites that would sound the alert when there are outages. Power companies generally identify problems by getting a phone call from a customer who is sitting in the dark. Friedman also says the grid is dumb because it doesn't know how much power is needed at any given spot, so it sends out the maximum amount of electricity everywhere all the time -- another source of massive energy waste.

Related: See Some of the Most Sustainable Communities in the World

By contrast, a smart grid, which is in development in American cities such as Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo., and already exists all over Europe, is a communications system. Smart meters installed at every home and business are able to relay their power demand, or lack of power, instantly to the power company, and the company can provide varying electrical flow to different sites based on demand.

A smart grid can thus automatically detect problems in a distribution system and isolate them before they spread or cause fires. Since smart grid software handles most of these interactions, human error and outages are decreased, response times are increased and prices accurately reflect different rates of power consumption. Smart grids would have restored power much faster during Sandy, especially to areas affected only by storm-ravaged transmission lines.

Is It Worth It?

No doubt about it, the smart grid is enormously expensive. Establishing a national system over the next 20 years would cost at least $100 billion according to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. But if it eliminated power outages and responded intelligently to customer demand, the Electric Power Research Institute estimates that a smart grid could actually save $100 billion each year. And the cost of a smart meter for an individual property is only $250. Just starting with smart meters in storm-prone areas could prevent or shorten the type of blackouts we've seen due to Sandy.

Ecological Drainage

Much of the flooding damage that resulted from the maelstrom was a result of impermeable infrastructure. When water hits solid asphalt, cement or metal surfaces in our cities today, it travels quickly to the lowest elevation along linear designated pathways: streets, storm drains, subway channels, culverts, drain pipes. But these conduits soon become inundated and overpowered with excessive volume. The opposite is true in nature: flowing or falling water gets absorbed into the ground where it falls, or it is sent in meandering channels so that it covers more surface area and disperses its energy. Flooding is delayed until after all other absorptive surfaces have been saturated. So installing permeable pavement is a way to help cities mimic nature, by allowing water to soak into the ground locally.

Constructed wetlands and bioswales, which are simple ditches filled with stones and plants, would also mitigate flood damage in low-elevation areas near bodies of water. Wetlands and swales offer a natural barrier that forces oncoming water to run over different textures of absorptive surfaces. This slows down floods, filters out pollutants and protects bordering areas from the blunt impact of a wall of water.

If the Jersey Shore and the shorelines of Long Island and even Manhattan had had these features bordering residential areas, much serious flood damage could have been avoided.

Is It Worth It?

Permeable paving is at least two times as expensive to install than conventional asphalt, but the cost is immediately offset by a reduction in stormwater hardware that includes drains, reinforced concrete pipes, catch basins, outfalls and stormwater connects. When these total costs of managing stormwater are included, an asphalt or concrete paving system costs between $9.50 and $11.50 per square foot, whereas permeable systems cost $4.50 to $6.50 per square foot.

These savings also apply to bioswales, which a 2004 Army Corps of Engineers study found to be much less expensive to install than underground stormwater systems. So replacing concrete water barriers with more natural solutions not only mitigates storm impacts, but it saves lots of money. And since looking at a vegetated landscape is much more pleasant than touring a storm drain, it's likely that ecological drainage areas could become profitable tourist destinations if combined with other amenities.

By the way, scientists are now proposing that movable seawalls be built around Manhattan, but even with these walls, runoff, storm water and rainfall would still encroach on the city, making absorption and diversion measures necessary.

Green Building

As winter approaches, those still without power in their homes are getting colder and colder. But is this because their houses are not properly weatherized? Writing in the aftermath of the storm, Alex Wilson, executive editor of Environmental Building News and an advocate for the emerging field of "resilient design," proposed: "By building or retrofitting to achieve resilient design, we can create homes that will never drop below 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit even if the house is totally cut off from power and heating fuel -- they can do that with high levels of insulation, top-performing windows, passive solar gain, and other features."

In general, the current guidelines for green buildings specified by the USGBC's LEED rating system (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) double as disaster prevention measures that we should incorporate in rebuilding efforts. Green buildings that generate their own clean energy with solar panels or wind turbines, process their own waste and water, and even produce food on-site would have provided great shelter during Hurricane Sandy with minimal disruption to normal life. Instead of having millions of people dependent on the same central energy, food and water delivery systems that fail outright during a crisis, each building, block or locality could provide these necessities, which would keep more people and businesses functioning.

Is It Worth It?

In a report by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative for the State of California Sustainable Building Task Force, green buildings were found to cost 2 percent more upfront on average. However, the energy and materials savings over the lifetime of the building were found to be 20 percent of conventional costs. So implementing green building on a large scale with creative upfront financing would yield more than 10 times the initial investment over the lifecycle of the building.

Future Storm Protection, at Cheaper Cost

With Sandy, we've learned the hard way that our centralized power grid, concrete jungles and fossil-fuel dependent buildings just make terrible storms even worse. Learning to work with nature and our changing climate by focusing our rebuilding efforts on distributed, locally based, green solutions could help reduce the damage of such storms and also save us a lot of money. Now that would be smart.

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Originally published