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

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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Hurricane Sandy Destruction -- An Epic Storm
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Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding: 3 Bold Ways to Restore Cities Hit Hard

Rising floodwaters caused by Hurricane Sandy rush into a subterranian parking garage on Monday in Manhattan. Sandy's storm surge was estimated to affect hundreds of thousands of homes along the East Coast.

Vehicles are submerged on 14th Street near the Consolidated Edison power plant in New York. The storm forced the shutdown of mass transit, schools and financial markets, sending coastal residents fleeing, and threatening a dangerous mix of high winds and soaking rain. It ranks high among other recent natural disasters that have destroyed urban areas.

A general view of submerged cars on Avenue C and Seventh Street in Manhattan after severe flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy, with widespread power outages and significant flooding.

Lower Manhattan goes dark during Hurricane Sandy. Power has been out in parts of New York all week and might not be turned back on until the weekend. It may make many consider whether to buy a standby generator.

The town of Long Beach, N.Y., is submerged by the storm. It was one area where homeowners were desperately trying to prepare for Hurricane Sandy's onslaught.

A person tries to cross the street in Atlantic City, N.J., as Hurricane Sandy churns toward the East Coast. The city was like a ghost town, with casinos shuttered, tourists fleeing and many parts of the town inundated in knee-high water.

A home in Manalapan, Fla., shows the severe damage it sustained when Hurricane Sandy passed through. Many homes were left ravaged in the wake of the storm, leaving homeowners worried about what their insurance would cover.

A wave crashes against the shore in Montauk, N.Y., while a person stands on a porch as Hurricane Sandy moves up the coast.

Ocean waves kick up near homes along Peggoty Beach in Scituate, Mass.

Aerial view of the coast in Belmar, N.J., after Hurricane Sandy left widespread damage along the Eastern Seaboard. Homeowners are likely to be turning their attention to how to recover from the storm.

Homes are left destroyed on Highland Street in the Tri-Beach area in Milford, Conn., by Hurricane Sandy. For people in hurriance-prone areas of the country, here's how to hurricane-proof your home.

Waves wash over a ruined roller coaster from a Seaside Heights, N.J., amusement park, after the pier beneath the Star Jet coaster collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy. New Jersey got the brunt of the massive storm, which made landfall in the state.

Caleb Lavoie, 17, of Dayton, Maine (front), and Curtis Huard, 16, of Arundel, Maine, leap out of the way as a large wave crashes over a seawall on the Atlantic Ocean during the early stages of Hurricane Sandy in Kennebunk, Maine.

Sailboats rock in choppy water at a dock along the Hudson River Greenway in New York.

Waves pound a lighthouse on the shores of Lake Erie near Cleveland. High winds spinning off the edge of Hurricane Sandy took a vicious swipe at northeast Ohio, uprooting trees, cutting power to hundreds of thousands, closing schools and flooding parts of major commuter arteries that run along Lake Erie.

Firefighters look up at the facade of a four-story building on 14th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan that collapsed onto the sidewalk during Hurricane Sandy.

Downed power lines and a battered road is what Hurricane Sandy left behind as people walk off the flooded Seaside Heights island.

Richard Thomas walks through the floodwaters in front of his home after assisting neighbors in Fenwick Island, Del.

People wade and paddle down a flooded street as Hurricane Sandy approaches in Lindenhurst, N.Y.

An ambulance is stuck in more than a foot of snow near Belington, W.Va, in Sandy's aftermath. The storm buried parts of West Virginia under more than a foot of snow, cutting power to at least 264,000 customers and closing dozens of roads. At least one death was reported.

The view of storm damage over the Atlantic Coast in Mantoloking, N.J. Americans sifted through the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy after the storm passed, with millions left without power. The storm carved a trail of devastation across New York City and New Jersey, killing dozens of people in several states, swamping miles of coastline, and throwing the tied-up White House race into disarray just days before the vote.

A woman walks over the flooded streets of Hoboken, N.J., after Hurricane Sandy hit. The storm was one of the largest in history to hit the East Coast.

A parking lot full of yellow cabs is flooded as a result of Hurricane Sandy in Hoboken, N.J.

A 168-foot water tanker, the John B. Caddell, washed ashore on New York's Staten Island from Hurricane Sandy's powerful winds.

Brian Hajeski, 41, of Brick, N.J., reacts after looking at debris of a home that washed up on to the Mantoloking Bridge in Mantoloking, N.J., the morning after Hurricane Sandy rolled through.

Foundations and pilings are all that remain of brick buildings and a boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., after they were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

This aerial photo shows burned-out homes in the Breezy Point section of Queens, N.Y., after strong winds whipped a fire into an inferno. The tiny beachfront neighborhood had been evacuated before it was inundated by floodwaters, transforming a quaint corner of the Rockaways into a smoke-filled debris field.

A fire fighter surveys the smoldering ruins of a house in Breezy Point. More than 100 homes were destroyed in a fire which swept through the oceanfront  community during Hurricane Sandy.

A car is buried in sand that was washed in from Hurricane Sandy in Long Beach Island, N.J.

In this aerial photo, people survey destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in Seaside Heights, N.J.

Jim Margiotta digs sand out from under his garage door, which was caused by Hurricane Sandy, in Long Beach, N.Y.

This aerial photo shows a collapsed house along the central Jersey Shore coast.

Heavy surf caused by Hurricane Sandy buckles Ocean Avenue in Avalon, N.J.

Cars are submerged at the entrance to a parking garage in Manhattan in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. A wall of seawater and high winds slammed into the city, destroying buildings and flooding tunnels. 

A woman stands near destroyed homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the Rockaway section of Queens, N.Y. The death toll has risen to nearly 100 in the U.S., with 41 in New York City alone.

Boats are piled on top of each other at the Morgan Marina near Sayreville, N.J.

A man walks by the remains of part of the historic Rockaway boardwalk in Queens, N.Y., after large parts of it were washed away during Hurricane Sandy. 

Waves break in front of a destroyed amusement park wrecked by Hurricane Sandy in Seaside Heights, N.J.

This aerial photo shows burned-out homes in the Breezy Point section of Queens, N.Y., after a massive fire that was fanned by Hurricane Sandy's winds.

Robert Connolly, left, embraces his wife, Laura, as they survey the remains of the home owned by her parents that burned to the ground in Breezy Point. At right is their son, Kyle.

Andrew Seemar, 13, removes items from a room as he and his mother, Kathleen, clean up after their home in Brick, N.J., was flooded during Hurricane Sandy.

Rescuers bring people out by boat in Little Ferry, N.J., in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Olivia Loesner, 16, hugs her uncle, Little Ferry Deputy Fire Chief John Ruff, after she was rescued from her flooded home in Little Ferry, N.J.

The remains of homes destroyed by a fire that swept through the Breezy Point neighborhood in New York City's borough of Queens.

Brian Hajeski, 41, of Brick, N.J., reacts as he looks at debris of a home that washed up on to the Mantoloking Bridge in Mantoloking, N.J., the morning after Hurricane Sandy rolled through.

Virgen Perez, left, and her husband, Nelson Rodriguez, center, look around their home which was flooded by Hurricane Sandy in Atlantic City, N.J.

Johnny Adinolfi is comforted by neighbor John Vento, right, as he stands in what was once the living room of his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in Massapequa, N.Y.

People take photos of water filling the Bowling Green subway station in Battery Park in Manhattan as New Yorkers cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

This satellite image shows the monstrous size of Hurricane Sandy before it made landfall on the East Coast.


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