Nearly three years ago, Superstorm Sandy made U.S. landfall, bringing with it an estimated $69 billion of damage and nearly 60 deaths to coastal New York and New Jersey. While storms of Sandy’s size always deliver a mixed bag of water and wind damage, this storm’s legacy, particularly in the New York City area, will be the floodwaters that immobilized transportation systems, destroyed homes and businesses, and left one of America’s most vibrant economic hubs determined to keep it from happening again.
A 'perfect storm'
Attorney Michael Bogin, a New York waterfront advocate and a partner at Sive, Paget & Riesel, P.C., said there was another "perfect storm" even before Sandy’s arrival, as New York's waterfront had seen an unprecedented period of growth, resulting in approximately 800,000 new high-rise residential units since 2000.
However, all of these new buildings were constructed in accordance with outdated Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain maps, which are critical to gauging the risk of property damage due to flooding. FEMA was in the process of updating the maps when Sandy hit, according to Bogin, whose childhood home on Long Island also sustained damage from Sandy. "The storm beat the maps to the punch," he told Construction Dive.
"So we have old maps and more people now in the flood zone and Sandy rolls along, and it just takes its best shot," Bogin said. "What really killed the city was not wind or windborne debris. It was a storm surge. It was a combination of a super high tide and the water being pushed by this gigantic storm."
According to a City of New York report, Sandy flooded 51 square miles of the city — exceeding FEMA floodplain map projections by 53% — and damaged approximately 800 commercial and residential buildings. In New Jersey, an estimated 350,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
Once the storm passed and authorities assessed the damage, New York and New Jersey officials could only come to one conclusion: Flooding had been the major cause of the devastation, and they had to change the building codes to minimize the potential for future water damage.
New Jersey, which updates its building code every three years, was about to introduce its 2012 code when Sandy hit, according to architect Robert Longo, chair of the American Institute of Architects New Jersey Codes and Standards Committee. In the wake of the storm’s damage, officials decided to table the introduction of a new code because "people generally think that new codes are more cumbersome, which then turns into the words 'more expensive,' and they think it might slow down any sort of rebuilding process," Longo told Construction Dive.
Bogin said that New York, under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, immediately acted to pass new zoning amendments, but, at the same time, kept developer needs in mind.
For example, Bogin noted, city officials made the decision to require building elevations at least one or two feet above FEMA floodplains, a buffer commonly referred to as "freeboard." However, developers already faced building height and floor space restrictions, so the city had to get innovative to ensure safety but still encourage development.
Bogin added that New York, taking into consideration developer concerns, redefined building height to start that measurement from the first livable floor, rather than the ground. The city also loosened up the setback requirements for features like ADA ramps and elevators and decided not to count those items toward total floor space if circumstances required they be built inside.
"It’s just recognizing that we need to be more resilient, but we also need to allow for appropriate development," Bogin said, "And I think the new zoning amendments to the building code really strike a balance, and it's a difficult balance to strike.”
New Jersey, much like New York, also established a freeboard requirement, along with new structural standards related to the potential for standing and moving water, according to Longo. He said that insurance companies have set insurance premiums and deductibles according to how high of a freeboard allowance owners include in their homes, and this has encouraged higher freeboard buffers, which Longo sees as insurance for the future.
"Let's face it," Longo said, "the storms really aren't predictable, and, if we set a flood elevation today, who knows what that might be by the next time the federal government gets around to revising these maps."
An uncertain future
As Longo noted, the future is an unknown, and whether or not even the new codes will protect the area from future storms remains to be seen. Certain costly initiatives, like a floodgate at the mouth of Coney Island Creek, never materialized because of a lack of money, according to Bogin, and proposals for measures like the building of protective barrier islands were largely forgotten.
Resistance to change and short memories also figure into the mix, Bogin said. New Jersey officials scuttled plans to build sand dunes along parts of the New Jersey shore after homeowners complained that the dunes would block their views of the ocean.
In addition, according to attorney Thomas Kokalas, partner at Bracewell & Giuliani in New York, there is rising tension in the the Rockaways area on Long Island over floodplain designations. The map designations, Kokalas said, are resulting in skyrocketing flood insurance premiums, and developers are trying to get those maps changed. "It’s making the cost of living there insanely high," Kokalas said. "They want protection, but they also want people to live there."
Nevertheless, for now, there is confidence that the changes to the building codes offer significantly more protection today than pre-Sandy.
"You can never predict what the next storm is going to be," Bogin said. "Maybe it's not going to be a flood issue. Maybe next time it’s going to be a category 5 storm with 200 mile per hour winds. I don't know, but, at least in terms of flood and wave action, the city under this new building code will be much more prepared for what the 21st century is going to throw at it."