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Menopausal Mother Nature

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Why Climate Policy Should Be Built On Resilience, Not Delusion

nyc flooding ida

was infinitely more fortunate than many, many people, but my Wednesday evening still did not go entirely as planned.

I emerged from a cinema to find a downpour, the subway down, and that cabs were nowhere to be seen.

Passing on the chance to join a sodden group sheltering in an ATM zone, I trudged the 25 or so blocks home, thinking about … infrastructure.

Nearly a decade after the (far more destructive) Hurricane Sandy, New York City’s preparedness for, yes, an astonishing amount of rain — an aftershock from Hurricane Ida — appeared less than impressive.

And this was not the only time that something like this has happened recently. In July part of the subway had found itself underwater after another downpour, on that occasion in the wake of Hurricane Elsa.

The New York Times (from July):

When fast-moving storms flooded parts of New York City’s vast subway system on Thursday, they stranded some rush-hour commuters and underscored just how vulnerable the city’s underground transportation lifeline is to water . . .

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the 472-station subway, has spent $130 million to address water issues as part of a 2017 subway action plan, including cleaning and repairing 40,000 street and sidewalk vents that allow water to run down into the subway, and clearing drainage pipes under tracks and inside stations that carry rainwater to pumps . . .

To be fair, much more than that has been spent on toughening the system.

John Surico for Bloomberg:

New Yorkers can’t help but ask just what the MTA has accomplished since 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. After nine years and at least $5 billion of repairs designed to harden the system against the threats of inundation, why are subway riders still getting washed out? The catch, says Freudenberg, is that deluges like this are different because they don’t just hit coastal areas. “If you look at Sandy, which was a coastal storm, we’re much better prepared today for storm surge.”

Sandy flooded the subway tunnels with millions of gallons of saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean, corroding the intricate power cables and lines that keep the system running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It inflicted, in turn, more long-term damage: For years, I reported on the shutdown of the Canarsie Tunnel, which had to be totally rehabilitated with climate resiliency in mind. The city and state are still completing recovery projects in low-lying areas from then.

But record-breaking rainfall, which blindsided the city in its intensity and pace, poses a different threat to the entire system — and flood-proofing it poses a bigger lift. At a media appearance the day after the storm, Janno Lieber, the MTA’s acting chairman, admitted as much. “We’ve done a ton on coastal resiliency. So all those areas that were hit by Superstorm Sandy — the under-river tunnels — they’ve been made much more resilient and impervious to storms,” Lieber said. “But what we’re seeing now is these repetitive flash floods which are at higher ground. The street-level drainage system gets overwhelmed and then the water gets into the subway in mass quantities.”

In an email accompanying the Manhattan Institute’s Bigger Apple this week, Michael Hendrix, MI’s director of state and local policy, wrote:

Having miles of impervious surfaces leading to storm drains dumping excess water into subway tunnels that take 15 years to unclog is a big problem.

If the frequency and intensity of storms such as Wednesday night’s are the result of climate change (here’s CNN on that topic and, on the specific subject of hurricanes, here’s Reason), and if the change to the climate up to now is (as the IPCC claims) effectively irreversible (to be clear: the IPCC still maintains that even more damaging climate-related change further in the future can be averted if we act in time), it would be sensible — and this is true far beyond New York City — to, as I argue below, prioritize our climate spending for now on reinforcing our infrastructure.

This is a better use of funds over more ambitious (to use a gentle adjective) and grotesquely expensive schemes focused on altering what the climate may be in 2100. That said, allocating resources in this way is about weighting. It is not a binary process.

It does not rule out government support for research into new technologies or, say, backing nuclear energy. Hurling money at Amtrak, however, ought to be out of the question.

Meanwhile, so far as New York City is concerned, the inconvenient truth is that it is ill-equipped to deal with weather-related dangers of the past, let alone any that the future may throw up.

For a depressing look at the situation, check out NYC’s Risk Landscape: A Guide to Hazard Mitigation, a report from 2014 developed by NYC Emergency Management in connection with other city agencies.

Tweeting (please read the whole thread for some intriguingly subversive data) on Thursday, Roger Pielke noted that NYC’s sewer system [was] “designed to accommodate a 5-year storm, one with a 20% chance of occurring in any year.”

Improving the resilience of Gotham and other low-lying coastal cities in the face of flooding will (as is evident from existing plans) not be cheap, but in many cases, it is likely to pay for itself.

Hurricane Sandy cost an estimated $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity in New York City alone. Even worse, it also cost lives, as did Ida.

To take something else of relevance to the Northeast, although not only there: How about putting more power lines underground so that swaths of the region are not deprived of electricity when a large winter storm strikes?

From 2018:

Exceptionally high tides and power outages still linger throughout the Northeast from last week’s storm, which at its peak grounded thousands of flights, halted Amtrak rail services and left more than 2 million customers in the dark from Ohio to Maine. Damages from the storm may exceed more than $1 billion in insured losses, according to Jonathan Adams and Derek Han, Bloomberg Intelligence analysts.

And, on the topic of overhead power lines’ weather-related vulnerability, I read this in MIT’s Technology Review (my emphasis added):

Any effective plan to tackle climate change hinges on a basic technology: long wires strung across tall towers.

The US needs to add hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines in the coming decades to weave together fragmented regional power systems into an interconnected grid capable of supporting a massive influx of renewables.

Oh.

On the left coast, PG&E is doing the right thing (the combined threats of fire and litigation helped).

Axios:

Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest power company, announced Wednesday plans to bury 10,000 miles of its power lines to reduce its future liability for damages from wildfires sparked by its equipment.

Don’t underestimate the upfront expense:

PG&E’s plan is a massive undertaking that could cost between $15 billion and $20 billion, Patricia Poppe, chief executive of PG&E’s parent company, said Wednesday, according to the New York Times . . .

But improving resilience works.

Bloomberg:

New Orleans’ levees, flood gates and pumps held fast even as Ida dumped more than a foot of rain on the region, passing their biggest test since a $14.5 billion restoration after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger:

What saved human lives in Louisiana was real infrastructure—an extraordinary $14.5 billion concrete-and-steel project, funded by Congress, called the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with the advice of several private Dutch engineering firms, it is a 133-mile-long system of elevated levees, breakwalls, floodgates and pumping stations . . .

The bad news, beyond, again, the loss of life (my emphasis added):

By Tuesday, almost 1.1 million customers in Louisiana and Mississippi lacked power according to PowerOutage.us . . .

Even as the area’s flood-prevention infrastructure absorbed Ida’s blow, the power grid collapsed. The storm’s ferocious winds, measuring 150 miles (240 kilometers) an hour at landfall, took out all eight transmissions lines that deliver power to New Orleans, snapped utility poles in half and crumpled at least one steel transmission tower into a twisted metal heap, blacking out the entire city. Utility executives say it’s impossible to tell how long it will take to fix.

While the levees’ resilience is no doubt due to the rebuilding effort that followed Katrina, the starkly different outcomes also stem from the storms’ different characteristics. Katrina slammed the coast with a 30-foot storm surge of ocean water, while preliminary estimates from Ida put its surge far lower. Ida’s winds, however, were stronger than Katrina’s, and that’s what ultimately took out so many power lines.

Local factors may make burying power lines in some parts of Louisiana trickier than in many places elsewhere in this country (although it would be interesting to ask the Dutch about this), but the broader point remains: Dig, baby, dig!

One advantage of focusing on resilience is that it is a means of sidestepping the debate over whether climate change is causing (or will cause) more extreme weather.

Climate skeptics can support it because of what the climate is doing now (and has been doing for a very long time). Climate warriors ought to follow suit, because, if they are correct, the need for a hardened infrastructure will only increase.

Read rest at NRO

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