Cities Brace for Apocalyptic Flooding As New Age of Super Storms Dawns

There are a million ways to die in New York City but drowning in a rainstorm is not something many New Yorkers have ever worried about.

That changed last September when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit the Big Apple, unleashing 80- mile-an-hour winds and dumping three-and-a-half inches of rain in a single hour, almost twice as much water as the city’s antiquated sewer systems could handle. The flood warning came too late to save a Nepali couple and their 2-year-old son, who drowned in Woodside, Queens when the sewers overflowed and water roared down hill, inundating their cramped, illegal basement apartment. It did not help a 43-year-old mother and her 22-year-old son, who died in Jamaica, Queens when floodwaters sent a car barreling into the side of their building, causing a partial collapse. Or the 66-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant who perished shouting for help in a basement bedroom near Cypress Hill, Brooklyn.

“This storm has now rewritten the map,” the city’s Mayor Bill de Blasio somberly declared five days later while touring the devastation. “We used to think that flooding was a coastal thing. It’s not anymore. It can happen all over the city.”

Over the past 50 years, the number of reported weather-related disasters has increased fivefold, according to a recent U.N. report. These include powerful hurricanes like Ida, a megaflood in Germany last July that caused $20 billion in damage, a monsoon in India that killed 1,291 and a heat wave last June that killed 800 in Western Canada. Rising temperatures, due largely to emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are increasing the amount of heat and humidity the Earth’s atmosphere can hold, turbo-charging storms and making them more frequent and intense. Meanwhile, as ocean water absorbs more heat, it expands, causing sea levels to rise. The reality of extreme weather is proving to be worse than what scientists predicted only a few years ago.

The combination of rising heat and more intense storms poses a direct threat to coastal cities. A growing number of cities around the globe are finding themselves faced with extreme weather-related events—with apocalyptic levels of flooding, high winds and storm surges—that used to be rare but now occur with alarming frequency. As a result, storms like Hurricane Sandy, which used to come along once every 100 years or so, are now expected to occur more frequently. These storms are powerful enough to overwhelm infrastructure that was built for a bygone era before climate change was a factor. Now that it is, even the best-prepared cities are finding they are sometimes not prepared enough.

The need to protect the world’s cities is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. In 2020, there were 22 climate disasters in the U.S. alone that cost more than $1 billion—the most ever, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Floods in Europe were the costliest weather disasters in European history.

In Manila, Philippines, a 2009 flood submerged 80 percent of the city. After an extended drought in 2018, Cape Town, South Africa almost ran out of water. In 2019, hundreds died of heat exhaustion in Eastern India and outdoor work was temporarily banned in several cities. India and Pakistan are currently experiencing record temperatures, power blackouts and wildfires. That’s just a prelude of what’s to come. By 2050, more than 68 percent of the world’s population will reside in urban areas, experts predict, up from about half right now. Roughly 90 percent of those cities are coastal, which means that by 2050, more than 800 million urban residents may be endangered by sea-level rise and coastal flooding on a regular basis. Twice that many will be vulnerable to chronic extreme heat, and 650 million could face water scarcity, according to a report by McKinsey Sustainability issued last July by C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of nearly 100 mayors from some of the world’s largest cities.

Cities are also expected to get an influx of climate refugees. Since 2010, more than 21 million people were displaced by climate change-related disasters. according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That number could rise to 1.2 billion by 2050, by some estimates. By then, 17 percent of Bangladesh may be submerged and 20 million people may have lost their homes.

In the decades ahead, in other words, the world’s cities will be challenged in ways previous generations never imagined. Although international organizations have recently begun sounding the alarm and pumping out reports with a wide range of suggestions, from planting more trees to combat heat, to permeable pavement and flood-limiting rain gardens, many of the world’s mayors have only recently begun to consider how they might prepare for a new age of extreme weather.

Those that have begun to take actions to protect their citizens are grappling with challenges ranging from the political to the practical, which are revealing just how unpredictable, grindingly slow and messy the process of climate adaptation is likely to be. Few cities illustrate the challenge better than New York City. After Hurricane Sandy laid waste to much of the region in 2012, the city put in place arguably one of the most comprehensive and advanced resiliency plans in the U.S. but still found itself ill-equipped to handle the fury nature hurled at it last fall. And it still struggles to find sustained funding for its climate adaptation programs.

“We are the canary in the coal mine,” says Joy Sinderbrand, vice president of recovery and resilience for The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). “We have 520 miles of coastline. And we are still learning important lessons.”

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An aerial general view shows the lower Manhattan skyline and New York city on August 6, 2021. Ed Jones/AFP/Getty
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In this handout GOES satellite image provided by NASA, Hurricane Sandy, pictured at 1440 UTC, churns off the east coast on October 29, 2012 in the Atlantic Ocean. Sandy, which has already claimed over 50 lives in the Caribbean is predicted to bring heavy winds and floodwaters to the mid-Atlantic region. NASA/Getty

Wake-Up Call Khaled Husein knows what a war zone looks like. After all, he immigrated at age 7 to Kuwait and eventually to New York City from the Israeli-occupied West Bank. And when the now 62-year-old engineer arrived in Coney Island back in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 Superstorm Sandy, it was as bad as anything he’d seen in his homeland.

Unlike Ida, which drenched the city from above, Sandy came barreling in off the Atlantic coast. It arrived on top of a high tide, close to a full moon, causing the water surrounding the city to surge 14 feet higher than normal. Roads, subway stations, electrical facilities and wastewater treatment plants flooded, releasing raw sewage into the waterways, submerging basements and transforming portions of downtown Manhattan into a waist-high lake. Close to two million people were plunged into darkness. The poor and frail were among the hardest hit. The flooding forced the evacuation of more than 6,500 patients from hospitals and nursing homes. And more than 400 New York City Housing Authority buildings containing approximately 35,000 housing units lost power, heat or hot water.

On Coney Island, water surged in from the north and south shores, picking up cars and scattering them like Tinkertoys. On Surf Avenue, a main thoroughfare lined with towering public housing complexes and apartment buildings, the ocean poured into the basements, wrecking boilers, choking off water and electricity and stranding the elderly on high floors without elevators. The receded flood waters left behind piles of sand as high as 6 feet in some places, blocking doors and erasing any evidence of sidewalks or roads.

“What we saw here was beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” recalls Husein. His firm, ATANE Design & Construction Consultants, was called in to help get emergency generators online. “People were using the stairwells as bathrooms because they couldn’t flush their toilets.”

The first lesson of Sandy was just how little planners knew about the city’s vulnerabilities. The devastation was not confined to the coastline. All told, an estimated 51 square miles of New York City flooded—17 percent of the city’s total land mass, an area more than one-and-a-half times larger than what federal flood maps had predicted was possible during a “100-year” flood.

These discrepancies are not unique to New York City. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey pummeled Houston, the flood maps missed about 75 percent of the areas damaged by the storm. That same year, a Department of Homeland Security inspector general report found that 58 percent were outdated enough to be considered by the inspector general to be “virtually obsolete.”

“Sandy was that watershed moment because it took the risks of climate change out of the theoretical and put it in stark, vivid, living color, right in front of your face,” says Daniel Zarrilli, who at the time was city official and later was chief climate policy advisor to New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. “That’s when we realized in New York this isn’t something happening to someone else far away in a hundred years. It’s here and it’s now. We need to do something about it.”

The mayor during Sandy was Michael Bloomberg, who had swept into office eight years earlier in the days after the 9-/11 terrorist attack vowing to rebuild the city. He recognized immediately that the calamitous hurricane, just like 9/11 before it, presented an opportunity for renewal. It promised to open up the spigots of federal relief funds to rebuild, while the shock of the devastation presented a small political opportunity that, if seized, could catalyze transformative changes.

In December 2012, the city launched its “Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency,” which enlisted leading climate and social scientists to make climate projections. Six months later, they produced a comprehensive, 445-page plan to prepare New York City’s infrastructure, buildings and communities for future Sandy-like events. (De Blasio issued his own 332-page plan on Earth Day 2015, which scaled back some of the projects.) The report has served as the blueprint for more than $20 billion in funding to prepare the city for climate change and make it more resilient. It also won the city a reputation as one of the “thought leaders” on resiliency planning.

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Steve Culver cries with his dog Otis as he talks about what he said was the, “most terrifying event in his life,” when Hurricane Harvey blew in and destroyed most of his home while he and his wife took shelter there on August 26, 2017 in Rockport, Texas. Joe Raedle/Getty
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A man gets a haircut at a flooded barber shop on the edge of the Laguna Lake east of Manila October 8, 2009. Jay Directo/AFP/Getty
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A view of the disaster area after severe rainstorm and flash floods hit western states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia in Bad Munstereifel town of Euskirchen, Germany on July 18, 2021. Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency/Getty

The Next Storm Standing on a windswept roof of one 15-story building on a recent day, NYCHA’s Sinderbrand and Husein took in a sweeping view of the Atlantic Ocean, just a couple hundred feet away, then pointed out one of the new emergency backup generators housed in a shipping crate-shaped container, as they launched into a long list of retrofits and upgrades to the complex with a price tag totaling roughly $87 million.

The building was part of Coney Island Houses, a five-building complex of drab, brick towers along the beachfront that was among the hardest hit during Sandy—and which city officials are now billing as a national model of how to protect residents in subsidized housing from the ravages of the future.

“We are talking about electricity—so, full backup power generators are on rooftops of each of these buildings,” says Sinderbrand, motioning to the scores of public housing snaking up and down the thin strip of land that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. “We didn’t have these before. That means that not just in a hurricane, but last summer when there were power surges or when there’s a high use in the neighborhood due to heat, these buildings can go on their generators and have full backup power, with no interruption in services.”

Outside the building, the complex grounds have been repaved with porous pavement that can absorb water during floods and rainfall. The roofs are painted white to deflect heat or fitted with roof gardens that can diffuse it and absorb rainwater. The boilers that provide hot water to each building have been relocated out of the basements and replaced with a new 62-foot-tall elevated, fortress-like boiler plant at the center of the complex, equipped with three dual-fuel boilers. A community room is located on the ground floor, where, in normal times, residents can have parties.

“New York City is already built,” says Sinderbrand. “You can’t start from scratch. You have to think about what existing buildings in retrofits are going to be. We’re talking about 50, 60, 70-year-old brick buildings that were not designed to be flood proofed and thinking, how can we protect structure, infrastructure, residents, their homes from this climate change hazard?”

Down the street at Unity Towers, a massive 192-unit, 18-story complex, Sinderbrand says, the entrance to the building has been elevated—part of a larger effort to raise not just building entrances, but also the street and sidewalk along Surf Avenue for a four-block stretch, to improve drainage of stormwater. NYCHA has also built a 4,235-square-foot, two-story flood resistant annex at Unity to house generators and boilers, along with 50 portable flood barriers at 10 different locations that can be set up at a moment’s notice when a storm is on the way. At nearby Haber Houses, flood-proof materials have been installed at 58 locations that either provide watertight barriers to keep out flood waters or guide the water that does penetrate back out toward the ocean when the tide begins to recede.

If something like Sandy “happens again here tomorrow, there will not be any issues,” says Husein.

The Coney Island projects are a small part of the $3.1 billion earmarked to rebuild and upgrade NYCHA public housing across the city in ways that protect critical infrastructure from a future Sandy-like catastrophe and allow residents to reoccupy the buildings as soon as possible. NYCHA’s largest project is a $550 million project in Red Hook, its smallest a $7 million job in East Harlem.

Meanwhile, the city kicked off the biggest ongoing resiliency effort in Manhattan in the fall of 2020, when engineers broke ground on the $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency (ECSR) project. The ECSR was originally presented as part of an ambitious plan to protect the city’s waterfront by constructing a series of flood barriers that will run south from midtown Manhattan along the East River, down to the southern tip of the island, and all the way around and up the Hudson River to midtown on the city’s west side. Seven years after Sandy, that plan, dubbed “the Big U,” is still evolving, as planners haggle over precisely how to fund it and what different portions of the U should look like.

The ECSR is the first part of the “big U” to become a reality. To protect the parts of Manhattan that run along the East River side of the U, which is expected to rise by 2.5 feet by 2050 and 6 feet by the end of the century, the city has begun constructing a series of berms, floodgates and stone walls.

Last February, just north of the parkland off East 20th Street, a crane hoisted the first of 18 massive floodgates into place. The first $1.5 million, 42-foot-long, 10-foot-high, 32,000-pound swing gate can be pushed into place, connecting to a 700-foot, 12-foot-high wall that will blend into higher-elevation parkland further south.

Tom Foley, commissioner of the NYC Department of Design and Construction, stood on a riverbank and pointed dolefully toward Bellevue Hospital, the hulking 24-story historic building visible a couple blocks away. During Sandy, the National Guard was brought in to help carry patients down the stairs after the basement flooded and the hospital was evacuated for the first time since it opened 275 years earlier. This portion of the wall, he noted, will protect 110,000 residents, with 28,000 in public housing.

“We build cool things throughout the city,” he says. “But this is definitely the coolest.”

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England, London, Greenwich, The Thames Barrier and River Thames. Dukas/Universal Images Group/Getty
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Storm surge barrier in river called De Nieuwe Waterweg. Frans Lemmens/Getty
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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks about the city’s strategy to respond to climate change at Hunters Point South Park, April 22, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty

Call in the Lawyers Although the progress is encouraging, New York’s experience with the ECSR, which has drawn dignitaries to view it from cities around the globe, also demonstrates just how fraught and maddeningly slow the process of flood protection can be. Prior to breaking ground on the ECSR in 2020, city officials spent years hammering out a plan that was satisfactory to local community groups, holding workshops, town hall meetings and consultations attended by more than 1,000 community members. Eventually they produced a plan that involved building a series of massive berms and floodgates to keep out rising waters and promised to preserve the East River Park, an existing 60-acre recreational space.

In 2018, the de Blasio Administration announced that the project’s costs and deadlines were too aggressive, parts of the proposed flood protections in the park would be too complicated to maintain, the construction of massive berms would disrupt traffic and the plan would interfere with underground power lines. De Blasio’s planners reworked the plan, and announced plans to dump millions of tons of landfill on the park, enough to raise the elevation by 10 feet. The plan would result in the removal of 1,000 existing trees, some of which are 80 years old.

Despite the city’s promises to transform the park into “rolling grasslands” with 2,000 newly-planted trees, a bike path and promenade, local activists hired lawyers. Last fall, as the city prepared to begin removing the first of the park’s 1,000 existing trees, protestors chained themselves to the tree trunks outside City Hall demanding that the City Council Speaker Corey Johnson consent to an emergency oversight hearing.

The battles prompted New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman to pen a 6,000-word essay for the newspaper last December, in which he wondered: “Is our society just too frayed to come together around basic material needs?”

Other portions of New York City’s ambitious protection plans have been delayed by disagreements. In 2017, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a multimillion dollar study examining five different massive projects that might be constructed to protect the New York region from future Sandy-like storms. Local New York officials complained that the Army Corps was overly focused on storm surges and was failing to adequately account for flooding and rising sea levels.

In January 2020, The New York Times wrote a long story examining the relative merits of the different proposals, focusing on the study’s most controversial option: a plan to build a series of man-made islands with retractable gates stretching for 6 miles along New York City’s outer harbor that would cost $119 billion and take 25 years. The other options under consideration included a combination of smaller sea walls, and other projects closer to shore, such as the ECSR. The article examined similar efforts in other cities, including the 5-mile-long gated structure built by the Netherlands in 1950s, a barrier near London known as the Thames Barrier and a 15-mile barrier outside St. Petersburg, Russia, completed in 2010, which have all met with varying degrees of success.

That article got the attention of then-President Donald Trump, who took to Twitter, labeling the sea wall “a costly” and “foolish” idea.

“Sorry,” he tweeted, “you’ll just have to get your mops & buckets ready!”

Soon after, the Army Corps announced it was suspending the entire study. Local officials complained that potentially billions of dollars in federal aid had suddenly evaporated. The projects would have required New York City, New York State and New Jersey to pay for 35 percent and Congress to allocate the money for the remaining 65 percent. Under the Biden Administration, the studies have started up again, but precious months were lost. Policymakers don’t seem any closer to agreement.

Zarrilli, the former city climate chief who is now special adviser for climate and sustainability at Columbia University, downplayed the importance of the setback, and said the city has already made plenty of less flashy fixes. For instance, it has raised subway entrances and promoted the growth of natural flood barriers off the coastline of Staten Island by creating nearly a half-mile of partially submerged breakwaters, covered in recycled oyster reefs that will grow with time. Successful preparation, he says, consists of “a lot of little measures, for the short term, the medium term and the long-term.”

“There are no silver bullets,” he says. “Climate resiliency doesn’t fall into a neat package, of here’s the one big thing, which of course makes it complicated to talk about.”

No one expected it to be easy. The best chance cities have, says Andrew Salkin, a former New York City official and the founder of Resilient Cities Catalyst, a nonprofit that works on urban resilience, is to plan carefully for the long term, and then integrate resiliency efforts into new construction and infrastructure projects as they come online.

“There’s a lot of challenges and it’s hard for cities to manage this,” he says. “Cities are tough places to work and govern. Just when you get traction, the leadership changes.”

“There’s varying degrees of successes across the different types of climate,” he notes. “One community might be good at water, but it’s ignoring heat.”

Klaus Jacob, a special research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a former member of New York City Panel on Climate Change, says New York City is doing better than many other cities. In New Orleans, the Army Corps spent $14 billion to upgrade levees that are sinking and will soon be inadequate. And in Miami Beach, he notes, politicians are spending billions of dollars to build pumping systems that aim to mitigate the effects of street flooding during a normal rainstorm but will quickly be overwhelmed by extreme weather.

Still, he argues that New York City’s climate plans are not forward looking enough—many don’t look past 2050—which will force future generations to find new solutions. And though the plans are comprehensive, he says, the city has continued to plan for new construction on vulnerable land: High-rise buildings have gone up along the East River and new public housing is slated for the Rockaways, a part of the city that was overwhelmed during Sandy. In practice, the efforts are almost always focused on “fixing the last disaster instead of looking forward.”

Hurricane Ida illustrates the perils of that approach. “We knew we were going to get some heavy rain,” Vincent Sapienza, DEP chief operations officer, says. “But no one had predicted 3 inches in an hour.”

In the wake of the storm, the immediate emphasis has been on developing an emergency notification system to make sure endangered residents get out in time, Sapienza says. In the long term, the city plans increasingly to rely on more man-made catch basins to filter out debris that might clog pipes, along with natural tools like temporary man-made wetlands to absorb stormwater, since there is a limit to how big sewer pipes can get.

Among the most promising approaches, Sapienza says, is a program to build what the city calls “blue belts,” a hybrid system that links up sewers to natural drainage corridors like streams, ponds, water-absorbing curbside “rain gardens” and other kinds of man-made retention basins, which, in places outside commercial areas, can be so large they resemble wetlands and often increase property values. The city has built more than 70 since the 1980s. In the wake of Ida, it has increased funding more than fourfold and passed measures that require new construction to include features that prevent rainwater from pouring off roofs and into the streets.

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Inger Andersen, UN under-secretary-general and executive director of the UN Environment Programme, delivers a speech via video during the opening ceremony of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in Kunming, southwest China’s Yunnan Province, Oct. 11, 2021. Jin Liwang/Xinhua/Getty
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An overview of a dry area in Theewaterkloof dam on February 8, 2018 in Villiersdorp about 100 kilometers outside Cape Town, South Africa. Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty
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An oil refinery silhouetted against the eerie red of a full moon Joe Sohm/Getty

Managed Retreat So far, much of the world seems still to be waking up to the threat—though a growing number of cities have projects underway that are comparable in scope and ambition to those found in New York City. Most of those cities, like the Big Apple, have been moved to action by tragedy.

In Ho Chi Minh City the number of incidents where drainage capacity has been overcome by “extremely heavy” rainfall—defined as more than 4 inches in three hours—have increased by 500 percent in recent years, and thousands have died. In response, the Vietnamese are constructing a massive 60-kilometer dike ringing Ho Chi Minh City with pumping stations and sluice gates aimed at protecting an area that is home to roughly 6.5 million people.

Flood protection has also, by necessity, long been a national priority in the Netherlands, where 20 percent of the land is below sea level and 50 percent is less than a meter above it. A catastrophic 1953 flood killed thousands. To prepare for climate change, Rotterdam, home to Europe’s largest port, has adapted a massive flood and sea-level rise defense system which includes sand dunes along the coast, dykes along the rivers, floating buildings in areas that cannot be protected and a humongous storm surge barrier consisting of a pair of 210-meter-long barrier gates at the mouth of the main waterway leading into the port. It is one of the world’s largest moving structures on the planet. France established a “heat tax” shortly after a 2003 heat wave killed more than 15,000 people and has used the money to implement a comprehensive heat alert and check-in system aimed at protecting the elderly, the homeless and other vulnerable citizens.

With the help of the World Bank, the European Environment Agency and others, 125 out of 154 developing countries had by 2020 begun taking steps to develop “National Adaptation Plans”—comprehensive blueprints for preparing for coming calamities (though only 20 had submitted full plans).

Nevertheless, in most of the world, climate resilience remains a distant goal. Global investment in adaptation increased slowly but steadily in the years leading up to the pandemic, from $22 billion in the 2015-2016 fiscal year to $30 billion in 2017-2018, but it needs to increase by five-to-10 times to bring developing countries up to the U.N. Environment Programme’s estimates of what will be required to respond to escalating climate risks. The UNEP puts the needs of developing countries at between $140 and $300 billion per year by 2030. And one review of post-pandemic spending plans found that only a “fraction” of funds were going to build climate resilience. Measures that increase carbon emissions outnumber “green” initiatives by four to one.

Even the U.S. is late to the climate-adaptation party. The U.S. Congress only in November approved the first ever major commitment of climate “resiliency” funds to help communities prepare for worsening floods, fires and storms. It was part of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that contained provisions co-written by Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, whose home state of Louisiana lost 82 people in Hurricane Ida. The bill designated $47 billion for climate resilience efforts.

As a result, the annual budget for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s program to buy or elevate homes at risk from floods is slated to more than triple to $700 million. The Army Corps of Engineers construction budget will more than quadruple, with $11.6 billion for projects like flood control and river dredging. The bill also includes $492 million to help federal agencies better map and forecast inland and coastal flooding.

It’s a promising start and an indication that perhaps the political winds are shifting. But no one is under any illusions that it will solve the problems. Columbia’s Jacob believes the only “truly sustainable” solution is “managed retreat” from the coast.

“Either it happens by smart planning, by a forward-looking government, or it will happen by disasters,” he says. New York City “should start planning for that now because it will cost billions and billions and billions of dollars.”

Learning from experience, it seems, will likely continue to be the most powerful motivator.

“We’re at this moment where we’re going to continue to just be shocked by what is happening in our atmosphere and in our climate,” Salkin says. “There’s a big difference between knowing it on paper and by talking to the scientists and seeing it in real life. There’s a psychological change that happens there.”

Adam Piore is a contributing writer and author of The New Kings of New York: Renegades, Moguls, Gamblers and the Remaking of the World’s Most Famous Skyline, which is available on May 24, 2022.

Correction (6/15/2022): This article originally got the date wrong for Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Northeast in 2012. This has been fixed.

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