The wave of U.S. catastrophes in the past year has northeast municipal issuers scrutinizing resiliency options and how to fund them.

New York City is suing big oil for billions of dollars. Boston would like a seawall for its harbor. Smaller communities in New Jersey are measuring the effects of “nuisance flooding,” which is no mere nuisance in some communities.

The big natural disasters in the past year – from hurricanes to ice storms to forest fires and resultant mudslides out west – cost the U.S. a record $306 billion in 2017, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency said 16 weather and climate disasters triggered losses exceeding $1 billion.

In the northeast, quirky geography, politics and uncertainty about funding from Washington all pose problems about what to do to protect local shores from rising sea levels.

New York's resiliency plan includes integrating flood protection with improved access and open spaces throughout East River and Stuyvesant Cove parks.
New York's resiliency plan includes integrating flood protection with improved access and open spaces throughout East River and Stuyvesant Cove parks. City of New York

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes the city can recoup Hurricane Sandy-related expenses -- and some of the $20 billion it plans to spend in a multi-year resiliency plan -- through a lawsuit against fossil-fuel companies.

He compared the action to the landmark case two decades ago against large tobacco corporations.

De Blasio acknowledged his city’s lawsuit could also take years to win, as did the case by 46 states against big tobacco, which resulted in a 25-year, $246 billion settlement. And win or lose, he admitted the city – still reeling in some parts from the effects of Sandy in October 2012 – has much to do on its own, notably without any federal plan to protect shorelines.

Spend on resilience and save on recovery is the underlying message.

“Real simple idea – the federal government should be investing to protect the places where a huge percentage of the population is,” he told reporters Jan. 10 in lower Manhattan. “There is not even the beginning of a federal plan to protect coastal America.”

“The $20 billion plan that we’re undertaking right now is the best tool we have in the here and now,” he added. “That’s been moving steadily all over the five boroughs, and it’s made us safer than we were five years ago.

“Are we where we need to be? No, we have a lot more to do.”

Resilience projects target the East Side of Manhattan and Hunts Point in the Bronx. Other components include design guidelines for architects and engineers and “cool roofs,” an initiative to coat rooftops for better insulation.

Geographical oddities help place the New York region third for sea-rise risk behind New Orleans and Miami, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

“New York has one major problem in that Long Island and New Jersey form a funnel,” said Stewart Farrell, director and founder of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton University in New Republic, N.J.

“If a storm approaches New York Harbor from straight up the coast and then goes straight into Long Island, the storm surge in amplification goes up by as much as double.”

That's exactly what happened when Sandy struck on Oct. 29, 2012. “You had a 15-foot storm surge. Down here [in southern New Jersey] it was more like 8 feet,” Farrell said.

“New York has a great deal of low-lying land," he said. "Even Manhattan island, which has a lot of fill-in land down around Wall Street. You have a Canal Street and there’s a reason it’s called that.”

Boston two weeks ago experienced a hurricane-type surge of about 15 feet, its highest since the infamous blizzard of 1978. Streets became lakes before a deep freeze that caked in cars.

Mayor Martin Walsh and City Councilor Lydia Edwards – the latter represents water-exposed neighborhoods East Boston and Charlestown – called for a Boston Harbor seawall, with costs estimated at upwards of $10 billion.

The catastrophe “showed us some things we have to look for in the future,” Walsh told reporters. The city's Climate Ready Boston report in October also suggested a harbor seawall.

New York-based disaster financing expert Alan Rubin said cities such as Boston could take smaller measures and not let an overall price tag spook them, especially with federal funding a vast uncertainty.

“Part of the problem with looking at solutions is that they do look at the larger number,” said Rubin, nicknamed the “Hurricane Czar” for his extensive work in Miami-Dade County, Fla., after Hurricane Andrew caused more than $30 billion in damage in 1992.

“It’s impossible to get those types of dollars,” Rubin said of Boston. “It’s not going to work on the state level, on the local level. It’s not going to work on the federal level. You need to do it in phases.”

Climate Ready Boston map of flood risks
Flood risks in Boston, depicted in the city's Climate Ready Boston report. Climate Ready Boston

Boston's harbor is less commercialized than New York's, said Rubin, thus posing funding challenges.

"The economies of scale are not there in Boston Harbor, not like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or Jacksonville or Long Beach," he said. "The navigable waters of Boston Harbor are different than, say, Staten Island [N.Y.] or Bayonne [N.J.]"

Boston, he said, could build a smaller, 40-to-60 foot seawall and break down storm surge.

“That cost is de minimis compared to the $10 billion,” he said. “The city can almost handle that through an emergency fund, through green bonds, through many of the other ways to finance some of these issues as well as FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] money, [Army] Corps of Engineers Money and the other types of moneys that are available at the federal level.”

Rubin sees a role in this for public-private partnerships.

"This administration wants to do P3," he said. "There are also firms like Blackstone, Black Rock and Apollo can benefit and make multipliers off the seed money."

The marketplace explosion for green bonds, with projections for such issuance this year at $120 billion to $150 billion, could benefit these recovery projects, Rubin added. “The market is looking for an opportunity to use these not only in green projects but in recovery projects and infrastructure projects.”

Splicing together funding sources –- which could include voter approval through a referendum – is especially important because Boston’s harbor is not as large commercially.

Farrell’s Coastal Research Center has been working with New Jersey’s coastal communities to document instances of nuisance flooding, defined as water intrusion below what’s typically enough to be noticed by major media or U.S. Weather Service warnings.

Melting snow is such an example. “People say, ‘oh, it’s spring,’ ” said Farrell.

CRC’s studies of nuisance flooding began with the boroughs of Avalon and Longport in Cape May and Atlantic County, respectively. The center intends to follow up with communities to develop a citizen early warning system that could reduce property loss.

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