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Pataki Turns Green; Tsunami Speculation

by Sam Williams, Jan 27, 2005
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Though he campaigned vigorously for the national Republican ticket, New York Governor George Pataki now seems bent on distancing himself from a White House that is often seen as anti-environment.

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The governor's proposed budget boosts the state's Environmental Protection Fund by 20 percent, to $150 million. Pataki is also looking to offer expanded tax credits for "green buildings" to foster cleaner, more efficient energy usage here in the city. The governor's office plans as well to expand by 70 the number of state staffers at the Department of Environmental Conservation, shoring up an overwhelmed Superfund/Brownfields program in the process. To underwrite the additional salary costs, the governor is proposing that developers who seek to build in or near protected wetlands pay an additional permit-processing fee.

For the Environmental Advocates of New York, a watchdog group whose July, 2004 report, "Endangered Agency," decried the Department of Environmental Conservation's prolonged record of staffing cuts, it was a welcome turnaround. Robert Moore, the group's executive director, says he and his colleagues had met repeatedly with the governor's office, suggesting the wetlands fee as a way to finance the department’s expansion without a statewide tax.

"Before, we were basically subsidizing the destruction of wetlands," says Moore. "Developers were getting permits free of charge regardless of how much [Department of Environmental Conservation] staff time went into evaluating those permits."

The governor's budget comes on the heels of major state announcements in the way of renewable energy and emissions. In September the New York State Public Service Commission set a 24 percent renewable portfolio standard, meaning that at least 24 percent of the state's energy demand must be supplied via renewable energy sources by 2013. On January 11, the governor and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer teamed together to announce a trio of legal settlements which stand to reduce dramatically the amount of airborne pollution entering New York state while at the same time forcing polluters to pay for the clean up of dirty power plants at a time when the federal government has adopted a more lax approach to power plant regulation.

Add it all up, says Moore, and you get a pretty clear picture of a politician willing to alienate a few pro-business conservatives at home in exchange for a few green-voting Republicans outside the state..

"You have two Republican governors who have really broken with the [Bush] administration on the environment," Moore says. "Both have done very proactive things, especially when it comes to energy. Both are looking for ways to stand out."

Of Tsunamis and Cities

In journalism the reflex move when faced with a giant story is to look for the local angle. In the case of the recent tsunami coverage, most New York journalism has focused on local relief efforts and the immigrant communities affected by the disaster. A few, however, have gone for the more visceral approach, speculating on what it would take to trigger a similar event here on the east coast.

The New York Post documented the "mega-tsunami" phenomenon that has some scientists concerned about the U.S. east coast. At first glance, this seems like a typical case of the Post grabbing at the most sensational storyline it can find. Upon further examination, however, "mega-tsunamis" are a legitimate phenomenon that, while unlikely in the near future, offer a useful reminder that New York City's proximity to the ocean can be both a blessing and curse.

In 1958, an earthquake-triggered landslide in Alaska's narrow Lituya Bay generated a tsunami wave more than 1,500 feet high. Survivor accounts likened it to an underwater atomic bomb test and ever since, scientists have been forced to raise the upper limit of worst-case tsunami scenarios. As documented in a 2000, BBC special geologists have since discovered credible signs of similar mammoth displacement waves hitting Hawaii and portions of the Bahamas.

That last discovery is what proves so unsettling from a New York perspective. According to BBC report, volcanologists at the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre in London see the Canary Islands as the potential source of a major wave train that battered the Bahamas roughly 100,000 years ago. In an effort to determine how long until the next catastrophic event, they have turned their attention to Cumbre Vieja, a volcano on the island of La Palma. Cumbre Vieja last erupted in 1949, an event that, while benign, managed to speed the separation of the mountain's eastern and western halves. Volcanologists estimate that the western half slipped four feet during the eruption and is set to tumble off into the Atlantic Ocean anywhere between now and the next 100,000 years. Computerized modeling of the wave generated by a complete breakaway of the western half of Cumbre Vieja showed an initial wave height of 650 meters moving quickly across the Atlantic. How large that wave would be once it got to America is hard to say -- as is the number of eruptions it would take to cause such an event.

"We simply don't know," says Benfield Greig volcanologist Bill McGuire in the BBC special. "But put it this way: If I was living in Miami or New York and I heard that the Cumbre Vieja was erupting, I'd be keeping a very close eye on the news."

Pondering such worst case scenarios is grim stuff. Even grimmer, however, is the realization that New York City has neither the infrastructure nor cultural memory to deal with even a moderate-level natural disaster requiring a speedy evacuation of coastlines. As noted a few months back, New York has experienced flooding and fast-rising ocean levels in the past. It also looks to be losing a few millimeters to the sea each decade. While our city has done much to guard against terrorist risk, we have done very little to safeguard ourselves against hurricanes, floods and other environmental events that might demand coordinated evacuation and recovery.

Recently, delegates from 50 nations gathered in Kobe, Japan for the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction to discuss this very problem. Using the South Asian tsunami as a backdrop, the conference quickly focused in on the unmeasured disaster risk presented by "megacities" -- metropolitan regions with populations in the ten million-plus range. Factoring in population size, property values, and overall disaster history, the German insurance giant Munich Re recently gave New York City a risk index ranking higher than 43 out of the world's 50 largest cities. The only cities to rank higher were cities with a history either of recurring earthquakes, such as Tokyo, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Osaka, or of hurricanes, such as Miami.

"Perhaps the most frightening prospect would be to have a truly megadisaster in a megacity," said UN Director of Disaster Relief Jan Egelund, a conference attendee. "Then we could have not only a tsunami-style casualty rate as we have seen late last year, but we could see one hundred times that in a worst case."

Egelund focused most of his concern on fast-growing Third World cities, but the notion that natural disasters have become a global issue, not just a local one, is the resonating message coming out of December's catastrophe in South Asia.

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