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The New Garbage Plan; New Worries About Flooding

by Sam Williams, Oct 12, 2004
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New Garbage Plan

The major effect of the city's latest Solid Waste Management Plan, announced at a press conference this month by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Department of Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, is to cut down on truck traffic through the city.

The city seeks to "retool" at least half of the eight "marine transfer stations" that have been largely idle since the closing of Fresh Kills landfill. Trucks have been shipping the garbage to out-of-state landfills since then. Now, sea-going vessels (and railroad cars) will do the shipping. Bloomberg estimated the elimination of at least 625 truck trips daily. "This would result in close to three million fewer truck miles on city streets."

Of course, this is not exactly comprehensive; the mayor's office has yet to find a way to reduce the city's mammoth residential trash load, currently averaging 12,000 tons a day. But the plan would at least reduce fuel consumption and truck-borne exhaust, two environmentally deleterious side-effects of the current trash-exporting system.

For more on this, see The Mayor's New Garbage Plan.

The Flood Next Time

Last month's torrential rains have once again reminded New Yorkers that while hurricanes generally do the bulk of their damage in places like Florida and North Carolina, they can still wreak plenty of havoc this far north. Remnants of Hurricane Ivan managed to shut down a dozen subway lines when flooding tunnels in Brooklyn and Manhattan imperiled the electrified third rail. On Sept. 28, remnants of Hurricane Jeanne disrupted service in a similar fashion out in Queens.

Such flooding leads to the natural question: What would it be like if New York City bore the brunt of the hurricane as opposed to the tail end?

Don't laugh. Two hurricanes hit the city in the 19th century and flooding from the lone 20th Century hurricane, the so-called Great Storm of 1938, killed more than 200 people on Long Island and parts of New England. According to Queens College geology professor Nicholas Coch, an expert on historical weather patterns, the city averages one major tropical cyclone a century.

"In the south they get a lot of hurricanes so it's easy to predict," says Coch. "Up here it's less predictable, so the more historical data we can gather, the better idea we have."

While the region may not have as many storms as Florida or North Carolina, those that do make it this far north pack a punch. Coch says the two hurricanes that hit the city in the 19th century most likely would have qualified as category two storms in terms of wind speed (96 to 110 miles per hour) but delivered broad regional damage equivalent to a category three storm.

"[Northern lattitude hurricanes] tend to have a larger wind field, move faster, and create very high surges."

Coch says the angled New York-New Jersey coastline tends to funnel storm energy onto local beaches and harbors. In the case of the city, the Verrazano Narrows acts like a meteorological megaphone, amplifying whatever storm waves make it through. In the 1821 hurricane, water level readings at the Battery showed a 13 foot rise in a single hour. "That was at low tide," Coch notes. "If the storm had hit during high tide, things would have been a lot worse."

New Yorkers who face down a hurricane in the 21st century might not be so lucky, even at low tide. Vivien Gornitz, a Columbia research scientist, studies sea level rise. Currently, she sees local waterways rising at a rate of 2.5 millimeters per year, 50 percent higher than the worldwide average. She expects that rate to accelerate in the coming decades as global warming draws more water out of mountain glaciers and polar pack ice and transfers it to the world's oceans.

"Whatever surge you'd see [in a future hurricane] would be superimposed on a higher sea level," says Gornitz. "With various levels of sea level rise, what we now consider 100 year storms could occur more often."

Put another way, the kind of local flooding that residents and insurance companies could pass off as a once-in-a-lifetime event may soon become a once-a-decade occurrence. Worst case models show a 10 foot rise in sea level, enough to cover the streets of Coney Island, Midland Beach, and Chinatown, hitting with a frequency of once every 5.5 years by 2080, assuming no change in coastal defenses.

Admittedly, 2080 is a long way off. Barring a major hurricane, Gornitz says the effects of climate change will look a lot like last month: Small storms will pack a bigger punch, resulting in more commuter and homeowner hassles and, over the long haul, readjusted flood insurance premiums, zoning and building-code changes designed to limit New Yorkers' flood exposure.

"I don't think it's going to be a sudden calamity," says Gornitz. "It's just going to magnify what we're already seeing."

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