Gotham Gazette

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Resiliency Planning Post-Sandy: An Interview with Daniel Zarrilli, Part 1

de blasio peterson zarrilli treyger

Daniel Zarrilli, left, is the mayor's director of the Office of Recovery and Resiliency (Dave Sanders/New York Times)

When Superstorm Sandy arrived in New York City on October 29, 2012, the city was jolted into a renewed conversation about climate change, resiliency, and long-term planning. In an interview with Gotham Gazette last year, Klaus Jacob, a geo-physicist advising the City on planning for climate change, said that climate change "truly threatens the livelihood of the city as we have it now — unless [the city] adapts."

The chief concern is rising sea levels, Jacob said. The five boroughs are ringed by 520 miles of coastline, which are becoming steadily more vulnerable to day-to-day inundation and catastrophic storms.

Planning for the long-term consequences of a looming, but largely abstract threat is an incredible task for any local government. Sandy made climate change more real to New Yorkers, but the de Blasio administration is nonetheless forced to work mostly in hypotheticals. The new administration must make calculations for how far to plan into the future, how to allocate precious funds, and how much risk is "manageable."

According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an advisory body on which Jacob and other scientists and academics sit, by the 2050s, sea level at the Battery will have risen 11 to 24 inches (middle estimate), or as much as 31 inches (high estimate) relative to 2000-04 levels. Coastal flood heights could increase by almost 3 feet - projected to range from 8 to 17 feet by mid-century, depending on the nature of the flood-inducing storm.

Last week, Gotham Gazette sat down with Daniel Zarrilli, director of the city's newly created Office of Recovery and Resiliency, to get a sense of the City's current approach to these issues. Zarrilli is now one of the three top officials in city government responsible for crafting and overseeing the de Blasio administration's Sandy recovery and climate resiliency planning efforts (along with Bill Goldstein, Senior Advisor to the Mayor for Recovery, Resiliency, and Infrastructure; and Amy Peterson, director of the Housing Recovery Office). 

Zarrilli, a licensed engineer, is no stranger to the daunting challenge of preparing New York City for climate change: he was interim director of the Mayor's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability at the end of the Bloomberg administration.

Gotham Gazette sought to understand, first, how the new administration plans to utilize the extensive resiliency planning already put in motion by de Blasio's predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and, second, how the de Blasio administration views the future of the city's coastal communities as sea levels rise.

A third focus of the conversation is how the administration plans to work with local communities on the front line of climate change. Only time will tell, but the de Blasio team's purported commitment to community engagement might be what ultimately sets apart its approach to climate change.

Gotham Gazette (GG) talks with Daniel Zarrilli (DZ), director of the Office of Recovery and Resiliency (Part 1 of 2 [jump to part 2 here])

The Plan
GG: Is the city's climate resiliency plan, SIRR [Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, created by the Bloomberg administration in 2013] intact and essentially going forward as it was envisioned last year?

DZ: We released the report in June [2013]: 257 initiatives based on the best available climate science, meant to be a comprehensive long-term view. But we knew even when we released it, that a new administration was coming in, that they would want to take a look at things, so we built into the mechanism for the local law that even adopted resiliency into the City's practices a regular update process. So every 4 years that plan has to be updated by City Council legislation.

What we've seen so far is that [Mayor de Blasio] has made a major commitment to this plan, and he is in fact expanding this plan. It was a key part of his campaign to make sure that we are expanding upon and enhancing the PlaNYC efforts on both sustainability and resiliency.

He's been very clear in all his public statements about really getting the need for what we're doing, and really wanting to lead on these issues, and make sure that NYC faces down the vulnerabilities that are coming its way in the most responsible and cost-efficient way as possible.

GG: Does that mean that the majority of initiatives that you envisioned last year are going forward as you had originally thought?
DZ: The Mayor's made pretty clear comments that we're adopting this plan as our road map. That's our road map. When it comes to April 2015, we're going to have to release an update to that plan...
GG: You're talking about PlaNYC?
[The SIRR plan is part of the City's overall sustainability "blueprint", PlaNYC]
DZ: Yes. What form that takes will come out of the next year's worth of work - what's working, what's not working, and all of the lessons learned that you have from being in it a little bit longer than we are right now.

The fundamentals are absolutely clear for what we're doing. It's about strengthening our coasts; it's about upgrading our buildings; protecting our critical infrastructure; making our neighborhoods safer and more vibrant so that those that are vulnerable to the risks of climate change see that we have a path forward to reduce those vulnerabilities.

GG: On the notion that Mayor de Blasio is "expanding" on the last administration's resiliency planning efforts. What would be an example for our readers of a policy or project that has been expanded?
DZ: Yes, Mayor de Blasio has challenged his leadership team to accelerate our recovery work and make sure we are maximizing federal dollars for this purpose. So we will expand our efforts to do just that. He has also been very clear on his desire to make sure the recovery works to expand economic opportunities in the affected areas. So we will be enhancing our workforce development and local hiring initiatives in the impacted areas to ensure that local residents can help their own neighborhoods recover.

GG: Do you foresee that most of the initiatives in the SIRR plan will have the funding they need?
DZ: We were clear back in June that we have at least a $4.5 billion gap in order to implement what is a $20 billion program. In that, there's good news and bad news.

The good news is that we expect to have in hand roughly $10 billion through federal sources and city sources for our initiatives, but we also expect additional resources from utility rate payers and, in fact, it's not even utility rate payers, because it's Con-Ed which has made serious investments without rates going up. But it's also the Army Corps [of Engineers] making additional investments. And it's future allocations of federal dollars.
Within that, though, we know that we don't have enough federal dollars to meet all the commitments that we have. We continue to advocate the federal government for more resources and for regulatory and legislative reform to make sure that we can implement these initiatives.

GG: So are you optimistic that the City can meet its resiliency funding goals?
DZ: We're going to have a big gap. That's going to continue. We're going to have to be creative in ways to fill it. The fundamental philosophy behind PlaNYC as a whole, as well as the resiliency plan, is mainstreaming these efforts into city agencies so that sustainability and resiliency aren't something we do off to the side, different than the normal course of business for the city, [rather] they're embedded into what we do as a city.

We have a capital plan. We have a major amount of effort that goes into upgrading our roads, and buildings, and bridges, and drainage systems. Every time we do that over the normal life cycle of asset replacement, we need to be looking at the problem through a new lens of resiliency to make sure that we're getting the best bang for our buck on the dollars we are spending.

That doesn't mean we're not going to continue advocating for the federal government to step up on things like coastal protection where they have a clearly defined role, and we need Congress to authorize new projects for vulnerable areas in New York City. That doesn't mean we're not going to be looking for private parties or the federal government to step in on [safeguarding] the liquid fuels infrastructure that serves New York City, or any number of other sources.

This is going to be a long-term challenge of ours to be creative on filling the gap from our end, as well as making sure that our elected delegation knows exactly what we do need to reduce those risks.

GG: How will all of the city's resiliency and sustainability projects be managed? There is a newly created Office of Recovery and Resiliency, and a separate Mayor's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability [created by Bloomberg] - what's the relationship between the two?
DZ: Some of this remains to be completely determined, but the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS) housed the resiliency team until this new office was created. So the Office of Recovery and Resiliency - the folks that are in that office - were on the resiliency team at OLTPS.

We know that the effort around [climate] resiliency needed to be expanded, needed its own focus in order to maximize the federal dollars that are coming into the region, to really coordinate the agencies.

We also know that we share a lot of ground with the city's sustainability office [OLTPS] and that whatever form that takes at this point, they're going to be very closely linked. There's a major commitment to sustainability, and we just need to figure out exactly that working relationship. It's going to be hand-in-hand on climate change, both mitigation and adaptation going forward.

GG: What are the actual material resources for the new office of Recovery and Resiliency?
DZ: We're going to expand our staff in maximize the federal dollars, and develop the right projects, and do all the right planning and coordination efforts. Largely it's going to be funded out of federal sources - the dollars that we're looking to spend and will be secured through CDBG [Community Development Block Grants] and FEMA sources are going to fund a good portion of that office going forward. But the City is also going to make some commitments to those functions as well.

GG: What's the size of the staff of the new Office of Recovery and Resiliency?
DZ: Right now we're about ten, and we see that expanding. A final number is yet to be determined.

GG: What's the size of the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability?
DZ: Well, with the Resiliency team, so it was ten - and probably another 15 or so.

GG: Who's running the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability?
DZ: I am also the acting director there right now.

GG: How far in the future should the city be thinking about planning for climate change? 10, 20, 30 years?
DZ: The New York City Panel on Climate Change has planned out projections into the 2020s, and the 2050s, and ultimately they were looking out to the 2080s. If you look at the projections, the error bound, once you get past 2050, is so wide that it's almost impossible to wrap your head around how to react. It can go low, it can go high - it's a really wide bound.

[Note: While the Panel on Climate Change has not yet released updated sea level rise projections for 2080, initial numbers were submitted by the research group advising the federal government's "Rebuild by Design" initiative. The analysis, by Klaus Jacob, states that local sea level could rise from 18 to 39 inches (middle estimate) or as much as 58 inches (high estimate) by 2080, relative to 2000-04 levels.]

So, we chose the 2050s as our planning horizon, which is, I think, long by most planning exercises. It's not necessarily long by climate change. But, we have the benefit of a naturally recurring re-investment cycle in our infrastructure. The changes are going to develop over the long-term. If in 30 years we see climate change taking a different direction than our projections show, then we'll be able to make decisions at that point.

Taking it back to today, we know there's vulnerabilities now so we need to take steps and make decisions now.

It's not practical that we're going to run away from the coast and our analysis actually shows that we can make reasonable investments to buy down risk - out into that time horizon of 2050 - in a way that's cost effective.

It's nourishing our beaches and building dunes; it's wetlands; it's expanding whether [there] are levees or floodwalls in certain areas of the city. It's a broad range of grey and green infrastructure. But it's also the multiple lines of defense, and making sure that we're not just relying on the coastline to protect us from future storms.

It's also buildings and infrastructure, and looking wider than just coastal storms and sea level rise, and looking at heat risk and precipitation risk and looking at wind risk. It's a wide variety of things that we need to approach from a realistic and rational point of view.

And knowing that we're going to be continually monitoring the risks over time to see how they actually pan out relative to the projections.

GG: Do you think that rising sea levels are the core issue in terms of planning for climate change? Heat, for instance, is also a big issue.
DZ: Heat kills more people every year than any other natural phenomena - heat waves. So that's a threat. To make sure that our power grid is able to handle those threats - the work we've done to settle the rate case with Con-Ed and the State. Con-Ed's making a billion dollars of storm-hardening investments that is really going to help buy down that future risk.

But, sea level rise – if you look out 200 years, it can get a little daunting. Where we are though - and I think it's just realistic - we're going to plan for the future of this city out into a reasonable time frame. We chose the 2050s and that's going to be constantly evaluated as we move into the future.

[Read more from Zarrilli's sit down with Gotham Gazette in the second installment of our interview here]

by Sarah Crean for Gotham Gazette


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