Sandy exposes region's creaky infrastructure, spurs demands for change

With the Tappan Zee Bridge in the background, With the Tappan Zee Bridge in the background, waves crash in the Hudson River in Piermont as a result of high winds as Hurricane Sandy approaches. (Oct. 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

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Hurricane Sandy has stirred up a chorus of calls to improve the region's infrastructure in anticipation of more epic storms in the future.

"Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality ... that we are vulnerable," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference in Manhattan at midweek, after he had surveyed damage in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County by helicopter.

"I would expect a situation like this to recur, and I think we need a system solution long-term, because this is really a long-term issue."

The governor's staff soon made clear that Cuomo harbored no doubts regarding the state's most ambitious infrastructure project, a new Tappan Zee bridge. They pointed out that the existing bridge weathered the hurricane well, and said the new bridge will hew to the most advanced bridge standards.

Cuomo's comments on Wednesday focused mostly on the installation of electrical equipment underground. When epic storms are frequent, that approach no longer makes sense, the governor said.

"I joke that every two years we have had a one hundred-year flood," he said. "The frequency is way up. It is not prudent to sit here and say it is not going to happen again."

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who accompanied Cuomo on the helicopter ride, later echoed the governor's comments in an interview with Newsday. The county's parkways, sewage treatment system and other facilities are showing signs of wear, he said.

"You're talking about engineering and designs that were done sometimes 100 years ago," Astorino said.

Groups that are normally on opposite sides regarding environmental issues seemed to agree on this one.

Builders emphasized the need to update New York's aging and fragile infrastructure, while environmentalists argued that government needs to do more to prepare for extreme weather linked to global warming.

"Either something unusual is happening or we're just at a very active part of the weather cycle," said Michael Elmendorf, president of the Associated General Contractors of New York State. "Which it is, it doesn't matter. You need to do things."

About 4,000 bridges in New York State were built with 50-year life spans, but are now 60 years old, Elmendorf said. A third of the bridges in the state need extra maintenance or, worse, couldn't be built today, because the designs wouldn't meet current construction codes, he said.

"We have a big infrastructure problem here," Elmendorf said. "It's being exacerbated by these weather occurrences that are definitely outside the norm."

Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River program director for the environmental group Riverkeeper, forecast worse weather ahead, requiring new investments to avoid life-threatening disasters and adverse economic effects.

"Longer-term, this storm is basically requiring us to reassess our infrastructure," Musegaas said.

Kimball Wilson, Yonkers deputy commissioner for planning and development, described Sandy as a wake-up call. Mayor Mike Spano's successful evacuation of the Hudson River waterfront during the storm has prompted city officials to ponder changes to plans for aggressive development of the city's waterfront, she said.

"Obviously when you go through a crisis like this, what you take away from the crisis is just as important," Wilson said. "When the dust settles, we will plan the waterfront community as we go forward."

Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, another environmental group, said plans for waterfront development along the Hudson will now face tougher scrutiny.

"Communities have to be resilient," Sullivan said. "Where is infrastructure and housing located? What are the vulnerabilities to the flooding and storm surges that we're now experiencing?"

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