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Dolman: New York must adjust to new weather realities

This photo from the U.S. Coast Guard shows

This photo from the U.S. Coast Guard shows areas of Long Island damaged by Sandy. (Oct. 30, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Life in lower Manhattan, as on Long Island, has always been about the water. But in the wake of superstorm Sandy, what was once a beautiful relationship is starting to turn ugly. A few things need to change.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called lower Manhattan a temporary ghost town after Monday night's maelstrom of water, wind and fire. Parts of the district still have no lights, no running water, no elevators, no subway service, no nothing.

That was not great news to this downtown resident who's been encamped in an upstate hotel for a few days now.

But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was even more alarming. He said he had watched in horror Monday night as the Hudson River tried to meet the East River on downtown's streets. "It looked apocalyptic," he marveled. Seawater was rapidly filling the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel; it was roaring into the roadway that burrows under Battery Park, gushing into the construction pits at the World Trade Center.

Not that life on Long Island was any better, with live power lines snapping and popping everywhere, with 90 percent of customers without electricity, with scenes of devastation everywhere you look. In all, Sandy has claimed 30 lives statewide now, according to the governor's office, and it's not clear that the toll has stopped rising. Meanwhile, power on the Island could be out for days or weeks, and even when it returns, will Long Islanders who work in the city be able to get to their jobs?

Nobody has solid answers yet.

The sea gives and the sea takes away, and for the better part of four centuries in lower Manhattan, the connection has been mostly good. Long after Wall Street morphed into a global financial center, downtown still could offer a whiff of port-city raffishness.

It was almost an organic thing. In an interview a few years ago, philanthropist and entrepreneur David Rockefeller described his first days working at Chase Bank in the Financial District after World War II. The bankers in those days "literally rubbed shoulders with longshoremen," he said, "because all of us were essentially in the same business, trade. Great warehouses ringed the waterfront and ships crowded the piers and wharfs."

Today the waterfront remains a powerful economic force downtown, but instead of ships, piers, wharfs and longshoremen, it teems with 60,000 residents who love the harbor views and with 10 million tourists a year who visit attractions like the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the South Street Seaport.

But then there's that downside. As Cuomo has said, we can't keep having the storm of the century every few years. Whether the reason is global warming or something else, extreme weather is now a regular feature of modern life. We have to protect ourselves.

We need to modify our built environment -- especially our rail and car tunnels -- to keep out raging seawater. We need to consider levees to protect places like lower Manhattan from another round of sudden inundation. We need to get to the bottom of the global warming conundrum. And on Long Island, this might be the time to seriously consider burying power lines.

Something's gotta give.

Joseph Dolman was deputy editorial page editor for New York Newsday.