A New Manhattan Project?

Bill Keller, a former executive editor of The New York Times, has an op-ed column in this morning’s edition with the wonderful title A New Manhattan Project. Its topic? Practical ways and means of protecting New York City and its environs from future hurricanes. He’s reached out in a number of directions and collected a range of ideas.

If you plan to do any reading today, add his thoughtful piece to your list. You’ll be glad you did. The ideas include: augmenting the existing set of dikes and gates, artificially creating extensive wetlands for “natural protection,” major engineering works such as those that protect London and the Netherlands, and numerous small, quick fixes. [He even makes a gracious nod to the NTSB concept. Thank you.] He considers alternatives for the needed political leadership, and offers a nice logic for Mayor Bloomberg.

The title is brilliant, and the article is its substantive match.

Yesterday’s post spoke in passing to our national need to protect critical financial infrastructure, which, as even schoolchildren know, is concentrated in Manhattan. Safeguarding such infrastructure means shielding the physical plant – all those skyscrapers and trading floors and their electronic counterparts that populate Wall Street. But it also means ensuring that other infrastructure – the electrical grid, communications, water supplies, and those all-important subways are running. And it also requires defending the homes where all those financial wizards and their families live. But that implies we guarantee that their schools and hospitals and the stores where they shop remain open as well. As we’ve seen, all those ancillary pieces will be disrupted unless all the teachers and nurses, and truck drivers and clerks remain whole.

So, protection of the critical few means protection of the equally-critical many.

We’re all in this together. So let’s take the measures necessary to protect New York.

But at the same time, let’s remember the story of the Maginot Line.  After World War I (a timely topic for today, Veteran’s Day) the French Minister of War Andre Maginot, directed the construction of an extensive and expensive set of defense works, designed to protect France from any future military threat. Just a few years later, the Germans with their highly mobile military, had no difficulty going around these fortifications, conquering France in a few weeks. Today “Maginot line” is an icon for well-intended projects that fail their intended aim.

In the same way, natural threats know no political or geographic boundaries. As we protect New York, we need to be mounting similar efforts all along our coasts, all along the earthquake faultlines that criss-cross our country, along our rivers, in our fire-prone forests…you get the idea. Nature will always threaten us at our exposed flank. Might be New Orleans next time. Or Miami. Or Seattle. Or a drought hitting the nation’s breadbasket.

Now there’s a stimulus package.

And an NTSB analog could help us think through our national strategies for protection against natural hazards.

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4 Responses to A New Manhattan Project?

  1. Ultimately, the added complexity of many of these fixes – needing maintenance and so forth – would make NYC more resistant but less robust and resilient. I think a better answer would be to – do nothing (about hurricanes like Sandy)! Especially the government. Let the financial sector make those thousands of individual decisions that will be made anyway in order to become more resilient (If Katrina is any indicator, some firms will decide to leave NY, adding an element of redundancy to the sector). I’m not sure it’s worth it to try to hurricane-proof NYC against hurricanes that occur on average only once every 75 years (certainly isn’t on a net present value basis). Scant “security” dollars would be better spent on warning systems, upgraded infrastructure and other things that will improve the city every day.

  2. Bill Read says:

    I think the conversation needs to go forward and be expanded because it is unlikely there is public support for wholesale moving out of current risk areas on the coast, much less taking into account forecast sea level rise. You stated there are other vulnerable coastal cities – I think understated is the comment I would use. Most of the cities along the Gulf and East Coast of the U.S. are vulnerable due to the misuse of the 100 year event for development planning purposes. Therein lies the problem – how to justify (Federal) money for a Big Project for New York without doing the same for everywhere else? Mr. Keller’s research into just how long it would take to do such a project is spot on. After Hurricane Ike, 2008, a proposal to do a similar protection system for the Galveston Bay region was put forth (http://www.tamug.edu/ikedike/). Four years later, little progress even in the discussion of such a project has been made, and the funding problem remains unanswered. After Katrina, a lot of billions was spent improving the protection system – but only to a certain risk level and not for the Big One. Somewhere in the conversation there needs to be a outside the box discussion of how this is going to be financed and by who, as I don’t think the climate for unfunded Federal money is favorable. The value of a spirited debate will be to take an honest look at the scope of the problem and weigh various solutions, some of which we may not have thought of yet.

    • William H. Hooke says:

      Thanks, Bill: You’ve captured this element of the problem nicely. If we make the “needed” investments everywhere, in a balanced way, we’ll require huge amounts of funding. As you suggest, that’s probably needed more is a commitment to reducing risk (get in touch with that as an American value), and a policy that’ll foster innovation, creativity with respect to achieving resilience without breaking the bank. As John Plodinec commented, maybe the path forward is a little less top-down and more bottom-up…looking for clever solutions to pieces of the larger challenge.

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