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FEMA Redrawing City's Flood Zone After Superstorm Sandy

By Jill Colvin | December 6, 2012 12:18pm

LOWER MANHATTAN — FEMA is dramatically re-drawing the borders of the city’s flood zones after Hurricane Sandy ravaged areas far outside the current lines.

Of the homes damaged by the storm, two-thirds were outside the threatened "zone A" on  FEMA’s existing 100-year flood maps, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said during a speech Thursday on the city's post-Sandy future, sponsored by the Regional Plan Association and the New York League of Conservation Voters.

The old maps, which were last updated in 1983, include only portions of the Rockaways, and do not include areas like Gerritson Beach, Howard Beach and East Williamsburg — which all flooded badly during last month's storm surge.

 FEMA's flood map for New York City, last updated in 1983.
FEMA's flood map for New York City, last updated in 1983.
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Flickr/Mayor's Office

“As you can see, the yard stick has changed and so must we," he said at the speech delivered in a Downtown hotel.

He drew gasps from the audience as he unveiled a map showing the extent of the water's reach during Sandy.

Once the new maps are complete, he said they will be used to update the city's evacuation zones and set new construction standards so that buildings in at-risk areas can better withstand intense waves and wind.

"You don't have to be a believer in climate change to understand that the dangers from extreme weather are already here," he said.

Given the "new reality," Bloomberg said the city has been forced to re-examine everything from building standards to transportation and cell phone networks, to better prepare for the next superstorm.

To help come up with a clear plan, he announced several initiatives, including a comprehensive review of the city's preparedness and recovery operations to be headed by deputy mayors Cas Holloway and Linda Gibbs, and an initiative to develop comprehensive "Community Recovery and Rebuilding" plans for each of the communities hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy.

The plans will include input from local community leaders about what each regions need, he said.

To help those communities rebuild stronger, he said the city is also planning new zoning changes that will allow residents to build higher so that they can raise their homes.

"Let me be clear — we are not going to abandon the waterfront," he said. "We’re not going to leave the Rockaways or Coney Island or Staten Island's south shore."

Still, he rejected some ideas that have been floated, such as building a giant sea wall to protect the city.

“No matter how much we do to make homes and businesses more resilient, the fact of the matter is we live next to the ocean, and the ocean comes with risks that we just cannot eliminate," he said.

"It would be nice if we could stop the tides from coming in, but King Canute couldn’t do it, and neither can we," he said, referring to the 11th century Viking king famous for vainly ordering the waves to stop crashing onto his land.

Bloomberg suggested less expensive ideas, such as sand dunes and levees.

Bloomberg also announced a comprehensive push to improve the city's fragile infrastructure, which he said must be capable of withstanding an historic heat wave or category 2 hurricane — much stronger than October's superstorm, which managed to knock out power, cell phone networks, land lines, heat and hot water, and cripple the city's gas delivery systems for weeks.

"During Hurricane Sandy, all of our major infrastructure networks failed," Bloomberg admitted, singling out the loss of cell phone services and continued outages of land lines in Lower Manhattan as "not acceptable."

"They must do better, and we will work with all of the industries to substantially improve the resiliency of their networks," he said.

As part of the efforts, Bloomberg announced that ConEd in making an initial investment of $250 million to improve its electric, gas and steam systems.