For those of us involved in the 2010 exhibition Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the question we’ve been asked most frequently since Superstorm Sandy is “Could things have been different?” The honest answer is mostly no. The barrier islands and reefs proposed in the Rising Currents show were there to break the waves in storms to form a new public space on the water’s edge, as well as to defend the city. Sandy, in spite of being a tidal surge, was a late-season storm, and the cold temperatures kept the strongest winds at a high altitude, so fewer waves formed. Inside New York’s upper harbor, the waves in Sandy appear to have been less violent. To protect against the tidal surge itself would require more specific and engineered protection in addition to the kinds of natural barriers proposed at MoMA.
Looking back to Sandy, we see how easily we are caught off guard. Thanks to Hurricane Irene in 2011, transit officials knew to shut down the system in advance and move the trains to safety, but they did not seal the road and rail tunnels against flooding. Irene caused the first evacuation in memory, but the lack of severe flooding then led some residents to ignore evacuation orders during Sandy, with terrible consequences. The unexpected flooding of an electrical substation downtown caused an extensive and lasting blackout. Many buildings were made uninhabitable when basement flooding knocked out their utilities. It seems pretty clear that building-code provisions for flood-resistant design and construction had been inconsistently applied at best.