A hot-dog stand at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 19th Street was a beacon in blacked-out Lower Manhattan. Photo © Iwan Baan

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, New Yorkers watched in horror as residents climbed onto rooftops, stranded, or fled to shelters that provided precious little shelter. For all kinds of reasons—ranging from geography to confidence in government—New Yorkers believed that "it could never happen here."

Damaged homes on Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, after Hurricane Sandy came and went. Photo © Amanda Kirkpatrick

But for a few days this fall, it very nearly did. In Manhattan, the moat itself became the enemy, as a storm surge swept over the island. Suddenly, Canal Street threatened to revert to a canal, and Chelsea was, by all accounts, Chel Sea. (The High Line park, 30 feet above the ground, was, for a time, the high and dry line.) Throughout Lower Manhattan, many residents found that, even when the waters receded, and even after the power came back on, there was so much damage—mostly to basement mechanical equipment—that buildings would be uninhabitable for months. Among those affected were celebrity residents of Richard Meier’s three West Village towers.

But well-heeled Manhattanites were, for the most part, merely inconvenienced. The real tragedies occurred elsewhere: in the Rockaways, where an entire neighborhood was lost; on the Jersey Shore, where towns were permanently disfigured; and on Staten Island, where bodies were still being pulled out of flooded basements days after the storm. More than 100 people died as a direct result of Sandy, and many others suffered; the fate of hospital and nursing home-patients provided particularly ghastly news.

It was a tale of two cities, some parts barely touched, others gravely injured. Volunteers began reaching the hard-hit areas, providing food and other necessities, often with surprisingly little government assistance. Among the second responders were architects;
members of the Staten Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects worked with the Department of Buildings to inspect houses, providing, in many cases, the green stickers that allowed their owners to return. (But, without a “good samaritan” law to protect them from liability, architects were unable to conduct inspections on their own.)

But many New Yorkers had no homes to return to. The number of displaced was in the tens of thousands. City “projects,” often in low-lying neighborhoods, with antiquated systems, were especially hard hit. Schools were pressed into service as emergency shelters, but eventually the students had to return, and the city confronted a long-term housing crisis.

Meanwhile, power outages paralyzed large swaths of the city, including the New York Stock Exchange and most of the financial district. (Lower Manhattan became SoPo, a new nickname for “south of power.”) Those whose workplaces were undamaged generally couldn’t reach them, with the subway system flooded. The cost was estimated in the billions of dollars, but it’s hard to guess the long-term effects on Manhattan’s economy; surely some companies will decide to move operations to higher ground.

Soon the questions began, about why the city hadn’t made better preparations for the storm that everybody knew was coming. Keeping the tunnels that connect Manhattan to New Jersey and Long Island dry would have been relatively easy, engineers asserted. (Inflatable plugs, developed for the Department of Homeland Security, could offer a low-cost alternative to conventional floodgates.) And how could the utility company Con Edison have left crucial equipment—including a transformer on 14th Street that exploded during the storm—exposed?

Much was made of a 2009 symposium, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers, at which a five-mile steel barrier in the Atlantic Ocean, stretching from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to the Rockaway Peninsula, was discussed. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others have dismissed the idea as impractical—it would cost tens of billions—and also unfair, since water has to go somewhere. A barrier would protect Manhattan—making it the ultimate gated community—while worsening conditions elsewhere. And much was made
of the Museum of Modern Art’s Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, a 2010 exhibition of "soft infrastructure" solutions. Proposals included suspending housing over the harbor, changing the shape of the New Jersey shoreline, and installing permeable paving in Lower Manhattan.

But one Manhattan architect, Alex Gorlin, referred to such solutions as the “crunchy granola” approach to civil engineering, mocking the idea that “oyster beds and a few lovely marshes at the Battery will hold back 14½-foot surges.” New York, he says, needs to get serious about rising waters—as serious as London is with its movable flood barrier (completed in 1982 and used more than 100 times)—or risk long-term decline.

There was lots of talk of how the Nether­lands protects territory that is, in many cases, below sea level. “I’m glad I hired a Dutchman,” says Leslie Koch, the president of the Trust for Governors Island, where a new park by Adriaan Geuze of the Rotterdam firm West 8 is taking shape. Parts of Governors Island had already been raised as much as 16 feet at Geuze’s behest; Koch reported they were “bone dry” soon after the storm. But there’s no way to raise Manhattan 16 feet. That’s why the approach advocated by Guy Nordenson, the engineer who helped organize Rising Currents—an approach he describes as “living with water” or “controlled flooding”—makes sense. But “as far as I know, no one at any level of government is thinking that way,” says Nordenson.

As in New Orleans, telling people not to return to their homes is political suicide. Of course, the government is doing more than allowing people to return to vulnerable sites; it is encouraging them to do so, by dispensing funds through FEMA. Matthew Kahn, a professor of economics at UCLA, says that FEMA grants provide incentives to repeat the mistakes of the past. Calling for a “tough love” approach to storm recovery, he says, “It’s simply an economic argument. If you’re spending other people’s money, you’re less likely to move to higher ground or come up with more resilient buildings.” He added that coastal residents “are more likely to adopt the best architectural practices from around the world if they have more skin in the game.”

Kahn isn’t the only one who thinks buildings have to change; in the view of many architects, placing essential equipment in basements makes little sense. The whole point of Rising Currents, says Nordenson, was “to shift the emphasis. If we accept that water is going to come, how do we manage it?” Standards developed by FEMA for flood zones, and incorporated into city building codes, require sealed mechanical spaces and many other concessions to rising waters, but so far enforcement has been spotty. Of course, market forces will shape the city of the future. Will the developers of the planned shopping mall at the World Trade Center–Westfield Group and the Port Author­ity of New York and New Jersey—rethink their plans to build much of the 365,000-square-foot complex below ground? (Planning for future deluges, including possible evacuations before every big storm, would be, at the very least, disruptive to the retail experience.)

In some parts of the city, ground-floor spaces may be less desirable than they were two months ago. Pei Cobb Freed, the venerable architecture firm, has long occupied the base of a skyscraper, which it designed, near the East River. But after the superstorm flooded the street-level space, the firm had to decide whether to relocate, permanently, to a higher floor. “We love the space we’ve been in,” says principal Ian Bader, sounding wistful for the pre-Sandy Manhattan. “But reason has to prevail.”