Storm Surges, Disaster Planning, and Vulnerable Populations at the Urban Periphery: Imagining a Resilient New York after Superstorm Sandy

30 Pages Posted: 22 Jul 2014

Date Written: July 22, 2014


In the aftermath of Sandy, the destructive superstorm that had a devastating impact in New York City and other parts of the Northeastern U.S. in 2012, ideas and data proliferate about how coastal cities, such as New York, can pursue strategies of resilience to help withstand the next weather-related onslaught. This article argues that whether the city in fact acts resiliently must take into account the extent to which its proposals respond to the needs of vulnerable people housed along its coastline. Superstorm Sandy put a face to vulnerability, including 6,800 evacuees assigned to shelters, 1,800 of whom were residents of chronic care facilities located in flood zones. The vulnerable also included countless numbers of elderly and disabled people, and non-English speakers, who were stranded in New York City Housing Authority-owned buildings without electricity, heat, and hot water for weeks as a consequence of storm surges that flooded basement-level heating and electrical systems. Crucially, forty-five percent of the Housing Authority’s buildings are located in evacuation zones near the waterfront; the siting of these buildings, and particularly their high- rise, tower-in-the-park design, reflect key features of mid-century housing policies informed by slum clearance goals, a post-World War II housing shortage, and considerations of cost.

To develop this idea, Part II describes the major categories of Sandy’s impact in the city, and the city’s immediate responses, including the launch of its Special Initiative on Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR). Part III will then consider the city’s disjointed rhetoric of resilience, consisting of a popularized usage of the term coupled with a largely unexplained application of a more specialized meaning of resilience as systems responsiveness. This part will deconstruct the city’s definition of resilience in relation to recognized conceptions of resilience developed in bio-ecological, international disaster relief, and psychological literatures.

Part IV will examine the city’s principal categories of resilience initiatives as reflected in its report, A Stronger, More Resilient New York, as well as the report’s absence of discussion of managed retreat alternatives. Part V will examine the implications of New York City’s identification of resilience with rebuilding and continued waterfront development for its vulnerable (and typically less mobile) populations living in the waterfront areas. This Part draws on a richer conception of resilience reflected in the disciplinary approaches discussed in Part III, and recognizes the effects of socially influenced factors such as income and education disparities, race, and gender. It offers a conception of resilience emphasizing a city’s sovereign obligations grounded in law and social equity to anticipate and monitor the specific and ongoing needs of its more at-risk residents, even if its responses entail strategies of managed retreat rather than, or in addition to, adaptive rebuilding.

Keywords: climate change, cities, resilience, rhetoric, urban, local government, land use, disaster planning, adaptation, managed retreat, waterfront, coastal, social equity, vulnerability, weather disaster

Suggested Citation

McArdle, Andrea L., Storm Surges, Disaster Planning, and Vulnerable Populations at the Urban Periphery: Imagining a Resilient New York after Superstorm Sandy (July 22, 2014). Idaho Law Review, Vol. 50, pp. 19-47, 2014, Available at SSRN:

Andrea L. McArdle (Contact Author)

CUNY School of Law ( email )

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Room 4/309
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