Saturday, January 25, 2014

What Mayor de Blasio Could Do About Snowstorms

First, shovel a path from your door.
January 25, 2014—Mayor Bill de Blasio and John Doherty, who is in charge of the snow plows, have been unfairly castigated for their handling of the snowstorm.

I don’t claim inside information about what happened on the Upper East Side of NY, but consider this:
• When the temperature remains well below freezing, plain salt doesn’t work. New York has suffered an unusually long spell of sub-freezing weather, with temperatures commonly below the level where salt on the street would melt the ice.
• When traffic is at a standstill, snow plows can’t get through.
The good news is that it is still nearly four years until the next mayoral election. The bad news is that Superbowl week is upon us.

Implement a Snowstorm Traffic Flow Plan. The Mayor needs a plan from the NYPD, as well as the Department of Sanitation, for keeping traffic moving so that snow plows can do their work at all times. If it is freezing weather, traffic police are more, not less, necessary. Gridlock is disaster in a snowstorm, because it prevents remedies.

Involve the Public. If NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton doesn’t want to tie up his force on traffic control, one idea is to reach out to the public and ask them to avoid certain parts of New York City - and announce plans to back up this request. Boston, which is no stranger to snow, has a map of all the fire hydrants and catch basins and urges the public to “adopt” them on a neighborhood basis and keep them clear in a storm.

Implement a New York City Storm Severity Index. The City has had an emergency rating that ranges from Phase 1 to Phase 3. The rarely used Phase 3 was invoked for the Blizzard of January 7-8, 1996. This blizzard, and the one that occurred in March 1993, are also rated by the National Weather Service as the only two storms that reached the top category 5 on the NESIS scale, which was developed in 2004 – and also on the more recent RSI scale. But the scales are not useful as guides for action in a storm – the NESIS and RSI scales only consider snowfall and population affected. In 1996, the NYC Comptroller’s Office recommended that the City develop its own Storm Severity Index. Here’s an example of how such an Index would work:
NYC Storm Severity Index = (S - 2)n*d
where S = expected number of inches of snow or water-equivalent ice in the first 24 hours
n = expected number of days of continuously freezing (below 32 F) weather
d = expected average number of degrees below freezing over the n days
If projected snowfall is eight inches, and five days of continuously freezing weather are expected, and temperatures are expected to average 17 degrees, the Index becomes 6*5*15=450. Now the Mayor has an idea of how badly the storm will slam the City.

From a Jobs POV, Keep Manhattan Open.  Brooklyn has been insulted often since it was consolidated with New York City in 1897-98. It doesn't have a baseball team any more, but it has a million more residents than Manhattan. It would rank fourth after NYC (4 boros), LA and Chicago, if it were still independent. But Manhattan accounts for at least 70 percent of the New York City economy, and commuters from the other boroughs need those jobs.

Close the Schools on the Severest Storm Days. School buses clog traffic and stop snow plows going through. It’s a problem for parents who work, but if school buses are blocking traffic, the parents won’t get to work anyway. Only half of teachers showed up at the schools on the first full day of the storm. Offices are more likely to close when schools are closed.

Consider Alternatives to Plain Salt, Which Doesn’t Work Well Below 15 F. U.S. airports watch snowstorms like hawks. They use de-icers and anti-icers that work down to -20 F. Glycol and urea are bad for the environment but the EPA has approved potassium acetate based (KAC) liquid E36. It takes just 10 minutes to go to work. There is also an additive to salt that lowers the temperature at which salt water melts.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

NYC | Urban Flooding Wake-Up Call (Guest Post)

Robert Trentlyon, Boolavardier
(Photo by JT Marlin)
The following post was sent to me by Bob Trentlyon, a Yale man (Monsieur Boolavardier, I call him) and former publisher of the Chelsea-Clinton News and other fine newspapers. Bob has asked me to post his comments on my blog in the hopes of being read by people he hasn't reached before. Here's what Bob wants you to know:

Justin Gillis of the New York Times performed an important public service when he wrote a major piece in the January 14 "Science" section entitled “The Flood Next Time”.  He wrote about the inexorable rise of the Atlantic Ocean and its impact upon the east coast of the United States.  Not only is the sea level rising, but the land mass in many places is sinking. Not only is the sea level rising, but it is rising faster.  That means that flooding and hurricanes will create even more damage.  This means that we have to do something about it very soon.   

There are three options - moving to higher ground, resilience, or sustainability.  Moving to higher ground is the most logical, but I am not sure or able that millions of New Yorkers are ready or able to do that.  Resilience means living with the higher water, raising your building, and making continual repairs.  Sustainability means protecting yourself from storms and flooding by building storm surge barriers (SSBs). 

Restoring marshes, and building berms will be done using either  resilience or sustainability. In England there is a 50 year plan for London and for all the neighboring towns.  The London Environment Committee tells the towns what they must do to fit in with the 50 year plan.  The latest North Sea storms had no impact on London, because of storm surge barriers on the Thames that had been in place for many years.

Two cities that have lived with resilience and have chosen storm surge barriers are St. Petersburg, Russia and Venice, Italy.  Both of them had been plagued by flooding for hundreds of years.  St. Petersburg is situated at the mouth of the Neva River. The Neva River Estuary that leads into the North Sea closely resembles the Hudson River estuary. This past year the storm surge barriers were finally completed, and this past fall St. Petersburg was not flooded for the first time in 307 years. The British company Halroyd was the major adviser on the project. The St. Petersburg extensive series of gates and barriers is much longer than what is proposed for the five mile stretch between Sandy Hook and the Rockaways. In Venice, the Venetians were tired of their first floors being flooded every year. The Venetians, with a big assist from the Italian government, are presently testing their new SSBs.

In smaller residential buildings resilience means making do with what we have and modifying existing structures.  It means moving machinery to a higher floor or even the roof. It means vacating living space on the ground floor and eventually the second floor.  There would be some governmental money to assist the owner in making these changes, but not enough. The streets would still be flooded every year in the flood zone.  The flood zone will expand as time goes on.  Most housing modifications in the future will be paid by the owner of the building and passed on to the tenants.  Flood insurance will not exist or be limited, and government aid will be either minimal or non-existent.

If storm surges and flooding can be controlled by building barriers at two or three strategic locations that would be more effective and much cheaper than fortifying hundreds of miles of NYC shoreline and tens of thousands of buildings.  Why are some people afraid of having SSBs studied?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

DE BLASIO | NYC v. Snowstorm

Blizzard of February 2013.
My "Notify NYC" messages from the City of New York are still coming from "Michael Bloomberg". I guess that will be changed tomorrow when City workers are back at their computers.

The word from Notify NYC is that 6-8 inches of snow will fall starting 6 pm tomorrow, January 2, through 1 am Friday. The snow will be accompanied by "low temperatures" which means that the snow will accumulate and some will turn to ice.

Expect salt spreaders. Last year on February 7-9, the first big blizzard of the winter hit New York City and then-Mayor Bloomberg reported he had on hand 250,000 tons to spread on the streets of New York.

A snowstorm happening at the end of a week, on Friday or Saturday, is relatively benign for offices because only one day of work is lost. By Monday the commute is likely to be back to normal. Saturday is a less crucial day for most businesses, obviously excluding retailers and entertainments. During my stint as chief economist for three NYC Comptrollers in 1992-2006, we considered a Saturday economy as three-fourths of a Monday-Friday weekday economy and Sunday was one-fourth of a weekday, so it added up to a six-weekday week.

We estimated the relationship between certain storm variables and economic impact based on historical records. The crucial variables in a snowstorm for determining economic impact are the timing, the precipitation and the temperature. The impact is reduced if the snow is on a weekend, if the precipitation is low (two inches is where trouble can start) and if the temperature is above freezing, 32 F (32 degrees Fahrenheit).

Putting down salt allows the City of New York to reduce the impact of freezing temperature on the ability of commuters to get to work, or shoppers to get to stores. One of the worst scenarios is a slushy snowfall and then a deep freeze, causing icy roads. A snowstorm becomes a blizzard if the snow is driven by the wind.

In the laboratory, adding salt (sodium chloride) to water can bring down the freezing-melting point – depending on which way one is going - from 32 degrees Fahrenheit to 20 F (in the case of a 10 percent concentration of salt) or 2 F (for a 20 percent concentration). In practice, the lower number depends on how much salt one puts down on the roads (the more salt that is added, the higher the salinity percentage and the lower the freezing point of the water). In a lab, the freezing point can be brought down lower than in storm conditions. One source suggests that below 15 F, salt will have little effect.

So salt is only useful to add when the temperature is between 15 F and 32 F. Below 15 F, the salt won’t melt the ice. Above 32 F, ice won't form and the salinized water will just run off into the city sewers.

The preferred remedy for ice in places like Montreal, where I spent much of my childhood, is sand, which helps provide traction to pedestrians and motorists regardless of the temperature. My beloved grandmother Olga van Stockum nonetheless died of hip injuries after falling on Montreal ice in 1949.

Salt has some negative effects on the environment. It corrodes cars and other vehicles and the roads themselves. It is bad for shoes. The runoff is terrible for plants and marine life. Pets that walk outside get the salt on their paws and suffer from the abrasion.

But a big city needs to keep working. So we accept the negative impact of salt. The test is whether the mayor can keep the roads open on Friday morning.