How A Superstorm Made NYC High-Rises Safer, More Resilient

Posted on Tuesday September 25, 2018

In October of 2012, Superstorm Sandy swept up the eastern seaboard causing extensive destruction and leaving 8.5 million people in 21 states, without power. A 14-foot storm surge struck Battery Park City causing massive flooding in many areas of downtown Manhattan. As the perpetual rain turned to snow, over 780,000 New York City residents were left without electricity and heat. Nearly six years later, the city’s infrastructure is still recovering from the storm and major construction of the NYC subway system continues.

When Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, building codes changed to become the toughest in the country. Similarly, New York City and state building codes toughened after Sandy, and those changes have resulted in NYC high-rises that are more resilient to storms. In NYC, the standards didn’t just apply to new construction; significant retrofits and remodels were done to existing buildings in anticipation of a future event. For example, areas that were not originally established as flood zones were swiftly rezoned. Any building within that new zone was now required to carry different--and sometimes costly--insurance.

“These changes happened so quickly that even buildings under construction were affected,” Tal Eyal, President of FS Project Management, stated. “I had a building that had obtained a temporary certificate of occupancy right before Sandy hit. But to get my final certificate of occupancy, I had to abide by new rules that were put into place very quickly.”

What were those code changes?
“We had to install a new powerful sump pump, replace all the windows with new impact-resistant windows and waterproof all the electrical equipment,” Eyal says. “Because the basement was half-underground, we had to waterproof the whole thing.”

Many of the new building codes were directed at protecting vulnerable systems that have typically been kept underground, namely electrical service, HVAC systems and other life safety systems. “Life safety systems now have to be raised above potential flood levels,” explains Marc Kotler, Senior Vice President of FirstService Residential. “All electrical service and life safety systems, including fire pumps and back-up generators, need to be above flood levels to keep the pumps and motors operational during these events. You need to be able to remove the water faster than it is coming in, and generators are key to keeping the pump running.

How can your New York property management company help prepare your building for the next storm?
Moving critical systems is only one piece of making the buildings more resilient in the face of storm surges and other flooding. “We manage a pre-war building that contains the main switching office for Verizon phone lines. You can imagine it’s pretty important for them to keep power up and running,” Kotler says. “During Sandy, their oil tanks and generators were flooded and were out of service. In the restoration phase, these systems were moved above flood levels. In addition, the condominium installed a system of interlocking metal panels that fit into posts on the sidewalk. The posts are deeply footed, and the panels lock together to form a flood wall. The heights of the panels vary from about 2 feet to 8 feet tall, depending on where they are in relation to the direction flood waters will come in.”

Kotler recommends that, if work is being done on any building in a flood zone, new or existing, that the board and ownership invest in looking at improvements that make sense and can help buildings become more resilient to floods and storms.

What if your building is older and doesn’t have the space or budget to move those critical electrical systems up? “It can be a significant expense to move equipment from sub-basements. Waterproofing the space is an option,” Eyal says. “We can install water-tight steel doors to protect the electrical room and take other steps to waterproof it and compartmentalize the crucial mechanical systems of the building. We’ve done that in pre-war buildings we manage.” 

How have the new building codes affected new developments?
The New York City housing market is in need of inventory and the ability to develop previously unbuildable land has encouraged the building of thousands of units. The New York Times reports that 1 in 8 new apartments will be built in high-risk flood zones, almost 2% more than in 2014. These new building codes have allowed high-rises to spring up on previously undevelopable or storm impacted waterfront land. For example, Sheepshead Bay was devastated by Sandy but is now home to luxury high-rises that were designed and built to be safer should another storm of that magnitude hits. Property values in these areas keep going up, making them attractive to investors.

“We manage a new rental community right on FDR Drive next to the East River. That’s a flood zone. It’s built according to the new building code and the basement is only one level,” Kotler explains. “Digging any deeper than that could allow more water in. The entire foundation is like a big bathtub that protects the basement. All electric, HVAC, pumps and motor are all above grade. In the event that water gets in, the building should keep running.”

Thanks to the responsiveness of New York property management companies, developers, zoning boards and building departments, New York City high-rises have become better prepared for storms and flooding. While developers hardened new construction, property management companies worked to retrofit and protect existing structures, protecting critical systems to keep residents safe.

 

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