AdaptNY news partner Gotham Gazette this week published an extensive interview with Daniel Zarrilli, one of New York’s top resiliency officials. Zarrilli, who had been serving in the Bloomberg administration, was recently named by Mayor Bill de Blasio as director of the city’s new Office of Recovery and Resiliency.
In the lengthy interview with reporter Sarah Crean, Zarrilli talks of de Blasio’s views on resilience and implementation of the Bloomberg resilience plan, the new administration’s take on rising sea levels around the city, and how City Hall will work with affected local communities, including his thoughts on buy-out programs and flood zones.
When Superstorm Sandy arrived in New York City on October 29, 2012, the city was jolted into a renewed conversation about climate change, resiliency, and long-term planning. In an interview with Gotham Gazette last year, Klaus Jacob, a geo-physicist advising the City on planning for climate change, said that climate change “truly threatens the livelihood of the city as we have it now — unless [the city] adapts.”
The chief concern is rising sea levels, Jacob said. The five boroughs are ringed by 520 miles of coastline, which are becoming steadily more vulnerable to day-to-day inundation and catastrophic storms.
Planning for the long-term consequences of a looming, but largely abstract threat is an incredible task for any local government. Sandy made climate change more real to New Yorkers, but the de Blasio administration is nonetheless forced to work mostly in hypotheticals. The new administration must make calculations for how far to plan into the future, how to allocate precious funds, and how much risk is “manageable.”
According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an advisory body on which Jacob and other scientists and academics sit, by the 2050s, sea level at the Battery will have risen 11 to 24 inches (middle estimate), or as much as 31 inches (high estimate) relative to 2000-04 levels. Coastal flood heights could increase by almost 3 feet – projected to range from 8 to 17 feet by mid-century, depending on the nature of the flood-inducing storm.
Last week, Gotham Gazette sat down with Daniel Zarrilli, director of the city’s newly created Office of Recovery and Resiliency, to get a sense of the City’s current approach to these issues. Zarrilli is now one of the three top officials in city government responsible for crafting and overseeing the de Blasio administration’s Sandy recovery and climate resiliency planning efforts (along with Bill Goldstein, Senior Advisor to the Mayor for Recovery, Resiliency, and Infrastructure; and Amy Peterson, director of the Housing Recovery Office).
Zarrilli, a licensed engineer, is no stranger to the daunting challenge of preparing New York City for climate change: he was interim director of the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability at the end of the Bloomberg administration.
Gotham Gazette sought to understand, first, how the new administration plans to utilize the extensive resiliency planning already put in motion by de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and, second, how the de Blasio administration views the future of the city’s coastal communities as sea levels rise.
A third focus of the conversation is how the administration plans to work with local communities on the front line of climate change. Only time will tell, but the de Blasio team’s purported commitment to community engagement might be what ultimately sets apart its approach to climate change.
In part one of the interview, Zarrilli discusses the City’s general approach and where plans stand in terms of those inherited from the previous administration, the logistics of his office and the administration’s other offices doing similar work, and the challenges involved in forecasting out 30, 50, and more years into the future.
In Part Two, read Zarrilli’s thoughts on buy-out programs, flood zones, community engagement in resiliency efforts, and more.
Gotham Gazette (GG) talks with Daniel Zarrilli (DZ), director of the Office of Recovery and Resiliency (Part 1 of 2)
GG: Is the city’s climate resiliency plan, SIRR [Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, created by the Bloomberg administration in 2013] intact and essentially going forward as it was envisioned last year?
DZ: We released the report in June : 257 initiatives based on the best available climate science, meant to be a comprehensive long-term view. But we knew even when we released it, that a new administration was coming in, that they would want to take a look at things, so we built into the mechanism for the local law that even adopted resiliency into the City’s practices a regular update process. So every 4 years that plan has to be updated by City Council legislation.
What we’ve seen so far is that [Mayor de Blasio] has made a major commitment to this plan, and he is in fact expanding this plan. It was a key part of his campaign to make sure that we are expanding upon and enhancing the PlaNYC efforts on both sustainability and resiliency.
He’s been very clear in all his public statements about really getting the need for what we’re doing, and really wanting to lead on these issues, and make sure that NYC faces down the vulnerabilities that are coming its way in the most responsible and cost-efficient way as possible.
GG: Does that mean that the majority of initiatives that you envisioned last year are going forward as you had originally thought?
DZ: The Mayor’s made pretty clear comments that we’re adopting this plan as our road map. That’s our road map. When it comes to April 2015, we’re going to have to release an update to that plan…
GG: You’re talking about PlaNYC?
[The SIRR plan is part of the City’s overall sustainability “blueprint”, PlaNYC]
DZ: Yes. What form that takes will come out of the next year’s worth of work – what’s working, what’s not working, and all of the lessons learned that you have from being in it a little bit longer than we are right now.
The fundamentals are absolutely clear for what we’re doing. It’s about strengthening our coasts; it’s about upgrading our buildings; protecting our critical infrastructure; making our neighborhoods safer and more vibrant so that those that are vulnerable to the risks of climate change see that we have a path forward to reduce those vulnerabilities.
GG: On the notion that Mayor de Blasio is “expanding” on the last administration’s resiliency planning efforts. What would be an example for our readers of a policy or project that has been expanded?
DZ: Yes, Mayor de Blasio has challenged his leadership team to accelerate our recovery work and make sure we are maximizing federal dollars for this purpose. So we will expand our efforts to do just that. He has also been very clear on his desire to make sure the recovery works to expand economic opportunities in the affected areas. So we will be enhancing our workforce development and local hiring initiatives in the impacted areas to ensure that local residents can help their own neighborhoods recover.
GG: Do you foresee that most of the initiatives in the SIRR plan will have the funding they need?
DZ: We were clear back in June that we have at least a $4.5 billion gap in order to implement what is a $20 billion program. In that, there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that we expect to have in hand roughly $10 billion through federal sources and city sources for our initiatives, but we also expect additional resources from utility rate payers and, in fact, it’s not even utility rate payers, because it’s Con-Ed which has made serious investments without rates going up. But it’s also the Army Corps [of Engineers] making additional investments. And it’s future allocations of federal dollars.
Within that, though, we know that we don’t have enough federal dollars to meet all the commitments that we have. We continue to advocate the federal government for more resources and for regulatory and legislative reform to make sure that we can implement these initiatives.
GG: So are you optimistic that the City can meet its resiliency funding goals?
DZ: We’re going to have a big gap. That’s going to continue. We’re going to have to be creative in ways to fill it. The fundamental philosophy behind PlaNYC as a whole, as well as the resiliency plan, is mainstreaming these efforts into city agencies so that sustainability and resiliency aren’t something we do off to the side, different than the normal course of business for the city, [rather] they’re embedded into what we do as a city.
We have a capital plan. We have a major amount of effort that goes into upgrading our roads, and buildings, and bridges, and drainage systems. Every time we do that over the normal life cycle of asset replacement, we need to be looking at the problem through a new lens of resiliency to make sure that we’re getting the best bang for our buck on the dollars we are spending.
That doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue advocating for the federal government to step up on things like coastal protection where they have a clearly defined role, and we need Congress to authorize new projects for vulnerable areas in New York City. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to be looking for private parties or the federal government to step in on [safeguarding] the liquid fuels infrastructure that serves New York City, or any number of other sources.
This is going to be a long-term challenge of ours to be creative on filling the gap from our end, as well as making sure that our elected delegation knows exactly what we do need to reduce those risks.
GG: How will all of the city’s resiliency and sustainability projects be managed? There is a newly created Office of Recovery and Resiliency, and a separate Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability [created by Bloomberg] – what’s the relationship between the two?
DZ: Some of this remains to be completely determined, but the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS) housed the resiliency team until this new office was created. So the Office of Recovery and Resiliency – the folks that are in that office – were on the resiliency team at OLTPS.
We know that the effort around [climate] resiliency needed to be expanded, needed its own focus in order to maximize the federal dollars that are coming into the region, to really coordinate the agencies.
We also know that we share a lot of ground with the city’s sustainability office [OLTPS] and that whatever form that takes at this point, they’re going to be very closely linked. There’s a major commitment to sustainability, and we just need to figure out exactly that working relationship. It’s going to be hand-in-hand on climate change, both mitigation and adaptation going forward.
GG: What are the actual material resources for the new office of Recovery and Resiliency?
DZ: We’re going to expand our staff in order…to maximize the federal dollars, and develop the right projects, and do all the right planning and coordination efforts. Largely it’s going to be funded out of federal sources – the dollars that we’re looking to spend and will be secured through CDBG [Community Development Block Grants] and FEMA sources are going to fund a good portion of that office going forward. But the City is also going to make some commitments to those functions as well.
GG: What’s the size of the staff of the new Office of Recovery and Resiliency?
DZ: Right now we’re about ten, and we see that expanding. A final number is yet to be determined.
GG: What’s the size of the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability?
DZ: Well, with the Resiliency team, so it was ten – and probably another 15 or so.
GG: Who’s running the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability?
DZ: I am also the acting director there right now.
GG: How far in the future should the city be thinking about planning for climate change? 10, 20, 30 years?
DZ: The New York City Panel on Climate Change has planned out projections into the 2020s, and the 2050s, and ultimately they were looking out to the 2080s. If you look at the projections, the error bound, once you get past 2050, is so wide that it’s almost impossible to wrap your head around how to react. It can go low, it can go high – it’s a really wide bound.
[Note: While the Panel on Climate Change has not yet released updated sea level rise projections for 2080, initial numbers were submitted by the research group advising the federal government’s “Rebuild by Design” initiative. The analysis, by Klaus Jacob, states that local sea level could rise from 18 to 39 inches (middle estimate) or as much as 58 inches (high estimate) by 2080, relative to 2000-04 levels.]
So, we chose the 2050s as our planning horizon, which is, I think, long by most planning exercises. It’s not necessarily long by climate change. But, we have the benefit of a naturally recurring re-investment cycle in our infrastructure. The changes are going to develop over the long-term. If in 30 years we see climate change taking a different direction than our projections show, then we’ll be able to make decisions at that point.
Taking it back to today, we know there’s vulnerabilities now so we need to take steps and make decisions now.
It’s not practical that we’re going to run away from the coast and our analysis actually shows that we can make reasonable investments to buy down risk – out into that time horizon of 2050 – in a way that’s cost effective.
It’s nourishing our beaches and building dunes; it’s wetlands; it’s expanding whether [there] are levees or floodwalls in certain areas of the city. It’s a broad range of grey and green infrastructure. But it’s also the multiple lines of defense, and making sure that we’re not just relying on the coastline to protect us from future storms.
It’s also buildings and infrastructure, and looking wider than just coastal storms and sea level rise, and looking at heat risk and precipitation risk and looking at wind risk. It’s a wide variety of things that we need to approach from a realistic and rational point of view.
And knowing that we’re going to be continually monitoring the risks over time to see how they actually pan out relative to the projections.
GG: Do you think that rising sea levels are the core issue in terms of planning for climate change? Heat, for instance, is also a big issue.
DZ: Heat kills more people every year than any other natural phenomena – heat waves. So that’s a threat. To make sure that our power grid is able to handle those threats – the work we’ve done to settle the rate case with Con-Ed and the State. Con-Ed’s making a billion dollars of storm-hardening investments that is really going to help buy down that future risk.
But, sea level rise – if you look out 200 years, it can get a little daunting. Where we are though – and I think it’s just realistic – we’re going to plan for the future of this city out into a reasonable time frame. We chose the 2050s and that’s going to be constantly evaluated as we move into the future.
Gotham Gazette (GG) talks with Daniel Zarrilli (DZ), director of the Office of Recovery and Resiliency (Part 2 of 2)
Buy-outs and Flood Zones
GG: The City’s just-released “One City, Rebuilding Together” report briefly mentions homeowners on Staten Island who may participate in a State buy-out program.
DZ: We’ve been cooperating with the State’s buy-out program. The City doesn’t have a buy-out program where we return land to nature. What we do have is an acquisition program where we can help people, through the Build it Back housing program, acquire their homes, and then ultimately we can rebuild, whether it’s an elevated or otherwise more resilient home on that piece of property. So that’s what we’ve been doing.
The state’s been advancing three different buy-out areas in Staten Island, and we’ve been cooperating with them on how that’s going to work.
GG: Would you consider expanding buy-out or acquisition as time goes on?
DZ: That question remains to be answered in the future. You could look at this across the city – there’s 160,000 or so people who live in the Rockaways. We’re not going to buy out the Rockaways. Our analysis shows that with coastal protection investments, with building investments, and with infrastructure investments, we can actually reduce that risk to what we think is a manageable level into the time horizon that we’ve laid out as our planning horizon.
GG: Do you think that the risk from rising sea levels is “manageable” in the city’s Zone-A areas?
DZ: It’s confusing terminology. Our evacuation maps used to have a “Zone A” on them. And the [FEMA] flood maps have an “A-Zone” on them.
We’ve done away with Zone A on the evacuation maps: instead of A, B and C, now we have 1 through 6. It used to just be based on the intensity of the storm that was coming towards the harbor. Now it’s actually two variables: it’s intensity and it’s storm track, whether it’s going northeast or northwest, it makes a big difference. The evacuation zones go 1 through 6…I just want to establish that first.
The A-zone is the 100-year floodplain as FEMA defines it on their flood insurance rate maps. We’ve been working with FEMA. There’s things on [federal flood] insurance [for homeowners] where there’s been big changes to the insurance program. Some of those were causing insurance to be unavailable and unaffordable. We’ve helped advocate and provide technical support, ultimately a new law that was passed through Congress to reduce the impacts from flood insurance, and make sure that it was available and affordable.
At the same time, we’re advancing a number of mitigation efforts to buy down that risk in those zones. So we think, yes, that absolutely applies in the A-zone properties, in the 100-year floodplain, that we can make the right investments and it’s incumbent upon us to make those investments, but we can make them to buy down that risk.
GG: In terms of working with developers in those areas…You’re not going to be eventually cutting off areas of the city to development?
DZ: It’s maybe counter-intuitive but the safest place to have been [during Sandy] on the Rockaway peninsula was right on the coast in the newest development, Arverne by the Sea…It really boils down to the fact that building codes work. And the newest buildings fare the best because they have these protections built into them. Our real challenge is about how do we incent building owners [of] older buildings to make upgrades, to get their boilers or their electrical equipment out of the basement, or to otherwise elevate their home in certain areas.
Amy Spitalnick, director of public affairs at the Office of Management and Budget: As part of the [“One City, Rebuilding Together”] report, we’ve expanded eligibility for acquisition for re-development to incentivize just that [building flood resistant homes] for homeowners who live in floodplains. We’ve expanded, on the recovery side, eligibility for a number of programs. This is one piece of that to help make sure that homeowners who were hit hard who would be interested in selling their home to the City and the State for re-development have that opportunity, no matter their income level. And then it can be built back in a more resilient way.
DZ: Over time, we can upgrade our entire city building stock that is at risk in these flood zones by doing exactly that: building better and newer structures where we may have older, more vulnerable structures currently.
GG: The program that you’re describing is not the buy-out program we hear about?
DZ: [This] is different than the buy-out. When people talk about buyouts, they’re generally talking about the New York State buy-out program, which is buying a home and turning it over to nature. That’s one set of properties. It’s only three neighborhoods in Staten Island. It’s Oakwood Beach, Ocean Breeze, and Graham Beach. And the State’s said very explicitly that it’s shutting down the buy-out program after those three neighborhoods in the city.
Separately from that is the acquisition program where the City and the State are cooperating to acquire homes from homeowners that want to sell…That [damaged] home can be demolished and then the parcel can be disposed of and sold for new housing development that meets all the most recent building codes. It’s probably elevated; it probably has all the features of the most modern home construction.
Spitalnick: That’s run out of our housing recovery office as part of Build it Back…”Acquisition” is the city program, “Buy-out” is the state program.
DZ: But we are partnered with the State on the acquisition program.
GG: What is the overall time frame for the City’s climate resiliency [SIRR] plan?
DZ: It’s a ten-year plan from when it was released – it has milestones and metrics; an action plan with 2013 milestones, 2014 milestones, and 2020 milestones. But ultimately we expect to see the entire plan, all 257 initiatives, can be implemented in 10 years. Some of those are subject to available funding and we still have work to do on securing that funding, but that’s the timeframe that we’re talking about.
GG: For the lay person, is it correct to understand that the measures in the SIRR plan fully protect all NYC neighborhoods (whether they are in A-Zones or not) from the projected increase in sea and flooding levels?
DZ: We prefer to approach this from a risk management perspective, and our goal is to significantly buy down future risk. But we can’t expect to fully eliminate risk.
That being said, the City conducted a comprehensive risk analysis of our entire 520-mile shoreline, looking at the likelihood of flooding and what that flooding would impact (building density, critical infrastructure, vulnerable populations, etc). Our approach is to invest first in areas of highest risk.
GG: A very basic question: will all structures in NYC eventually be compelled to storm-proof themselves because of new building codes?
DZ: All new structures will be required to build to the most recent codes, including the 16 new building code local laws which were passed by the City Council and adopted into the code. These codes will require resiliency and flood mitigation measures based on the best-available flood hazard information. New codes, however, do not apply to existing building, except in limited cases. So we will also work to encourage and incent existing buildings to make resiliency upgrades.
Communities and Community Engagement
GG: What is the status of Seaport City?
DZ: One of our initiatives in the Southern Manhattan chapter was to study a multi-purpose levee on the eastern edge of Southern Manhattan.
It’s really a recognition of the risks in that part of Lower Manhattan, from roughly north of the Brooklyn Bridge all the way around the tip of the Battery. There’s huge transportation infrastructure that’s at risk, hospitals, vulnerable populations living in NYCHA properties and other low-income neighborhoods, economic activity of global importance – all of that combined – and really low-lying property that was built and filled right into the river at-grade [at the same level].
We learned from places like Arverne by the Sea or Battery Park City or other newer, modern developments that they can weather these types of events if they’re built to the most modern standards and they’re elevated.
We started thinking about different ways to provide that same level of protection in highly vulnerable neighborhoods, and landed on this concept which is tested globally: multi-purpose levees that can provide that sort of protection.
The alternative is potentially a 13 or 15 foot wall right on South Street…under the FDR, blocking people off from the waterfront. Not really in line with us trying to encourage waterfront access and use, just a big wall.
And so instead, if you can slope that protection in over a much longer run, you can build that in and make it slope…more naturally build it into the urban fabric. So that’s what we’re studying.
We commissioned the team that is looking at the engineering feasibility, does it even work? The environmental feasibility, can this be permitted? And third, is the financial feasibility: could a project like this potentially pay for itself with the created land that you’ve now developed with this multi-purpose levee?
We expect to be releasing the feasibility study results soon on that, and we’ll have more to say on it when we do.
GG: We spoke with you last fall about community involvement in the City’s resiliency planning process, specifically two advisory task forces: one made up of local elected officials and community board members, the other made up of representatives from community organizations. What has happened to them?
DZ: Yes, the CBO [community-based] task forces. I think it’s really important for us to engage the local communities into this process. We very much want to do that. It’s very much in line with the mayor’s goals of bringing people into the emergency planning and resiliency planning in their own neighborhoods.
There will be more to come on this, but this is something that we absolutely want to do. We want to continue to engage local organizations in this planning and development process because the people that know their neighborhoods best are the people that live in their neighborhoods. There is more to come on that.
GG: So those task forces could essentially be re-activated?
DZ: It might not take the exact same form as we had in the last administration. We want to make it as effective as possible, and we might be re-thinking some things, but we absolutely want to engage with local organizations.
GG: Is this connected to the City’s statement [in “One City, Rebuilding Together”] that they want to engage local communities as they develop the next iteration of PlaNYC?
DZ: It has to be. It can’t be disconnected. We’re planning and moving forward initiatives, but, at the same time, we’re thinking about how we want the next plan update to work by April, 2015.
GG: That’s soon.
DZ: It is soon. We’ll be having those conversations out in the affected areas.
GG: Are the Climate Change Task Force and the Panel both fully in effect as they were under Mayor Bloomberg?
DZ: Yes. All the members of those serve at the pleasure of the mayor. We’re working through the mechanics of those bodies. The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) is as active as ever and is looking towards their next work [the Panel will be releasing an updated analysis of climate change data and what it means for New York City later this year].
The Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which is city agencies as well as state, and private infrastructure providers, is really hungry for the data that’s coming out of NPCC in order to apply that to their own capital decision-making process.
GG: A question on PlaNYC and sustainability: Mayor Bloomberg was a major proponent of expanding the city’s use of natural gas. Does Mayor de Blasio have a position on the use of natural gas vis a vis renewables? What’s the energy plan for the city?
DZ: The Mayor in his platform was very clear that we’re going to be exploring and maximizing our use of renewables. We have an existing gas infrastructure and we want to make sure it’s as safe as possible for all our residents in the city, but we’re going to be exploring our expansion of renewable sources in any way we can.
GG: Will that be outlined in PlaNYC in more detail?
DZ: We don’t have an exact outline on what the April 2015 update looks like, but I’d be shocked if energy is not a major component of the efforts of PlaNYC going forward.
GG: The State is going through an energy policy planning process in which the public has been able to testify. Would you be coordinating with the State on that?
DZ: We talk to the State quite a bit on these issues, and I see no reason why that wouldn’t continue.
Reprinted with permission from Gotham Gazette