New York City’s Former Top Climate Official on the Lessons of Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in October 2012, killing more than 40 people and causing $19 billion in damage. Columbia University researchers played key scientific and policy roles related to the city’s preparation for and response to the storm. In this Q&A series 10 years later, we asked several who occupied important public positions to look back, and forward.
For journalists: As the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, check out our list of experts who are available to comment.
In the wake of Sandy, civil engineer Daniel Zarrilli took up a series of top New York City policy roles, serving as the city’s first resiliency director under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and chief climate advisor under Mayor Bill de Blasio. During his eight-year tenure, he launched a series of massive projects to prepare the city for big storms, higher temperatures and rising sea levels, reduce the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and advance environmental justice. In 2021, he became a special climate and sustainability advisor to Columbia University, in partnership with the Columbia Climate School.
Before the hurricane, how aware were city officials of the potential for disaster?
Hurricane Sandy wasn’t totally unforeseen. In 2007, city officials published a sustainability plan that included some description of the city’s vulnerability to coastal storms. There were also plenty of people who remembered hurricanes like Donna in 1960 or various nor’easters from the last few decades, but all of this knowledge and planning took on a bit of an academic feeling. It also didn’t help that just one year prior, there was a threat from Hurricane Irene, which in the end largely bypassed New York City. Sandy punctured that in vivid color. It wildly exceeded our imaginations up until that point.
In the wake of Sandy, you took on a series of top roles to adapt the city for the future. What prepared you?
For almost a decade prior to Sandy, I had been working on the waterfront, managing maintenance and construction of the city’s piers and bulkheads, overseeing cruise terminals and other maritime assets, and working with coastal communities on a variety of projects. That experience along the city’s 520-mile shoreline, plus my training as an engineer, put me in view after Sandy when Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg was standing up his initiative to rebuild New York and make it more resilient. I authored the coastal protection chapter of the resulting strategy. It was through that initiative that I was able to understand the city’s physical, social and economic needs. It led first to my appointment as the city’s first director of resiliency, and then to a variety of other sustainability, resiliency and climate policy roles in City Hall over the next eight years.
Were there obstacles to getting things moving?
There were plenty of bureaucratic obstacles to securing the funding and launching programs after Hurricane Sandy, but those were ultimately manageable. A lack of a national resiliency strategy hampers every community faced with a climate-related disaster. Thankfully, there was an urgency to the moment that propelled us to overcome those obstacles and complete vital short-term protections, as well as set in place the work to deliver on long-term protections. In the long term, the real obstacle will be overcoming the natural inertia that sets in once the urgency diminishes. However, continuing climate impacts, whether they are heat waves or intense rainfall events like Hurricane Ida, are continuing to put good pressure on the city.
What would you say were your greatest successes? Any big failures?
I am most proud of how we have pivoted New York City onto a path of urban resilience and rapid decarbonization. In the last 10 years, we have positioned New York as the global leader in the fight against climate change. That includes launching a comprehensive $20 billion climate adaptation program, aligning the city’s greenhouse-gas emission reductions with the Paris Agreement, and divesting pension funds from fossil fuel reserve owners. We’ve enacted world-leading legislation to slash carbon pollution from the city’s largest buildings, and launched a ground-breaking program to embed environmental justice into the city’s decision-making. I can trace much of that to the experience of Sandy and the smart activism that allowed the city to accomplish these outcomes.
If I have any regret, it’s that New York is still largely stuck with a pre-Sandy organizational chart. I’ve previously called for the mayor to improve climate governance by appointing a deputy mayor with clear public accountability to convene and lead a cabinet of agencies and offices that work together to slash emissions, build resilience, secure environmental justice, and expand the dialogue with the communities and civic leaders who are critical to this work.
Did you or people you know suffer from the storm?
I’ve lived in three boroughs since I moved here in 1999, so I know many who experienced the impacts. When the storm hit, my family lived on Staten Island, where we still reside today, not far from some of the hardest hit neighborhoods along the East Shore. We were fortunate to be out of the flood zone, and so only suffered some minor damage and a two-week power outage. My own inconvenience pales in comparison to that of some of my neighbors.
Some solutions now being pursued or discussed are pretty controversial. For one, we’re poised to raze beloved parks for seawalls. Is that a good idea? What about retreating from the waterfront, which also is not very popular?
Come back after those projects are complete and you’ll see that much of the controversy was overblown. Instead, you’ll see that the parks have been elevated and improved, and we’ve protected New Yorkers from devastating storm surges and other climate risks. Take the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project for instance. Over 110,000 New Yorkers, many of them living in public or other low-income housing, will now be protected from the impacts they experienced during Sandy. That’s not a trivial improvement.
Retreat is a more complicated idea. And the hardest time to introduce that concept is in the aftermath of a storm, where helping people safely get back home is the only practical approach. Any conversation about the future of a community has to happen well in advance of a disaster, balancing many considerations. I am afraid that the delicate nature of those conversations will mean that nature will have the final word on how that process plays out. We have to get in front of that if we can.
What more needs to be considered?
It’s clear to me that one key lesson of Sandy is that the risks posed by climate change are not manageable if we don’t also slash our carbon pollution. We are rapidly approaching a point where we will reach the limits of resilience if we don’t end our reliance on fossil fuels and achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement. That doesn’t mean that climate adaptation is doomed to fail, of course. All of the work to protect communities, upgrade infrastructure and reduce risk is vital. But it won’t last nearly as long as we’d hope if we continue to pump carbon pollution into the atmosphere that fuels sea-level rise and provides the extra energy to supercharge coming storms.
Will New York survive in the long term?
Of course. New Yorkers have endlessly reimagined the city through a variety of threats and changes over 400 years. But that doesn’t mean New York won’t be reshaped by climate change. What we’re facing now is of a completely different nature. Storms, rain and heat will all cause changes in how we relate to our city and one another. The relentless nature of sea-level rise will dramatically reshape our coasts, and force a lot of hard choices. I don’t think most New Yorkers have fully grappled with that reality yet.
Learn more: A conference on October 28, co-hosted by the Columbia Climate School, will further explore recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy. What worked and what didn’t? Who has benefited and who has been left behind? And what have we learned? The event is free and open to the public. Register here.