Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a 2022 Institute of Politics Fellow, offers climate resiliency learnings gleaned from Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Ida, and years of planning in between.
Featuring Bill de Blasio
November 23, 2022
33 minutes and 10 seconds
Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has a unique perspective on the topic of climate resiliency. He was a city official in 2012 for Superstorm Sandy—which many call the worst disaster in New York City’s history—and in 2021 for Hurricane Ida, which caused $24 billion worth of flooding in the Northeastern United States, making it the costliest and most damaging storm since Sandy nine years before. He was also mayor during most of those nine years, when policymakers, planners, and the citizens of New York tried to grapple with the enormous task of making the city more resilient in the face of ever more destructive and dangerous weather events driven by the man-made climate crisis and global warming. With 520 miles of shoreline, 443 miles of underground railroad and subway tracks, and an antiquated storm sewer system, New York City is a nightmare to protect from rising seas and catastrophic rainfall, and de Blasio and city planners proposed billions in dollars of resiliency projects—including extending Manhattan’s shoreline 500 feet at the island’s vulnerable southern tip. But those plans, he says, encountered some surprisingly strong headwinds, including neighborhood opposition, short political and public attention spans, and competing concerns including the COVID-19 pandemic. So how do vulnerable localities like New York City overcome such obstacles and prepare for an increasingly adversarial climate? De Blasio, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, explores the possibilities with PolicyCast host Ralph Ranalli.
Bill de Blasio is a Fall 2022 Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. He served as the 109th mayor of New York City from 2014 to 2021. A member of the Democratic Party, he held the office of New York City Public Advocate from 2010 to 2013 and started his career as an elected official on the New York City Council, representing the 39th district in Brooklyn from 2002 to 2009. Prior to being an elected official, de Blasio served as the campaign manager for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s successful senatorial campaign of 2000 and got his start in New York City government working for Mayor David Dinkins. He launched a campaign for president during the 2020 Democratic primary but ended his bid before the primary election. He holds an A.B. from New York University in metropolitan studies, and a master of international affairs degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Public Affairs and Communications is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in Political Science from UCLA and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.
The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows, and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.
Bill de Blasio (Intro): I believe in democracy, and I believe in the wisdom of people and their capacity to discern, but I also think the modern world has thrown so many curve balls that you cannot blame a person dealing with all their everyday problems for not figuring out, are they concerned about this pandemic or the next pandemic? Are they concerned about resiliency? Are they concerned about some other social ill or challenge? Right now, if you talk to a lot of families, they're worried about learning loss from COVID for their kids. It's going to be hard to say, "Take your mind off learning loss for your kids so we can talk about resiliency."
Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has a unique perspective on the topic of climate resiliency. He was in city government in 2012 for Superstorm Sandy—which many call the worst disaster in New York City’s history—and in 2021 for Hurricane Ida, which caused $24 billion dollars worth of flooding in the Northeastern United States, making it the costliest and most damaging storm since Sandy nine years before. And most importantly for our discussion today, he was mayor during most of those nine years, when policymakers, planners, and the citizens of New York tried to grapple with the enormous task of making the city more resilient in the face of ever more destructive and dangerous weather events driven by the man-made climate crisis and global warming. With 520 miles of shoreline, 443 miles of underground railroad and subway tracks, and an antiquated storm drain system, New York City is a nightmare to protect from rising seas and catastrophic rainfall, and de Blasio and city planners proposed billions of dollars in resiliency projects—including extending Manhattan’s shoreline 500 feet at the island’s vulnerable southern tip. But those plans, he says, have encountered some surprisingly strong headwinds, including neighborhood opposition, short political and public attention spans, and competing concerns including the COVID-19 pandemic. So how do vulnerable localities like New York City overcome such obstacles and prepare for an increasingly adversarial climate? De Blasio, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, is here to help us sort through it.
Ralph Ranalli: Bill, welcome to PolicyCast.
Bill de Blasio: Thank you, Ralph. It's great to be here.
Ralph Ranalli: There are certain moments that are indelibly burned into the consciousness of a place. It seems to me that Superstorm Sandy was one of those moments for your city, New York City. The photo that's stayed with me was the remains of the Jetstar Rollercoaster in Ocean Heights, New Jersey, It had been on a pier, and it ended up being this post-apocalyptic scene where it looked like it had been washed into the middle of the ocean. That was in 2012 and at the time you were the city’s public advocate, which is sort of like a cross between a deputy mayor and an ombudsman. Can you bring us back to Sandy and what that experience was like for you, how life-changing and perspective-changing it was?
Bill de Blasio: It’s really important to recognize for New York City, it was Sandy. For other places, tragically, everyone's got their own disaster lately. But the totality of it, to be fair, Sandy did not reach every single corner of New York City, but it did reach every borough and, in some places, just in a devastating manner. Absolutely the worst natural disaster in the history of New York City. When you talk about the images, I remember so vividly being out in the Rockaways in Queens, and a big section of the boardwalk—legendary East Coast kind of boardwalk—a big section of it was literally uplifted by the water and moved inland a block or two and was just dropped in the middle of a street and across people's yards. It was this sense of things had just come unmoored. I remember walking through the Breezy Point area of the Rockaways and there were fires that had just devastated home after home in a row. They would just go on. There were still some active fires out there in the Rockaways. I remember the night times were eerie in a number of communities because that kind of electrical failure over a prolonged period of time, we had to get lights to some communities. Those kinds of things you see on the highway where there's been an accident, somebody set up one of those light apparatuses. If it wasn't for that, you would go a half-mile or a mile and there was no light in. And that was amazing in an urban environment. It was shocking. Very profound disruption. I think it's fair to say, I really believe this, there were, even in New York City, a lot of climate deniers before Sandy who never denied again after Sandy.
Ralph Ranalli: The scale of the destruction from Sandy was something like $65 billion in the U.S. You have a storm of that destructive power. And then you have a city like New York, which has just infrastructure upon infrastructure, vulnerability upon vulnerability—what is it, 520 miles of coastline, 443 miles of underground subway and rail track, 14 tunnels?
Bill de Blasio: Really bad place to have a superstorm.
Ralph Ranalli: Yes. And yet you know that the climate is worsening.
Bill de Blasio: Right.
Ralph Ranalli: How did the elected leadership of New York start wrapping its head around the enormity of the problem and the enormity of the job of protecting against the next one?
Bill de Blasio: I think it's really powerful to recognize that elected officials are everyday people, typically. We're not talking about the Roman Senate here. We're all from the people and therefore unfortunately are afflicted by the pushes and pulls of everyday life. So I think what's so amazing ... I came into office a year plus after Sandy, and I think it's fair to say it really wasn't being talked about anymore in many ways.
Ralph Ranalli: Really?
Bill de Blasio: Yeah. And again, to be fair, the human impact was horrifying. The displacement of families, the economic damage, by any measure horrifying but it was not most of the city. Even if I said, accurately, that it touched all five boroughs, in truth, there was a swath of neighborhoods that were really hard hit, then there was a set of neighborhoods that were sort of marginally hit, and then there was a lot of places that didn't feel it at all. So it never became a true citywide issue. But then if you fast forward to COVID, I would even say in the aftermath of COVID which was as citywide and nationwide as anything could possibly be, it's amazing how the conversation shifted away to more mundane kitchen table kind of issues pretty quickly in a lot of cases once we got out of the worst of COVID.
So I think this is a kind of human thing that none of us, almost without exception in public life, are policy experts who think from the lens of abstract policy making. People are representatives of their communities who then pick up on the concerns of their communities even when that means people turn the page, or maybe they shouldn't turn the page. So I think as a leader you have to try and pull them back. And we did. We came up with all these resiliency projects, ironically some of which met with a lot of opposition because they were disruptive. To do really profound resiliency work meant sometimes you'd have to do a lot of construction, and typically New Yorkers don't like more construction. So we ran into "not in my backyard" concerns, even in places that had been hit very hard, east side of Manhattan, East Side Coastal Resiliency project. Perfectly debatable elements of it. My administration came up with a plan, it was a very big, expensive, bold plan.
When you think about the belt of public housing and subsidized housing, big stretch of very high concentration of housing and then a bunch of hospitals right above it. You're thinking like the twenties, thirties, that whole area on the East Side. They got socked by Sandy. Famously Bellevue Hospital, NYU Hospital, folks in ICUs being hustled out of the hospital in the dead of night by people passing patients one to the other because there was no elevators, there was no electricity. This stuff was really shocking. And so that very same area where it happened to people, they lived it, they saw it, there's all this opposition as if it never happened. And that's because, not to be unfair to the folks protesting, they don't want to lose what they have day-to-day now, even if objectively you'd say, "Wait, guys. There's this huge danger out there. You don't know when it's going to hit next, but you do know what happened. This is not someone showing you a science fiction film. This actually happened to your neighborhood already in recent memory."
Ralph Ranalli: And that plan was supposed to cost $1.45 billion?
Bill de Blasio: We have a series of plans that go all along these different segments, many billions. The goal is to unite them all and really lock down these most vulnerable parts of Manhattan that happen to have huge populations and huge workforces in many cases, particularly in the lowest part of Manhattan, and are amongst the lowest in elevation in all of New York City. So where it's literally right at sea level—Wall Street and that area—is where we need to build out the coastline up to 500 feet if you have any chance of surviving even the more optimistic vision of sea level rise. So my team presented a plan, I think that's the kind of thing that there's general buy-in for because that doesn't sort of take away. It's literally adding land. There will be a fight over what happens on that land, understandably, that's New York City. But now the question is how quickly it can be moved, and will there be both the focus and the political will and the prioritization of the resources? It's so interesting because this stuff is profoundly important, but it's not the problem hitting us today. So, how do you keep people focused? How do you keep getting buy-in? And I sometimes think folks who are focused on policy maybe feel a little disdain towards those who are not thinking about the big picture or the long term, but I would argue that it's rarefied to think about the long term when people are struggling with the right now.
Ralph Ranalli: True. How do you bridge that gap between the people with the good policy and the people who are living in the short term and are having a hard time embracing the benefits of that long term policy? How do you get those two groups to come to some sort of accord?
Bill de Blasio: I think it's a bit futile to say if we just repeat the problem, folks are going to feel it because I just think there's too many pulls on attention and too many urgent matters for most people. Just remember how much most people are struggling to get by. So I think we should differentiate a plan where there's not necessarily a lot of negative. If you move the coastline out 500 feet from Wall Street, I'm sure there'll be interests that won't like it and there will certainly be a fight over will that be private development or public space or whatever. You can have that fight, but that's not going to really be of deep concern to most people. So with that, government can be government. If you put it in the budget, if you keep it to a timeline, if you empower certain people in the government or agencies to own it, you can get your product.
Versus something like on the east side where you do have a nexus of opposition because doing the right thing long ... I mean, for example, hundreds and hundreds of trees had to be cut down to do the construction to better protect the East Side. I don't blame anyone who doesn't like trees getting cut down and what we said is we're going to replace the trees, we'll put in even more trees. And yeah, will they be as beautiful in the first instance as what was there? No, it'll take time, but it's not a logical concern. I rarely borrow phrases from Richard Nixon, but I'll do it this time. I do think there's a silent majority that's sort of like, "Yeah, we want to be protected against a horrible climate-based event," and who have been watching basically years upon years of footage of one crisis or another around the country, wildfires and droughts and floods and everything, and hurricanes. It's almost been nonstop, just the location and the type of disaster changes every few weeks. So I think there's a lot of folks who can see that and say, "Yeah, I want the long term protection."
But that's never going to stop a very honest element of the community from saying, "We just are obsessed with what we're losing." That's where a certain amount of political courage is going to be needed to say, "This too shall pass." I didn't like telling people we had made a decision that had elements they wouldn't like. I didn't like the fact that kids wouldn't be able to use a ball field or a playground for a period of time. But I really was living in the long view and I felt like our job was to provide people with alternatives and eventually things would move forward.
Ralph Ranalli: People's attention spans seem to almost be analogous to the federal government’s. Because you've said that climate funding tends to follow disasters. You have a disaster, the funds come in, but it's not comprehensive and proactive.
Bill de Blasio: Yeah.
Ralph Ranalli: I don't want to get too much into the midterms because we still don't know. We're recording this the day after the election and it's still uncertain. But what seems to be certain is that there's not going to be a government with a clear mandate to spend a lot of money, the amount of money it would take to really address this problem in a comprehensive way. Do you think that's a fair statement?
Bill de Blasio: I guess I would challenge the phrase in a respectful manner to say to deal with the problem in a comprehensive way is probably beyond anyone's imagination or reach at this moment. A country with just, let's just take our vast, vast, vast coastlines to begin with. And you're seeing what's happening on the Mississippi River right now. How many of those things can you account for in one country, even if it is a particularly rich and able country? I think there's limits. So I guess what I would say is I would differentiate the fight against climate change and addressing the climate crisis where I think we have not only usable tools, but an imperative to take all of them, the development of renewables and the other tools that we have, need to be literally physically maximized, go as far as we can. If, for example, we decide a carbon tax is necessary, then use it to the fullest extent. I mean there's a lot of things there that you can imagine a high point. Whereas if you said to me, "Let's address the resiliency needs of the country," I'd say I think we have to be honest about how much of a phase-in that would take: how long it would take, and how much, even with the most generous federal government, the resource limitations, that would have an impact.
The good news is I sometimes think in the understandably dire predictions, there's almost like an on/off switch. Sea level rise is going to happen on Tuesday at 5:00 PM and suddenly the sea level is going to go up six inches or a foot or three feet or whatever. Whereas if you look more closely projections are often in terms of 2050 or 2100. Therefore you can inherently say, "Let's prioritize." It makes sense given, for example, that Wall Street area where a bunch of subway lines converge, huge number of people live now, huge number of jobs are there, and it's literally at sea level. Okay, that's a good place to put some chips, right? That's a good place to say we need to address this more quickly than something else. But if you say we're working on a 50-year plan or something, then you can have a reasonable thought of we can truly be comprehensive.
Ralph Ranalli: And the problem keeps evolving too.
Bill de Blasio: Yes.
Ralph Ranalli: I mean, fast forward nine years after Sandy and look at Hurricane Ida. The capacity of the storm drains in New York City maxes out at around 1.5 inches of rain per hour and you had more than 3.1 inches per hour in one hour in Central Park. And you had people literally drowning and dying in their basement apartments because they were flooding.
Bill de Blasio: I've got to tell you, we were all in shock at that time, right down to ... This is a phrase I will always resent. The weather forecast that morning uniformly used the phrase "remnants of a hurricane." This was their idea of a remnant? I think everyone misunderstood the potential of this to a horrifying effect. But what I recognize in the aftermath, one, what can you do when your infrastructure's built to one standard and it suddenly gets blown out two times over? But I talk to our fire commissioner and our fire and our emergency services, our EMS, are one entity. And so the ambulances that went out to those places and the firefighters went out to those places, were all part of that agency. And I said to them, "Have you ever had the problem of having to rescue people drowning in their own apartment?" And he's been associated with the FDNY since 1969 and he said, "I asked myself the same question." I asked a bunch of the senior folks around, no one had ever heard of this. So I think what you said, you said a mouthful, we are dealing with not only changing conditions, we're dealing with stunning, painful resets where a basement apartment the day before... We didn't like them. We didn't like the ones that didn't have egress, we didn't like in the sense that's not the housing we're aspiring to. But if I said, "Yeah, and what about the problem of people drowning?" You would've looked at me like I just flew in from Mars. He said, "What are you talking about? That doesn't happen." And by the day after we had seen just how horrifying the situation was. We are dealing with constant new information, but what we can safely say is, okay, it's like the discussion of fascism. It can happen here. It is, yeah. So now three inches in an hour can happen here.
Ralph Ranalli: Given what you learned over the time when you were trying to implement these resiliency plans, what you learned from Sandy, what you had to relearn from Ida, what would your advice be to, say, a convocation of coastal mayors who came to the Kennedy School for a conference about climate resiliency, and what's possible? What would your bullet points to them be?
Bill de Blasio: Well, I would first say, let's recognize that sadly the consensus around the issue is now advanced by painful personal experience. That is a really different reality than 10 or 20 years ago. I wish that wasn't true, but it is. So now that you can say when you talk resiliency, a really big swath of your community is going to believe you. Now comes the question of prioritization. I think that's a tough one because of course everyone wants to be protected. There's folks in some of the places hit by Sandy, I would go to town hall meetings in the years after in Queens and Brooklyn, folks would say the answer is kind of a Venice-style sea wall. And I didn't disrespect them for saying it because it captured their imagination. The estimates were, I think it was $10 billion or more, 10 or 15 years to put it together if I remember correctly. Something like that, and not even clear if it would work, right?
Ralph Ranalli: Right.
Bill de Blasio: So I don't blame anyone who's thinking that way, but I'm like, okay, we could try and do that. It may or may not work. Where are we going to find the money? And also in the meantime, we might get our next superstorm. Or we could say, as we do, "Let's choose the burden hand, let's choose the devil we know and, say, let's do the resiliency projects that we are absolutely certain we can achieve." Great example, that same Rockaway Boardwalk that I told you I witnessed really, really, really in the wrong place having been swept there by the ocean when it was restored... It's five and a half miles long and it was restored not just as a boardwalk but as a resiliency barrier. So it was a totally different concept. The boardwalk of yesterday was something for people to walk on and it had space underneath, and isn't this quaint? The boardwalk of today was a barrier that also happened to be a boardwalk. That was doable in real time and provided tremendous protection. That's the kind of thing we need to do. And like I said about the Wall Street area, judged by really basic things: how many human beings are going to be affected, how many homes, how many jobs, how many subway lines, how many hospitals? East Side of Manhattan rings those bells. There has to be a willingness to have an honest conversation about prioritization.
Ralph Ranalli: In the political arena, the reality is that no one's in office forever and you were in office-
Bill de Blasio: Amen.
Ralph Ranalli: And you were in the office for a good long time.
Bill de Blasio: I'll take it.
Ralph Ranalli: But you eventually had to pass the torch along to the Adams administration. Obviously, because we're talking about such long timeframes, continuity in moving climate resiliency plans forward is very important, but yet it bumps up against the dictates of democracy where people get to throw the leaders out and put new leaders in. How is that continuity of planning going in New York now, in your estimation, from the things you've started to their continuation now? And is there anything that can be done to maximize that continuity in this one area where it's so important?
Bill de Blasio: It would be nice if it was talked about, it would be nice if there was a public dialogue to create some accountability. Again, I think we've got to be really honest about how attention shifts. You'd like to believe there are scenarios, and New Orleans after Katrina I think is probably a good example. It's a horrible, horrible case but I think the aftermath, there were some things that if the government had not addressed, the whole world would've seen it and reacted to it and it wouldn't have been acceptable. I think everyone knew it. I think something like a Sandy is so much harder because it was such a vast area and it wasn't like the levees broke. It was a bunch of places that had not been vulnerable in that fashion, or had been vulnerable but never to the same degree, suddenly were. And the totality of us, it's not like you can say, "Here is the point where the problem needs to be fixed and if you don't fix that, how dare you?" So there isn't a discussion in part because it's such a diffuse reality. And there isn't a discussion because all the other crises came along, and then COVID came along.
Right now the plans were highly developed, the budgets were put in place. Obviously in some cases the contracts were already agreed upon or the work had begun. But if you say, "What about the stuff that's a year away, five years away or 10 years away?" I don't think there's a lot of energy around accountability. So I think the good news is my successor and I agree on a lot of stuff, we have a lot of the same personnel in common. I certainly don't know of any of my plans on resiliency that he disagrees with or his administration has changed. But in terms of urgency and ensuring it's going to happen, especially in the post-COVID world—where I don't blame the central concern is recovery after COVID. I don't see that energy coming from the federal government, from the state government for the legislature, from the city council. I don't know where it comes from. I think one of the things we have to construct is an accountability mechanism on these kinds of giant structural challenges, whether it's in academia, whether it's in the media, wherever it is that help to keep calling the question. I don't even think it's about people don't ... I'm not trying to say people don't care or they wouldn't do their work. Sometimes it's just there's no real dialogue on the issue happening and there's no impetus to make sure things are being done as quickly as they could be.
Ralph Ranalli: If you look at the polling, something like 75% of Americans want more done about climate. I was recently talking to one of our Kennedy School alumni, who is the head of the new Center for Climate Journalism University of Southern California and she said, "Yeah, that's great, but it's not the amount of people for whom it's a concern. It's where that concern ranks given their other concerns." It just isn't quite bubbling up, or at least not yet. Do you see any hopeful signs in terms of this becoming more of a higher priority in the public consciousness, even if that is happening slowly? That maybe that accountability mechanism is coming? And here at Harvard we have the brand new Salata Institute, which brings together all kinds of different experts from around Harvard on climate, so you see these sort of climate-based things popping up all over the place. Do you see that as a hopeful trend that can at least push us towards the kind of accountability you're talking about?
Bill de Blasio: Yeah. And I believe in democracy, and I believe in the wisdom of people and their capacity to discern, but I also think the modern world has thrown so many curve balls that you cannot blame a person dealing with all their everyday problems for not figuring out, are they concerned about this pandemic or the next pandemic? Are they concerned about resiliency? Are they concerned about some other social ill or challenge? Right now, if you talk to a lot of families, they're worried about learning loss from COVID for their kids. It's going to be hard to say, "Take your mind off learning loss for your kids so we can talk about resiliency." Right?
Ralph Ranalli: Right.
Bill de Blasio: So I think we've got to be honest about respecting everyday people and the logic of their prioritization. So it would be rare, but for a Katrina-like situation where there's a real specific villain location or villain set of structures or structural decisions that have to be addressed. In Katrina, it was really clear what went wrong and where it went wrong and why it went wrong and ways to fix it. If you didn't, then it was malfeasance. When you're talking about the bigger problem, resiliency, it's not as clean as that. And so therefore much less chance of focal points from the public, from the media, from the political class. In those situations, I think you do need other actors to maximize their role. In a perfect world, again, it would be oversight from your city council, your state legislature, your Congress or Congress members, whatever. But they're also afflicted by the overload. So I do think academic institutions have a big role to play. I think issue groups and think tanks, and activist groups, and the media have to create a kind of alternative set of watchdogs and accountability agents because this one defies a lot of the normal governing process. If the water wasn't running to your faucet, you wouldn't have to worry about Harvard having an institute to make people deal with it. The elected leaders and the appointed leaders would have to deal with it. If there were fires all over the place, you'd have to deal with it. There's a lot of stuff, clear and present danger, that government does respond to, but this challenge is too big, too subtle, too ill-defined. Is the next super storm tomorrow or 50 years from now? So that requires a bigger view and I think that's where academia, for example, can play a really valuable role.
I would only conclude by saying, and I hate to be hackneyed, but I believe it only takes one. It only takes one person or one organization a lot of times to sound the alarm or draw the attention or create the accountability. I don't think it is mysterious. I think it's about time and energy and focus and bandwidth. So I say that as an encouragement. I think anyone in any community has said, "Hey, we have an urgent... Resiliency need is not getting addressed." Then start organizing people to demand of their elected and appointed leaders that they put a plan on the table. I don't think it has to be the number one issue to still get attention and to still get something done.
Ralph Ranalli: Let’s hope so. Thanks for being here.
Bill de Blasio: Thank you.
Ralph Ranalli: Thanks for listening. Please join us for our next episode. If you have a question or a suggestion, please email us at PolicyCast at H-K-S dot Harvard dot E-D-U. Until next time, please remember to speak bravely, and listen generously.