Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Council Speaker Urges Stormproofing as the Civic Conversation Shifts
The Association for a Better New York breakfast is a mandatory pit stop on the road to higher office for local politicians, and for weeks, Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, had been planning to use her moment to talk about education proposals to help the middle class.
But then Hurricane Sandy arrived and swept aside those plans.
So on Tuesday, Ms. Quinn took the stage and, before some of the city’s business, labor and political elite, outlined a series of steps to reduce damage from future storms. She talked, for instance, about pushing for legislation that would require utility wires in flood-prone areas to be buried underground. She talked, as well, about accelerating a host of city and federal studies on the feasibility of storm surge barriers, which she said could cost $16 billion.
While all of the expected 2013 mayoral contenders have talked about the devastating impact of the storm, Ms. Quinn was the first to deliver a major speech on the subject. In so doing, she reinforced the growing sense in political circles that the hurricane has upended the city’s public conversation and once-little-discussed issues like climate change and disaster preparedness have become central to the mayor’s race.
“Two weeks ago, we were reminded that our city is vulnerable to the forces of nature, that the reality of climate changes puts our homes and our safety at risk,” Ms. Quinn said. “What we do in this moment — it will determine whether we let that reality define us, to hold us back, or to inspire us, to push to do what we know is hard.”
Part of the reason Ms. Quinn was able to get out in front on post-hurricane planning was the luck of the calendar. One of her chief rivals, Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, spoke to the same civic group before the storm, and he focused on education. Another leading candidate, William C. Thompson Jr., a former city comptroller, is expected to address the group in January.
All of the candidates have been visiting parts of the city most affected by the storm, urging more or better services for those without homes or electricity and endeavoring to show that they are concerned about the storm’s impact. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was the first to reach an explicitly political conclusion from the storm, endorsing President Obama for re-election after the hurricane because, he said, he believed Mr. Obama would do the better job addressing climate change.
In her speech, delivered at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown Manhattan, Ms. Quinn mixed personal anecdotes with policy pronouncements. A native of Long Island, she reminisced about summers on Rockaway Beach walking the Boardwalk — now destroyed — with her mother and aunt. She also described how Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr., who represents Coney Island, was personally affected.
“Sewage was coming out of Domenic’s drains in his sink and in his bathtub,” she said.
Ms. Quinn called on utilities to build structures around power plants and substations in vulnerable areas to guard against storm surges of at least 20 feet — higher than Hurricane Sandy’s surge. She said the city should consider tighter requirements for floodproofing boilers, generators and electrical equipment, or pass rules requiring new buildings to be built above flood level.
She pledged that the City Council would formally ask the federal Department of Energy to investigate the failures in the gasoline-distribution network. And she said that Senator Charles E. Schumer would push to get a study performed by the Army Corps of Engineers to analyze the feasibility of building storm-surge barriers or other protective structures to help protect the city against future storms.
“The sum total of everything I described could reach $20 billion,” she said. But she said “it is always the role of the federal government to help cities rebuild after a storm.”
Mr. Bloomberg, asked about Ms. Quinn’s remarks during a hurricane-related event in the Rockaways, said that “it would be much better if everybody’s wires were buried,” but cautioned, “I don’t know where the money would come from.”
Consolidated Edison dismissed one of Ms. Quinn’s criticisms — that it should have shut off power earlier at its 14th Street plant, which later exploded — saying an earlier shutdown would not have made a difference. But Chris Olert, a utility spokesman, said Con Edison was open to proposals “to move equipment underground and other issues to further protect residents and vital infrastructure involving major storms.”