The Climate and Society Speaker Series continues with guest speakers George Deodatis and Thaddeus Pawlowski, both members of Columbia’s faculty. Sarah Cole, Dean of the Humanities at Columbia, moderates the panel as both experts speak on the setbacks of current infrastructure in New York and how it can be improved to maximize sustainability and the safety of coastal residents. Each speaker gave a short presentation on their work relating to New York coastal climate infrastructure before going into a short Q&A session. This panel was hosted by the Center for Science and Society, the Columbia Climate School, the Dean of Humanities, the Earth Institute, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the Climate and Society MA Program.

The first speaker, George Deodatis, is the Santiago and Robertina Calatrava Family Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University. Using probabilistic methods, he works to evaluate risk assessment and the safety of structures subjected to natural and technological hazards. His work in the field earned him a Presidential Teaching Award, and his research interests include computational engineering science, sustainable humanity, and modeling and simulation. 

Deodatis addressed the threat posed on above and below-ground components of New York City due to sea-level rise and storm-induced flooding; he also proposed infrastructural modification to reduce damage costs and implementation costs while saving lives.

He began by emphasizing that sea-level rise and flooding, some of the already present effects of climate change, that pose an immediate threat to coastal cities across the globe. As sea levels rise due to higher global temperatures, flooding becomes extreme in low-altitude coastal areas. Already, cities like Venice are observed to be sinking, and in the wake of Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, it is easy to see how ill-prepared New York City is for the changing world.

His slides began with images of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. He detailed the number of deaths and the cost of damages. Nearly 5.5 million people lost power in the North Eastern United States. A majority of the focus in his presentation was on the New York underground. Significant flooding took place in both underground subways and low-lying neighborhoods, and the continuation of poor infrastructure to eliminate these effects may threaten the future of underground life in New York. 

As opposed to trying to tackle the vast impacts of climate change on infrastructure in New York, both panelists primarily discussed flooding and storm patterns. Climate change, as we have observed in recent years, amplifies the danger and unpredictability of hurricanes. Not only do the majority of people in the United States live in coastal areas, but 10% of the world’s population does as well, making this a pressing issue that may lead to mass migration.

However, in New York City, Deodatis highlights preparations have been made to combat the impacts of another hurricane; the unpredictable aspects play a role in that the surge inundation and tidal cycle patterns may be different and unexpected. He further explains that the North East was very lucky that Hurricane Sandy hit when most of the city was at low tide, mitigating the effects of flooding. If it was at high tide, a considerably larger area would have flooded, impacting many more homes and families.

Deodatis continues by explaining the methodology behind implementing solutions. Infrastructural change considers many factors: maximum reduction loss, surge, and tidal patterns, future sea-level rise, the cooperation of the community and city stakeholders, as well as heavy consideration of budget. Taking all of these components into account is necessary to protect the future of aboveground and especially below-ground life in New York City.

The implementations he focused on included restoring wetlands, sealing the basements and ground floors of buildings, improving storm surge intensity models, building a seawall, and instituting artificial oyster reefs. These reefs act as barriers to storms and tides, prevent erosion, and filter water.

Deodatis closed his presentation by evaluating the feasibility of building a storm protection wall south of 34th Street. He walked the audience through the cost-benefit analysis of these plans including how even spending $1 billion implementing this measure can reduce damage costs by around $1.5 billion. Despite the real ability for these solutions to save the city, there is a chilling realization that very few of these measures are a permanent fix if climate change still continues.

The second panelist, Thaddeus Pawlowski, is the Director of the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University. He helped establish the Resilience Accelerator in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities and Rockefeller Foundation, to bring together local leaders and global experts to drive resilient projects. Before his time at Columbia, Pawlowski prepared for disasters at the NYC Office of Emergency Management.

Pawlowski’s presentation had a narrower lens and focused more on community impact and cooperation regarding climate disasters and infrastructure. His background in urban planning allowed him to address the need to redesign urban systems to build a resilient foundation that starts at the root.

He began by discussing the social impacts of urban infrastructure. The foundations of our cities, he says, are built by “extraction, expansion, and exploitation.” This is the idea that a lot of our infrastructure and policies were created to maximize these three things and that many communities are disproportionately affected by modern development of cities. He proposes a social solution: democracy, supplemented with fixing past mistakes in order to improve the future.

As Pawlowski’s presentation centered around housing and community leadership, he did address some issues that Deodantis had stated earlier. Seawalls are not a long-term solution, and they are no solution at all to heavy rains. With this knowledge, there is an acknowledgment of eventual migration. In the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, however, there needs to be a relocation solution that is already built. The difficulty. he argues, is that new housing options need to be sustainable initiatives that do not turn into another concentrated center of smoke and fumes.

After Hurricane Sandy, Pawlowski spent time on the project Build It Back, a housing solution for displaced families with the sole focus of creating housing ASAP, which allocated little effort to sustainability. This project had a huge impact on the New York community. It created raised houses, built on tall foundations that are optimized for future flooding, and permanently altered the architectural signature of many communities. 

His work also centers around addressing climate and social vulnerability effects. Demographic history and racism characterize a lot of modern communities, creating groups that are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These communities are called fenceline communities and are areas where environmental racism has made a devastating impact. Often it is difficult to measure community impacts because every person is impacted to a different degree. While two people may lose something from flooding and hurricane damage, to one person this loss may be a real estate investment, and to another, it is their home. Pawlowski recommended reparations in order to ameliorate these kinds of climate injustices.

Following both speakers, there was a short Q&A session that was open to the audience. Deodatis emphasized that it is human nature to respond to environmental crises, not create preemptive measures, and that this is a poignant issue in decision-making. Another prominent issue is that of funding. How it is allocated, to what corporations, to what people, and how it can be optimized for certain goals. Even further, how will funds be allocated across the entire east coast? What cities are higher priorities than others?

For the future of New York City, both panelists agreed that the underground is going to be heavily protected due to how essential it is to city life. After Hurricane Sandy, the MTA invested around $2.2 billion to seal subway stations with waterproof entrances below 34th street. However, these some 4,000 openings must be closed manually in the case of an emergency. Convenient, right? Deodatis summarizes his main argument: “We have to think for the entire metropolitan area. Even larger than that, the entire Eastern seaboard.”

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