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How will New Yorkers power through future hurricanes?

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Joe Schwartz

When Hurricane Sandy bombarded the East Coast in 2012, New York City’s transportation and energy infrastructure proved to be particularly vulnerable, with subways flooded, gas stations shuttered, streets underwater and residents stranded. As climate change threatens to produce more extreme weather events, the need for big improvements in the Big Apple’s infrastructure could not be greater, according to a new study.

Impacts and Implications of Climatic Extremes for Resilience Planning of Transportation Energy: A Case Study of New York City,” which was published Feb. 10 in the Journal of Cleaner Production, shows the changing climate’s impact on New York’s transportation energy infrastructure is worsening over time. Working with an interdisciplinary team that includes faculty from city and regional planning, policy analysis and management, and civil and environmental engineering, lead author Arash Beheshtian created a quantitative model that simulated how travel behavior affects fuel availability when this infrastructure – from roads to shipping terminals to oil refineries to gas stations – is stressed by extreme climate events.

“The infrastructure of the motor fuel supply chain is extremely vulnerable to climatic extremes, despite the fact that it is recognized as one of the nation’s 16 critical infrastructures by the Department of Homeland Security and has received billions of dollars for resilience-enhancing strategies during the past decade,” said Beheshtian, a research associate in the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy (CPIP) and Department of City and Regional Planning.

“The majority of the infrastructure was built in the late ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s, and is nearing its designed end of life. So it needs reinvestment and modernization,” he said. “The infrastructure is also vulnerable in the face of climate change and its induced, sudden hazards, including flooding, hurricanes, super storms and gradual extreme events such as sea-level rise. The question of interest is what are the policy options for guiding where to build, what to build and how to strengthen transportation fueling infrastructure efficiently.”

Beheshtian’s model showed the greatest interruptions in the fuel supply chain are road closures and traffic bottlenecks primarily resulting from the location of bridges in flood-prone areas in Manhattan, which is also hindered by a shortage of gas stations. During a severe weather event, Manhattan would run out of fuel in less than four days, “impacting millions of daily commuters, hampering the recovery process, slowing down the economy and, more importantly, blocking first responders’ emergency tasks,” according to the study.

“Maintaining functionality of New York City’s critical infrastructure in time of disaster is challenging,” said Beheshtian, whose research is funded by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and CPIP. “New York City is the capital of capital. So, any exogenous shock on one infrastructure will ripple cascading failures across interdependent urban systems and through sectors of the economy. As was evidenced after Hurricane Sandy back in October 2012, this city is extremely vulnerable.”

The study concludes that integrated alternative planning can mitigate or neutralize the impacts of the changing climate on the transportation energy sector. Possible solutions include promoting alternative fuel vehicles and investing in charging stations in neighborhoods outside the flood plains. However, New York City faces considerable hurdles due to its unique geography and the diffusion of the motor fuel supply chain, as well as the high cost of infrastructure improvements and a host of regulatory barriers. In these respects, New York City is similar to other regions that have been severely damaged by hurricanes, such as Houston and Miami. Beheshtian is now expanding his research scope to include these regions as well.

Since 2014, when he was earning his doctorate in city and regional planning at Cornell, Beheshtian has authored or coauthored eight papers exploring various aspects of transportation energy infrastructure, mostly focused on New York City, with another seven papers currently in the pipeline. And he will soon partner with the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery on a project that will explore optimum electrification methods – from solar to wind to biomass – for small-island developing states in the Caribbean, Pacific, Indian Ocean, Africa, Mediterranean and South China Sea.

Beheshtian says a key aspect of the new study is its ability to show how a planning question can be addressed through a modeling approach, one that may eventually help guide policy decisions.

“Our research question is about a real-world, true-to-scale problem,” Beheshtian said. “We’re talking about billions of dollars of assets to be invested in critical infrastructure. If we do it in the wrong way, it may put the national security at risk at different levels. This is a crucial question for the federal government and the state, as well as private sectors.”

The study was coauthored by Kieran Donaghy, professor of city and regional planning and the Atkinson Center’s faculty director of economic development; H. Oliver Gao, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Richard Geddes, professor of policy analysis and management and director of CPIP; and Sahar Safaie with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

“The research program in which Dr. Beheshtian has been engaged as a postdoctoral research associate has not only won awards and recognition from such agencies as the Transportation Research Board,” Donaghy said, “it has also increased our understanding of how critical interdependent infrastructure systems are vulnerable to disruptions of various sorts and what we need to do to make them more resilient if we are to transition to more sustainable lifestyles.”

David Nutt is managing editor of the Atkinson Center.