Tech to protect against the next hurricane Sandy

A year after tropical storm Sandy tore through the Northeast, killing more than 100 and causing $50 billion in damage, areas all over the region are devising plans to prevent similar storm damage in the future.

What will the changes look like? Proposed solutions range from physically expanding the coast of Manhattan to re-introducing oysters in certain areas in the hope that they will slow down waves.

One of the most ambitious proposals, championed by New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg, is to physically expand the East side of the island of Manhattan and develop it, with the new land -- and new buildings designed to withstand a storm -- acting as a shield for the existing inland areas.

Many are skeptical.

"I think it's a big development project in disguise. I'm not opposed to that per se, but it’s not a good response to Sandy," Malcolm Bowman, professor of oceanography at Stony Brook University, told He added that Manhattan was not nearly as hard-hit as surrounding areas, so the focus should not be there.

'We've seen those pictures of a 'green beard' growing around lower Manhattan. That's almost science fiction. It's not plausible.'

— Malcolm Bowman, professor of oceanography at Stony Brook University

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Another proposal that would protect more area calls for a giant sea barrier that would stretch five miles across the mouth of New York harbor, connecting New Jersey and Breezy Point, New York. The goal is to keep high water out of New York City and parts of New Jersey during storms.

"It would need to be about 30 feet high. It would have openings to let tides in and out on a regular basis, and have guillotine-like blades that would be let down during storms to cut off big surges," Bowman said.

However, the project is controversial and would take decades and cost $20 billion or more, according to a city government report.

Meanwhile, more manageable changes are already being made all over the Northeast in areas affected by Sandy, from a $40 million sand dune being built in Mantoloking, New Jersey, to new building codes that have led people to put their homes on pilings and elevate them many feet in the air.

Near Philadelphia, one utility company is preparing by making its electric grid “smarter” so it automatically switches energy from damaged lines to good ones, and increasing its tree-trimming budget by $10 million.

In New York City, a 428-page government plan calls for dozens of new construction projects in response to Sandy.

"The City will use flood protection structures, such as floodwalls, levees, and local storm surge barriers," reads the plan.

That means building up land in vulnerable areas and securing it with stone walls, as well as building much smaller versions of the giant barrier.

The report goes on to call for building up natural-seeming formations to take some of the brunt of waves.

"When placed appropriately, wetlands, oyster reefs, and living shorelines, including coastal forests, possess effective wave-attenuation properties," it reads.

Those mundane-sounding improvements are often the best, some experts say.

"New York City has been very proactive… From beach replenishment (much of which has already been done) to revision of building codes, to development of improved communications methods," Anne Ronan, professor of Civil Engineering at NYU Polytechnic University, told

But other recent proposals may be motivated more by a "cool" factor than an actual record of success.

"Oysters might add a bit of roughness and slow the water down, but I don't think it really would help in New York harbor to be honest," Bowman said.

"And we've seen those pictures of a 'green beard' growing around lower Manhattan. That's almost science fiction. It's not plausible. You know, people forget that this is a major commercial harbor, with ships coming in and out all the time."

In the end, he says, what’s been done is not enough -- and that a large sea barrier is the best long-term solution.

"Could Sandy happen again? Yes!” Bowman said. “In living memory of older people the 1938 ‘Long Island Express’ hurricane ripped apart eastern Long Island, killed over 700 people and destroyed 8900 houses, leaving 63,000 homeless."

"Politicians aren't really facing up to the challenges. I think elected officials kind of just cross their figures and hope it doesn't happen on their watch," Bowman said.

The author of this piece can be reached at or on twitter at @maximlott