Interview with Cecil Scheib, Managing Director for the NYC Building Resiliency Task Force
Interview with Cecil Scheib, Director of Advocacy, Urban Green Council and Managing Director for the NYC Building Resiliency Task Force.
Interviewed by Max Liboiron (Q) and Tom Corcoran (Q2).
February 22, 2013.
Q: Do you want me to tell you a little bit about the project first?
Q: So the Superstorm Research Lab is a research collective that I’m part of. It’s a mutual aid activist research collective. And we are all—there are eight of us, and then we are also working with a bunch of Brooklyn College students to mentor them in interview skills, basically. And we are looking at different aspects of Hurricane Sandy with different stakeholders, all the way from like people from Bloomberg’s office or the MTA and all the way down to like flood zone A people—what their experiences and issues with the storm are. And then we’re looking at the relationships between those—between stake-holders—and then we’re doing three different waves—interview waves—so we’re doing now, we’re going do six months from now, and then we’ll do a year from now and see how those change or not. And we’re hoping to do academic papers but also policy papers—and hopefully public meetings and stuff based on our data.
A: Thanks, thanks—
Q: —any questions about that?
Q: OK. All right, so our first question is: What is your job and position?
A: So my position is the Director of Advocacy at the Urban Green Council. And I am the Executive Manager for the Building Resiliency Taskforce, which was convened by Urban Green Council at the request of Mayor Bloomberg and city council speaker Christine Quinn to examine New York City’s building stock and consider what could be done to make buildings more resilient in the future. This is beyond just hurricanes and floods—we’re looking at many natural hazards that we might encounter, including heat waves, ice storms, other types of high winds other than hurricanes, other types of floods other than coastal floods—like surface flooding or river flooding—but we are focused on buildings so we are not doing the subways, we’re not doing utility grid, we’re not talking about where people should be allowed to rebuild. Those are different issues. We’re talking about, if you have a building, what makes the building more resilient? That could be improvements to building code or it could be operational best practices that aren’t, you know, codified or necessary regulation that people need to know about. And that’s my title.
Q: That’s very long. [laughter]
A: If you’d like to know what I do!
Q: Oh yes, what do you do? What is different?
A: [laughs] Seventh floor.
Q: Seventh floor. That’s your job. …So did this taskforce sort of group come together right after the hurricane—
Q: —in response to the hurricane?
A: Mhm. So we were probably—I don’t know, two or three weeks after Sandy, we were officially asked by the mayor and speaker to convene the taskforce. We had a kick-off meeting on December 19th, 2012—and at this point, we have invited about 215 people to sit on the taskforce. So it’s a very inclusive effort, and we have tried to involve stakeholders, whether in Zone A or the people in the mayor’s office—and everyone in between. And we’re having about—you know, we’re split up into various working groups and committees, but with all things considered, we’re having about 60 meetings of various types in, you know, basically a four-month period. So they’re meeting almost every day.
Q: So there’s a sort of time period? There’s a four-month sort of gig?
A: Well, we have four months of meeting and then a month and a half of finalizing the report, with the goal to release the report end of May. And we’re coordinating with the city’s overall effort sort of post-Sandy—which is called SIRR, the Special Initiative Rebuilding and Resiliency that– So we’re sort of like the technical building expert arm of SIRR.
A: And things got a little confusing because we actually sort of got working very quickly, and they hadn’t, I think, worked out all the details of SIRR and what it would encompass, so we actually got folded in to their structure after we were already up-and-running , but that’s basically how it works.
Q: OK. So what kind of stakeholders are involved in that? These two—
A: So, yeah, in terms of stakeholders—this might include building owners, building managers, building operators—so the people who own and operate and manage buildings—building residents, and building tenants—obviously, they’ll –home owners—insurance companies, code experts, legal experts, people who work for the city in the various departments that touch on buildings. So for us that’s…Department of Buildings, Department of Environmental Protection, the health—Health Department, HPD, HDC, EEC, who else we got on there? NYCHA…we probably have eight or ten city departments represented. And then in terms of who’s giving input—we have a whole range of experts. So we have architects, engineers, contractors, builders—you know, the legal experts. And we have a large number of representatives of labor both there as technical experts but also as stakeholders.
Q: Ok. And then this report that you put together. That—all this work, cumulates in a report, yeah? So what happens to that report? Is the city then able to say like, “No, just kidding, we don’t like that report.” Like, what’s the interface between you guys and the role this report plays in how this is taken out?
A: Well—you know, so the report could have several outcomes. Like, one could be just a piece about education. Here’s a better way to do things and no one—you know, that, like, once report goes public anyone can use it for their education. And people use it to—use it as reference. It’s very likely that actually Urban Green itself will create a training piece around the report—here’s what you can do, or here’s what you should do, or here’s some good ideas. In terms of, you know, local laws—and change the law—well only the city council can change the law. You know, Bloomberg and panel doesn’t make law changes—it can only recommend things. And similarly, in terms of agencies changing the rules or regulations, they have their own process to do that. So this is a, you know, an advisory body. And there’s a chance— You know, we don’t—I don’t know what of the things— I also don’t know yet what we’ll end up recommending—because we’re still in the middle of the process—but even of what we do recommend, I don’t know what will necessarily be adopted. That said, given that we have people from the city council on the taskforce, we have people from the Mayor’s office, we have people from DoB, we have REBNY (Real Estate Board of New York), we have owners, we have labor, we have home owners, we have the experts—I mean, if everyone on the taskforce has agreed this is a good idea, it should be a recommendation, you know, many of the barriers that have actually been enacted have already been removed. It’s not like it’s going to be a surprise when it comes out at the end of the process.
Q: Right. So are there any sort of main issues that are shared among these stakeholders or anything floating to the top already, given where you guys are in the process?
A: Well, I mean, I think a common thread for all stakeholders is that risk management is a cost-benefit exercise. So whenever you’re faced with any sort of hazard, there’s, you know, a risk associated with doing nothing, and a cost associated with if something bad happens and you’re not ready. And at the other of the spectrum, you can, you know, spend so much money or effort that you’re no longer exposed to any risk, but at an enormous cost—maybe a cost that far outweighs the actual risk that you’re facing, so somewhere in the middle you have to pick where you want to be. What sort of risks do you want to prepare for? So, for example, in the city, to design buildings to withstand a category 5—sorry a class five—hurricane would be an enormous cost. You know, the additional structural and facade integrity needed for a class 5 or—you know, as opposed to a class, you know, 1 or 2 or— And I think that a class 5 hurricane is like a million year wind event—or actually I think class 5 maybe is a ten million year wind event. So there’s—
Q: Was Sandy class—
A: Sandy wasn’t even a class 1.
Q: Oh, it wasn’t even a class 1. Oh okay.
A: No, what it—it was when it was out over the water. But by the time it made landfall—that’s why they say Superstorm Sandy, because it no longer—the winds were not moving even fast enough to be considered a hurricane. So—
Q: Holy crap. [laughter]
A: Yeah. And even that was a fairly rare event. Defini—so, I would argue—and this is just personally—it’s like, yeah you should probably be ready for the one in one hundred year events. Like your city is going to be around for multiple hundreds of years, individual buildings are around for hundreds of years—to say, “oh, it only happens every hundred years, why bother preparing?” Ehh, that seems a little short-sighted. But to spend money to build a building and have it ready for the ten million year event, I think you’ll spend more money beefing up these buildings. So—and that— So that’s an example, but that’s just as true if you’re a home owner, you know, building your— And it’s true if you’re a renter, right? It’s like, ok, what should you do if you’re renting? Well, have a flashlight, have some water, you know? Should you have like six months worth of food in the pantry, just in case? Should you buy a larger apartment so you can store more supplies in case— No, that’s probably not a good cost-benefit thing. So everyone makes those decisions whether they realize it or not.
Q: So is that where a lot of the conversation in this taskforce is?
A: Well actually we’re trying not to start there. We’re trying to start with, like, “ok what is needed technically to make buildings secure?” And actually try to start as a blue-sky exercise so that people don’t immediately say, “Well, that’s just too expensive. We’ll never do it.” Let’s start with, what would make the city safer, what would make the people safer, the infrastructure—well, not— You know, the building infrastructure—the buildings themselves. Then let’s get some cost on it—let’s figure out how— And then let’s make a decision where to go. But if you just start outright, they’ll be like, “Well, how much does that cost?” There a lot of things that, you know, you maybe won’t explore, because, it’s, you know, sometimes you won’t find the best idea until you work with it a little bit. So we try not to throw things out right at the beginning, so.
Q: So you’re finding that—do you find that some of the sort of things people are talking about are related to their experiences of Sandy? Or are these sort of ideas for what makes people safer coming from things they already had in mind before Sandy or—
A: Well I, I mean, I think both. We tried to get—you know, when we were looking for a—someone with some law experience in terms of building law, and we found someone who actually lives in Sandy Point, and whose home was affected. Great. I mean, to be able—you know for her to be able to speak from, like, what she saw and experienced and her neighbors and all that as opposed to just, you know, theoretical, that’s fantastic. I mean, I have a lot of people who worked in Lower Manhattan and worked with those issues, are still working with those issues, and that’s great. That said, you know, for a sort of holistic risk management thing, you don’t want your evidence to just be anecdotal. You want people that have experience with a broad range of risks—especially because we’re trying to consider risks that maybe New York hasn’t seen yet, and we want to be ready for them. So we do have some people that work for national insurers, national agencies and so, they’ve worked with events in Florida, down in Katrina, you know, New Orleans, like other jurisdictions and say, “Oh, here’s what we faced. Here’s some things you should be ready for in New York even if you haven’t seen it yet.”
Q; And are people pretty open to having that sort of comparison to these other places—the other geographical places?
A: Yeah. Yeah. You know, on the code level, people sort of work together pretty, pretty well. Like, people look to the national model codes as a starting place. And we have people from the National Model Code agency on the taskforce, so she can both inform us and say, “Well this is what the next version of code will say so you might want to include that.” And also if we come across something good, she’ll say, “Oh that’s good, we should get that into the next version of the model code.” We hadn’t thought of that, so it’s a two-way street. And, um– there seems to be a trend for people to go with the model codes and then make local modifications instead of every jurisdiction just write its own code from scratch—I mean, just for obvious reasons.
Q: So is New York bound by the national code system or—?
A: There is no national code, like—
A: —and that’s why I say—well, there’s no national building code. And that’s what they call model code—so put out by an independent company that is a non-profit. But no one is bound to follow—follow the, follow the ICC codes. Local jurisdictions can adopt them in all or in part with modifications. The exception is that if you participate in the national flood insurance program, which is a federal program, then you have to do certain things to your building to get a mortgage. But that’s not a building code—it’s not enforced by the local buildings department. And if you don’t need a mortgage and you’re not—and you don’t need flood insurance— You know, like if you get a mortgage, the bank says you have to get the flood insurance and to get the flood insurance, FEMA says, “OK, you have to do these things.” If you don’t need a mortgage, you don’t have to do those things, because you’re not required to get flood insurance. I think that’s one thing that’s being discussed at the national level is—should everyone in the flood zone be forced to get flood insurance? And what would that entail? But again that’s the type of question that our taskforce isn’t necessarily taking up—like, should everyone have flood insurance? We’re discussing, like, what constitutes, you know, building resilience against a certain height of flood.
Q: So what’s your guys’ concept of building resilience? Like, so, like, through the mitigation model, the adaption model, it’s-the-same-thing model—what does resilience refer to when you guys are talking about it?
A: Well there’s several levels of building resilience, right? So one thing that our current code handles very comprehensively is that a building be resilient enough that after an event, people can get out of it safely. And they can safely evacuate. So generally that’s defined as 90 minutes, maybe two hours. You know, stairwell lighting has to work. You know, the building has to be strong enough to not fall down—to withstand wind loads and things like that. What makes the resiliency effort different for New York City is that we’re trying to lengthen the amount of times the—the time that the building could be habitable so that people are not forced to evacuate. And this is important for a couple of reasons. One is people do not like to leave their homes—they’re worried about looting, they’re worried about safety, they don’t have places to go. So they like to stay home. And we saw after Sandy, a lot of people living in unsafe conditions because they did not want to leave. Second, the city only has limited capability to actually shelter people—you know, at shelters—and so the more people you can keep in a building, you know, the easier it is for the city to handle the people that really don’t have any option. So one level is just the emergency egress and just getting out safely. Another level might be what we call survivability. It’s like, “Ok, you can, like, survive in that building.” So what would that mean? It’s like, “Ok, well, it can’t be like freezing cold or deathly hot in the building or it’s not survivable.” Like if it—you know, power outage in the winter and it’s below freezing and, you know, it’s 10 degrees outside, it’s 10 degrees inside. Fahrenheit. [laughter] That’s not—
Q: [Laughter] 10 degrees? That sounds lovely.
A: Right, you’re like, “What’s the problem? Set my thermostat.” That’s not survivable. But if you can keep the building in between—you know, at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, then you can be like, “Ok, that’s survivable.” Like, you might under the blankets but you’re not going to die, you know. It might be an issue for elderly or kids, but a lot of like able-bodied people could survive in that. Maybe they would choose that instead of a shelter. Might not be very pleasant. And then the next level is what we’re calling habitability, which is, ok, well, if you can keep it at 55 degrees, maybe it’s not as warm as it would be with the heat on, but you could stay there indefinitely. And if you have stairwell lightning and—or could use the elevator. If you have basic lightning, if you have water—we found is one of the most important things after Sandy, was access to water. I mean, that was my personal experience. I had no problems with the lack of power, didn’t mind going up and down the stairs, have good windows, had flashlights, the temperature was mild so we happily stayed there, but not having water makes everything a real hassle. So we chose to go elsewhere, you know, for things like showers and things like that.
Q: So this apartment [in the East Village] was affected by that?
A: Yeah, we were out of power for five days.
Q: So is there anything sort of like water? In addition to water, something that is a sort of key issue for when these sorts of events happen?
A: So, yeah, we’ve identified the key elements as: portable water; stairwells and elevators—that you get like in-and-out of the building safely—habitable temperatures—so you’re not freezing or roasting—and fire safety. Like, you can have all those things and think you’re comfortable in your apartment, but if the fire alarm system isn’t working or if the fire pumps aren’t working—like, it could still be very risky if there was— And you know, people often tend to look at risks one at a time. What do I do during a fire? And what do I do during a power outage? And it’s another question: what if the fire happens during the extended power outage? What then? Like overlapping those risks is often the most dangerous thing. And of course, fires are actually more likely during the power outage—people are using candles and, you know, you don’t have the fire alarms working and, you know, sprinklers might not be working, things like that, so.
Q: Ok. What sort of problems do you think—so those are very immediate problems, right? Like—generally immediately post-storm. Are there any like long-term or, like, those sort of issues that you guys are working on—like months?
A: Hm. We haven’t set, like a, final sort of like, this is how long we have to be ready for. And in some ways, I might argue, like, well, if your building could be habitable for five days, it can probably be habitable for 15 days, right? Once you’ve sort of reached a steady state of habitability— We’re looking at what we consider, you know, events that are disastrous but still sort of transitory. Not like—“oh my god, we had, you know, such a terrible event that the power was out for six months in the neighborhood” or something. It’s like, no, that would be a different— Like, I’m trying to imagine what that event would be, but we’re not really necessarily considering it. But, but that doesn’t mean it’s just after the event—like lots of what we’re looking at are things that happened leading up to the event. So like the four sort of stages of standard risk response or a risk-assessment life style or what they call mitigation—trying to make sure that if the event happens, the effects aren’t as bad. Preparation—getting ready for the event because you know it’s coming or just always being ready. Response, which is what you do right after the event, sort of maintaining safety. And then, recovery, which is, ok, you know, sort of getting back to normal after the worst has passed. And so we’re dealing with all four of those parts. And mitigation, you know, normally means: ok, how do you make the effects of the event not as bad? But for us—we’ve been asked by the city to look specifically at the overlap between climate change mitigation—
Q: So Bloomberg’s office said, “Look at climate change mitigation, please”?
A: And also the city council as a joint thing. But they said, “Think about what are things we could do that will help buildings be more resilient if there is an event, but also help stop events from happening by directly addressing the climate change issue.”
Q: So how do you guys do that?
A: Well an example might be, if you’re in, let’s say, low-rise housing in Brooklyn and, you know, you’re on the top-floor of a four-story building or five-story building, and you’re elderly and you’re basically house-bound during, you know, an extended power outage. If you have a black roof and no AC, maybe the temperature would get so high in there that it could actually be, you know, risk of death. If you have a white-colored roof, the temperatures might get hot enough to get uncomfortable but you might survive. So the white roof can help the urban—urban heat island effect and help you need less AC in the summer, so we are using less fuels, so there’s less global warming—or less of the carbon emissions that lead to global warming—but also help you live during the event. So that’s a great example of like overlap—
Q: Or like triple-paned windows or those sorts of things?
A: Yes, anything that—that’s another example, if you’re in a building that has a very good envelope, so it keeps out the heat and cold, it will keep more stable temperatures even if the power is out. So, that’s another example—and it will use less energy all the time. Now it’s an open question what might—you know, that’s a good example of something that’s like, hm, it might be unclear how to regulate that topic. It might be something that’s, you know, like an education piece for buildings.
And one thing we’re doing on the taskforce is making a distinction between the commercial building sector and residential building sector. So to tell a commercial building that they have to maintain certain temperatures without power available, they would say, “well, that’s—people can leave. You know, it’s the workplace. If it’s not comfortable, they’re not forced to stay there.” Whereas for the residential building sector, they may not have as many options and there’s more of a, you know, “the city needs it.” So.
Q: So that leads nicely into a question I have about how Hurricane Sandy might have led to new opportunities that maybe you guys in your office might’ve been interested in before, but now there’s much more of a platform to do this sort of work on. Would you comment on that sort of thing, if that’s happening?
A: Uh. Yeah. I mean, some of these things are still under consideration for the technical details. And, you know, anything that may seem like a good idea but increases costs for the people who own and operate these buildings—I mean, there’s a lot of sensitivity around. So I’ll say that as a preamble. That said, you know, Sandy, I think changed the equation in the way people talk about climate change. And they knew there were still people who don’t think there’s climate change already here, but they feel a lot less comfortable speaking up. And I think that does raise the profile of items that, you know, overlap in mitigation and resiliency. Specifically, like, we’re at least considering—I’m not sure where we’re going to come out on it—but we’re at least considering the role that solar, you know, might play. A lot of people had solar and were unable to use it during the event because the way the solar systems were wired—if the grid wasn’t operable, you weren’t able to get power directly out of the solar panel system even if it was on your home or business.
Q: Oh, because it fed into the grid?
A: It fed into the grid, and goes from the grid back into your house. So no grid, no power. So that’s something that’s a technical issue and a financial one, but at least can be, can be, can be approached. We’re—you know, I think it’s worth looking at— You know, probably the most direct way to conceive of maintaining back-up power in a building that does not have grid power, some sort of generator. And I think it’s worth looking at systems such as microcogen that might be able to, you know—
Q: Like, within a building? Cogen [co-generation] within a building?
A: Yeah, within a building. So that’s something to explore—could those be used during— But then again, are you going to mandate everyone—put in microcogen? No. Could you encourage it or remove barriers to its adaption—because there’s a lot of regulatory barriers now. It’s, you know—that’s an opportunity. And I think it’s worth talking about what is the effect of the performance of the building façade and the envelope under the building when it’s not—you know, when the power’s been lost. Because that might have another benefit, you know, when the power’s on. But then again, there’s a lot of factors that go into the choice of how you do your building façade and this is just one of them, so it’s a tricky issue.
Q: Are you guys dealing at all with contamination or mold or that sort of thing that happened?
A: Yes, yes. Well, specifically in terms of building design and construction, we’re looking at what are the materials that should be specified—mostly below the flood elevation. And so that’s definitely one of the proposals, is to look at what should be said in that term. I mean, there’s also the issue of, like, after the event—like should you stay if this happened and how to get rid of the mold and stuff, but those aren’t necessarily code or rule things. So those are good things to know, but if you’re in an existing building and have mold-prone items and there’s a flood and it gets moldy, it’s not really a construction issue anymore.
Q: Right. Do you guys have different ideas or codes for, like, people around Gowanus versus people who aren’t around, like, pre-contaminated sites?
A: Can you be more specific? You mean in terms of, like, waters that might rise or—
Q: Yeah, so Gowanus is facing contamination problems.
A: Well, right. I mean—you know, FEMA guidelines are to treat all water occurrences into a building as basically black water that could pose, you know, toxic—because you don’t know what in it— You know, you don’t know what’s in it. And—so I don’t know if we would do something different and say, oh, yeah, it’s extra special bad in a certain area because there’s existing toxics. I mean, frankly, it seems like on case-to-case basis. Like, if your, you know, fuel-oil tank in your basement floats and, you know, turns sideways and spills fuel oil over—now your house is just as toxic as anywhere else even if you were on a piece of pristine land before. So.
Q: Right. Ok. How do you think how you guys are dealing with the climate change mitigation adaption thing—how do you think that’s similar or different to other businesses or NGOs that are in the same sort of business as you? [pause] In New York or outside of New York.
A: Well I’m just trying to think who are our peers in terms of the same business. I mean, in terms of urban sustainability and build environment, I think our organization, you know, is a leader in terms of looking at specifically New York City buildings and, you know, what are their effects and sort of what are the inputs. But maybe I’m not exactly understanding what—
Q: So, so do you think that other people will look to you and New York City and what you’ve done here? Like other cities along the coast or—
A: Oh. Yeah. I mean, I’m hoping that some of the stuff we work out is not—you know, it’s urban-specific, maybe some climate-specific, but not like, New York, totally New York-specific. And that there will be things that can be abstracted and taken. That said, it’s sort of, you know, amazing and almost dispiriting like—it’s like, OK, well, you can’t take it to like San Francisco because, like, they have a totally different set of natural hazard risks. You know, they are totally worried about earthquakes, we are a little bit. I don’t—do they have hurricanes on the west coast? I think they just don’t, right? Yeah, I just don’t think the west coast has hurricanes. I don’t think that—because the water is coming from the north where it’s cold instead of from the south where it’s warm. I don’t think they can form hurricanes. They have other things, you know? So— And like the wind load is like—there’s these national wind maps that say where, you know, where the winds are, you know. Chicago might be worried about tornados, but not about coastal floods because they’re not on the ocean and it’s like— And like Florida has much stronger hurricanes, so, you know, so some of the stuff— I mean, the stuff about power outages seems like probably the most abstract—abstractable part than the part about specific natural risks. But you know, once again, this is the good thing about having national model codes. Again, it’s not a national code that everyone follows but, like, you know, the American Society of Civil Engineers puts out these wind maps and these flood resistant design guidelines and they say, if you’re in this zone, do this. If you’re in that zone, do that. So you pick your zone and you sort of look at what it recommends.
Q: And the zones are basically like, eco—well, you said according to wind or according to landscape.
A: Right. For wind it’s—yeah, could be very specific and, you know, coastal zones are more obvious and based on elevation. But like the hurricane zones are based upon a whole mix of sort of climactic and geographical factors.
Q: So do you think that what New York—
A: Climatic, not climactic. [laughter]
Q: Do you think that what New York experienced was then substantially different than what like New Jersey experienced?
A: Umm… well, I’m not sure what you mean. You mean in terms of like the specific effects?
Q: The specific effects. Yeah, the specific effects.
A: Well there are some—you know, every event, every hurricane is different. And specifically, because the winds tend—you know, what they call the right-front quadrant of the hurricane— You know, because hurricanes tend to rotate counter-clockwise, and so in general— Like, for example, Long Island tends to get hit much harder than New York because the winds strike there first, and by the time they get to New York City, the winds have sort of crossed land and they’re not going nearly as fast and stuff like— This is interesting. I don’t—there’s not one answer. There’s a discussion that says, wow, you should really need to be more careful about winds out on Long Island because you just—where New York City is located, you don’t—it’s not as big a deal. Except like, if you look at it at as like, it’s po—it’s less likely but it’s possible that actually New York could get winds directly off the water. Like, oh, if it came from a certain angle or if, you know, sometimes hurricanes veer at the last minute because there’s like a cross wind—it’s very difficult to actually predict the exact, exact location for a hurricane.
So there are some sort of general ways in which you could say New Jersey is different. And certainly parts of coastal New Jersey don’t face the urban heat island effect that we might face in the middle of Bed-Stuy or something like that in terms of really elevated temperatures, but those are more like, I think, small things compared to the fact that like—yeah, generally it’s warmer in New York than it is on coastal New Jersey, but you could look at the map some summer day and it’s actually warmer on the coast of New Jersey than it is in New York for some specific reason. So those things aren’t absolutes, so my guess is that no matter what you looked at, you know, the—what you think are hurricane paths and stuff like that— Like, what’s good for Jones Beach or Long Beach is probably good for Coney Island, is probably good for Sandy Hook or whatever. Like— But—but I’m not that kind of expert so they might say, “oh no, there’s actually some specific things that you would do differently in terms of your barriers and stuff because they’re more exposed.” You know—like, I don’t know for sure.
Q: Are those differences going to manifest, you think, in your report—or are you guys pretty much just doing New York City?
A: Well we’re really focused on New York City. We—we particularly really focus on New York City. Now there are some state efforts and— I don’t know—do you know if like New Jersey has any commissions looking at—?
Q: I have no idea what is going on in New Jersey. And that’s sort of part of what I’m interested in. How even though it was the same storm, they actually could be different storms in how they’re manifesting now.
A: Yeah, I don’t know. Was it that different? I mean, I think they got hit—you know, some areas in New Jersey just got absolutely, you know, blasted. But worse than Staten Island? And even if it was worse, I think it might’ve been a matter of, you know, quantity not quality. It’s like, oh the waves were higher, and so more damage was done, but it’s not like it was a totally different storm. You know, the wave height was an extra foot or they didn’t have the, you know, the wave of dune-shaped, you know, whatever, and stuff like that. So, again, in terms of building—because we’re not looking at like dune reconstruction, you know, we’re looking at buildings. So, like, in a building, you design based on the design flood elevation. So if you’re in New York, you look at your design flood elevation based upon factors. If you’re in New Jersey, you have a different elevation let’s say, based on where you are. After that, like, the code looks the same—it’s like, everything has to be above that specific elevation.
Q: Ok. Do you think that the storm has changed how you personally look at New York City or experience New York City? Or this work that you’re doing?
A: [pause] That’s a really good question. I hate to have the—you know, you have to fast-forward through the dead air.
Q: That’s fine. It doesn’t cost us anything to have dead air for the transcripter.
A: All those digits. All the zeros. [laughter][long pause] Yeah, I mean, I think there was a—well, there— You know, I was not a…building expert, but like the overlay of building resiliency. So like I worked with the codes all the time, but the codes that deal with let’s say, structural integrity of buildings, and flood resistance and loading like— I assume that, well, we got that taken care of, so I’m focusing on other issues. Like, let’s say, on the energy use of a building or something. So for me to take a deep dive into the more basic stuff about the building has been great, and I feel like I have a better idea of, you know—to use an analogy—how the codes are built from the ground up. And I just have a much better idea of some of the history, which is interesting. Like, what was mandated for buildings at different portions of like New York City’s history. And, you know, obviously, there was a point where there was no building code, and they have gone through several major revisions that have changed, changed the requirements, and sometimes the requirements grew stricter and sometimes they grew less strict when it was determined that things were overly onerous than they needed to be. And so learning about that has been interesting. I mean, I was sort of an infrastructure buff already, so it’s not like I was shocked—shocked!—that you know this could happen. You know, it’s like, oh yeah—like, you know, with my experience working with utility, I had some, like, awareness of like the fragility of some of our, you know, electrical infrastructure and the subway and things like that, so.
Q: So how do you think this moment that you guys are involved—this post-Sandy coding sort of legacy moment—how do you think that’s going to play out in New York’s history, coding history?
A: Well, I’d love to answer that question in a year. I mean, there’s the sense that it’s a special moment. I mean, that the attention is really focused on it and people are very concerned about it. Which is true now, and people think it’ll be true long enough to make some real changes, you know, in terms of building resiliency. You know, it’s tough for me to predict—you know, there’s certain things that when they happen seem like they’re game-changers, and six months later, it’s back to normal. And there’s other things like 9/11—I mean, in terms of the building community, like, 9/11, there was a commission, very much like our commission, after 9/11 that made the recommendations for changes to the building code for greater safety for buildings, and those changes were, you know, implemented and enacted and now all buildings implement those changes. And people in the life safety community talk about 9/11 like it was yesterday. And like this very real thing. And even in the common parlance—I mean, 9/11 is still a very real thing and that’s been what? Almost, almost 12 years. So, will Sandy have the same effect? That’s, you know—
Q: I’ll interview you in a year.
A: —that’s really hard to say. You know, I was actually discussing with someone and part of him was like, if we don’t get something else, like, fairly soon—like, people will forget about this.
Q: You mean like another extreme weather event?
A: Yeah, like another extreme event. Like for whatever just like statistically lucky reasons, we go four or five years and, like, don’t get the threat of a summer hurricane or like any hurricane, I think you’ll see the pressure to build back down on the shore, and “why do we have this onerous regulation, it was overreaction.” Because I don’t think that people—I don’t think people are very good at being like, ok, so we’re preparing for the one in a hundred year flood. That means that there’s, you know, a 1% chance of this happening every year. That actually means you could go decades and decades without it happening, and it hasn’t changed the risk. And the risk is worth preparing for because the damage that was done was absolutely enormous. I mean, Sandy alone—50 billion dollars, you know, or more. Whereas if it like happened—you know, like, I feel that people are more— I feel that what happened with Sandy changed people’s perception of what didn’t happen in Irene. I think right after Irene, which you know hit upstate very hard, but didn’t hit the city very hard, people were like, “oh, it’s overreaction, you know.” They didn’t even care what happened upstate, they just thought it didn’t happen here so it seemed like an overreaction. I think after Sandy, people have more the idea of like, “oh, we really dodged a bullet with Irene.” And they start to lump it in to like, yeah we get like major hurricanes like every year. Even though actually Irene wasn’t a major hurricane for this, you know, 350 square miles that is New York City. It got, like, upgraded in people’s mind after Sandy and sort of lumped in. You know you hear people say, “well, first Irene and then Sandy, we really have to be prepared” even though there was no damage from Irene.
Q: Right. Hm, interesting. So, one of our questions is, some people say this is about by climate chance—do you think that this is caused by climate change?
A: Well, you know, as I’m sure you are well aware—you’re so well aware that sort of a leading question. It’s like, you can never attribute any individual event to climate change. Climate change is a change in the trend. So this could’ve happened even if the climate is generally cooling—we could still have had these two hurricanes a year apart. I’m certainly convinced that there’s climate change and I know these hurricanes happened, and I don’t have to be too concerned about the exact connection to care about both of those things.
Q: Do you think that there’s going to be an increased number of extreme weather events in New York?
A: Oh absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. And that was the way we started off the taskforce’s kick-off meeting. We had a meeting in a city council chamber and brought in Cynthia Rosenzweig who’s a noted expert and she like led everything—everyone—through the science and the charts, saying like, “here’s how many hurricanes we have now, here’s how many we’ll have by 2030, here’s how many we’ll have by 2080. Here’s the ocean height now, here’s the ocean height in 2030, here’s the ocean height in 2080. Here’s the number of heat events now, here’s the number in 2030, here’s the number in 2080.” And she makes all these little disclaimers about, like, “no one knows for sure, these are models, of course, you know.” And it’s true, of course you can’t know—these things are all statistical probability. They could never occur but I mean, to those who are in doubt that we’re currently in the midst of a global warming trend, they don’t really know what to say at this point.
Q: How was—how did the people assembled receive her presentation?
A: Very positively. I mean, people were onboard and ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Ok, say, here’s what we have to get working with. I mean, specifically— You know, it’s interesting—like for building resiliency, general rising surface temperatures, it’s like—it’s not really a resiliency issue—it’s not like, oh, so like you know it’s going to be, you know, over 100 degrees like five times a year instead of two times a year. It’s like, ok, well if I design my AC [air conditioning] to handle it twice a year, I can handle it five times a year. This may be an issue for the grid and grid stress, or for our total energy consumption, but it’s not like an issue for the building running out of cooling, you know. And even if you’re like, “no, it’s gonna get hotter, it’s not just going to 105, it’s gonna be 110.” It’s like, yeah, I don’t really need to design a whole different AC system for—it’s not like it was going from 105 to 150 and it’s like going to be— It’s like—so those things don’t necessarily play in. And there’s a bunch of things that are important to be aware of because they happen more frequently but not necessarily at a greater magnitude. So it’s like, well, if you design your building to be flood-proof, it doesn’t matter if the floods come once every fifty years or once every hundred years. If they’re flood-proof, it’s flood-proof– to a certain level. Whereas some things if you change like your design target—like, how fast you think the winds are coming or something like that—that might make a, might make a real change on what you decide. So you sort of have to peel apart all those different risks and look at them separately.
Q: So how do you think this dovetails into PlanNYC? Or does it?
A: Well I think it does. I mean, PlanNYC is a long-term vision for the city and I think that— And again, like for both the Green Codes Task Force, for which Urban Green was the convener, and PlanNYC, I mean resiliency played a part. And in some ways, some of the things we’re doing now on the resiliency taskforce were actually recommendations out of the green codes taskforce that we’re like,” ok, yeah, we should get to those,” and they just got pushed up to the front and said, ok, due to Sandy, there’s the political will and the public interest—let’s do these things now. And they seem more urgent. But I think both these things, you know, in terms of flood zones and what’s going to happen and— You know, there’s lots of stuff already in progress. FEMA was already in the process of like redrawing the flood map—you know there’s all this public outcry because the maps weren’t maps, and it’s like, OK, FEMA was working it. And if the hurricane had held off for another year or two, like, we would’ve had the new maps, without all the sort of angst around them, but this is how it happened.
Q: Cool. So, do you want to ask your–?
Q2: Yeah, so, as far as planning in terms of—you know, there’s different sections of the city where, you know, there’s different classes or races of people that maybe are concentrated in certain areas—how has the committee maybe planned around, you know, the differences in, you know, the cross-sectionality of the city in this regard?
A: Right, right. Well, we’ve worked very hard to make sure that we have owners and operators who represent buildings of sort of different rungs of the ladder, in terms of their economic capability. And so that’s both in public housing, but also market rate and also affordable private housing. I don’t look at it—for me, it’s more on a building-by-building basis. So it’s like, can a given building bear the burden of increased costs, you know? You could have a rich building in a poor neighborhood and a poor building in a rich neighborhood and I’m not looking at zoning issues, I’m looking at building issues. So for me, it’s, “do you represent buildings that have more limited, you know, more limited ability to bear costs.” But yeah, I think that very important. You can’t ask people to do something they can’t afford, you know, in the name of their own future safety.
Q: Do you guys talk about debt at all?
A: Uh, can you be more—?
Q: Debt—like when you guys are talking about the cost of things, do you guys ever talk about debt and debt as a factor in the way things are happening or how things happened—
A: You mean like whether people are currently in debt or whether it’s ok people are incurring debt—
Q: Bebt is coming up a lot in some of our other stakeholder groups, because of the FEMA loan situation for rebuilding and for types of rebuilding and that sort of stuff.
A: Because people are taking FEMA loans post-Sandy and so they’re incurring a debt in order to rebuild?
Q: Yeah, so you can’t get a grant until you’ve gotten [or been turned down for] a loan.
Q: And so all these FEMA loans are coming through and something that was found in Katrina is all of these homeowners, in particular, were saddled with incredible debt. After eight years, the problem of Katrina was debt, as opposed to other sorts of things.
A; Right, right. So that, yeah—my overlap with that was, interestingly, I went to one meeting that was a round-table of these sort of discussions and it included—the mayor of New Orleans was there as sort of a guest speaker, and people from FEMA, and the New York City office of housing recovery—the guy’s name is escaping me right now. So this was the type of thing that they were really looking into—like, ok, you wan to accomplish better housing, like, how does it get funded? There’s people from EDC and EEC and all these groups. We talked about dealing with it on the taskforce and then sort of shied—you know, so, like, how are we going to finance this stuff? Should we have to— And we actually do have banks in the picture because of the fact that banks finance a lot of the construction side.
Q: So they’re one of your stakeholders’– banks?
A: Yeah. But like homeowner recovery—I mean, like, specifically like, how does FEMA structure its loans and are they fair? It’s like, eh, it’s probably a bit too far for us. It’s not really—it’s no longer a building technical issue, it’s like a financial and political one. And all these things are related, but I think to try to be like, “oh we need to talk about how banks should restructure loans”—it’s like, woah, that’s a whole other set of— So, we’re not dealing with that so much, but I agree it’s important.
Q: Do you have FEMA representatives on your taskforce?
A: Yeah, we don’t have a sitting representative—instead we have like links and we talk on the phone and have meetings. But we’re very closely entwined with SIRR, which works with FEMA, and also OEM—the Office of Emergency Management—which the woman who will be—So FEMA has this team called the MAT—the Mitigation Assessment Team—after each event and so New York City’s point person for the FEMA MAT is on the taskforce, so it’s a pretty strongly bridge there.
Q: Cool. Do you guys ever explicitly talk about race, class or gender in your building meetings?
A: Well I don’t know the extent to which you consider, referring to like market rate housing versus, you know, like, affordable housing—is that sort of getting at some of the same ideas as class or not? So I don’t know exactly what you mean–
A: —but that is something we discuss anyway. That is there’s different types of housing for people at different income levels… And, for those other things, we haven’t tended to discuss them and, you know, I think until we discover like a building-specific overlay, we wouldn’t. But— And, you know, one thing interesting about buildings is their longevity, right? So you have, all over the city, like, buildings built for rich people being lived in by poor people. And actually, buildings built for poor people being lived in by rich people. So from the building perspective, sometimes a building outlasts a neighborhood’s character in terms of those items. Certainly in terms of race—there’s constant ebb and flow in the neighborhoods in the city. And less fast, but still happens, in terms of class changes. I’m not sure about the gender overlay—probably in most neighborhoods have fairly similar gender breakdown. But I think one that you didn’t say but that comes up quite a lot is age and also ability.
Q: Yeah, I was going to ask you about vulnerable populations.
A: Yeah, vulnerable populations—it is a building-specific thing in terms of the elevators, in terms of who needs food and water after an event, how they get in or out. We’re really working very hard to deal with, you know, a lot of the long-term care facilities, you know—senior centers, nursing homes, whatnot. And—yeah, these vulnerable populations where people might not be able to evacuate, they might not be able to get in and out, and these are some of the greatest populations at risk.
Q: Ok. So that’s all. Do you have any questions?
Q2: I guess I’ll just ask. You know, as oppos—I know you said you’ve worked with some other models in the United States. Have you looked at any models internationally—maybe say, you know, something in Europe or in Asia?
A: We have—at least looked at— I did meet with, I guess, a couple of different teams from the Netherlands, and had some academic help a bit up at Columbia doing some code consideration in terms of European codes. The experiments were worthy, the results that tended to come back seemed to indicate that the effort to sort of translate both in terms of language and in terms of concept—like the way they’re doing it—sort of grafted onto what we’re doing is probably not worth the gain, you know. It’s like, “Oh, we’re pretty much doing the same things but with like a totally different way of looking at it. And here’s, like, one thing they’re doing maybe that we’re not.” It’s like, well that doesn’t mean we do things their way. It means we try to think of how that concept might apply to what we’re doing. And there literally were problems like, wow, no one’s ever translate the Dutch, you know, section of the flood code in English or something. Whatever it is, we’d have to, you know—how many months would it take to have a technical translation done? And so— And then also lots of stuff they do is infrastructure-based in terms of the storm barriers and things like that. I think the city at large might be looking very strongly—let’s say the Netherlands or some of the Asian cities—but, like, we’re not dealing with the storm barriers, we’re dealing with buildings.
And, you know, as an example, I went to see a presentation about what they do in the Netherlands, and they actually have buildings that can float—like all of the utilities and stuff or, you know, with flexible wires or there’s a pylon. It’d just float up and down and, like—the thing is that part of the Netherlands, it’s like, it’s sort of actually on a bay—it’s not on direct ocean, so there’s some sheltering. So when the water rises, they get like lots of frequent floods that happen slowly, and we get like very infrequent floods that happen incredibly fast, and, like, their system probably wouldn’t work for New York. And I looked at that and a couple of other things and was like, “eh, what they, no different work, no different work,” and I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know if this is—” There’s like so much to be researched in terms of what FEMA has already put out as like best practices that we need to look at. There’s already been like incredible amounts of research, so like to keep looking for farther possible inputs didn’t seem that fruitful, I guess.
Q: I’m just imagining New York City full of floating buildings and like the bumper-car effect of all of these type buildings. [laughter]
A: Right. And, well of course, as you’re probably aware, like in the Rockaways and Sandy Point, the bumper-car effect—the buildings was— One of the worst effect was people’s porches, you know, floating around and bumping in. And like houses bumping into other houses, and so, you know. And again, this is the type of thing where it’s like, you know, well, new code doesn’t—people are like, “But we have to change codes—these buildings can’t float around.” It’s like, we don’t have to change code. Like, code doesn’t allow that. Those are older buildings. New buildings don’t do that. You have to have—you have to be strapped down. You’re not allowed to—haven’t been for years—been able to build, you know, a home that’s not attached to the foundation in a flood zone.
Q: So what do you do about these older buildings?
A: Well that’s exactly it, you know. So that could be recommending to home owners, here’s things you can do to, you know, improve the situation. That or it could be requiring that they do it. And that’s where the section of the taskforce, where we bring in the cost—costing experts. They want to know, how much does this cost? And so, again, the costs may overweigh the risks—more than maybe things that are very low-cost that are worth doing, you know. But, you know, my feeling is that anything that you’re going to require by law of every homeowner in New York City had better be protecting against, you know, an intense risk that would be very costly if we do nothing and very inexpensive to fix. Because like the range of what counts as a homeowner is incredibly broad and any legislation that’s that broad has to be very well thought out and very, you know, really needed. You can’t just say, “Well, this sounds like a good idea—just make everyone do that!” And all of a sudden, you know, a million homes—or whatever, eight hundred thousand homes—have to be modified in that way.
Q: Hm. So what do you think the relationship between some of these more technical fixes on a building-by-building level and a systemic change in what is considered safe or doable in the face of climate change—what do you think the relationship between those things are?
A: Well, you know, it’s interesting. Again, going back to new and existing buildings—like, we’ll probably choose to make some number of recommendations on how to improve the current building code, like the building code we have now. But I think those would probably be like small tweaks, maybe plug a hole here and there. But like the current building code’s actually pretty good. And so in terms of resiliency—not necessarily climate change—but in terms of resiliency, like, these problems will be fixed through patience. Over time, like, the buildings will turn over as they get rebuilt. No building lasts forever and the codes are good, and eventually all the buildings—or most of them—we’ll build to the new standard and we’ll be find. So it really is, what do you want to do about the existing buildings during their current—current lifetime.
Q: Does that mean that most of the buildings that were the most damaged statistically were probably older buildings?
A: Yeah that is probably true. I don’t— We are hoping to actually, you know, in addition to the anecdotal evidence and stuff, people are still producing their post-Sandy assessments. And we hope to get what’s called “modes of failure” and say, ok, here’s how many buildings had incidents and here’s what the incidents were and like what happened, and you start to put it together. But anecdotal evidence—well, regardless of what happened, in the real world, there’s no doubt that the codes describe a situation that’s much more resilient. So for example, mandating strapping. Now, there’s a gap between what a code says you must do and what happens—there’s a code says you have to be strapped, but is everyone strapping their house down? It’s like, well, I don’t know. So to go out, you know, to go out in the field and say, of the buildings that floated, how many— And keep in mind, people did the right thing before it was code.
A: So it didn’t have to be made code before—and in fact some people are always doing the right thing before it’s code because you probably just can’t suddenly make a code that like no one’s doing it. I mean, it has to be proved to be cost-effective. So, of the buildings that floated, how many were pre-code unstrapped? How many were, you know, post-code unstrapped, you know? How many were pre-code unstrapped to the strapping wasn’t sufficient, but you know? There—yeah. And so, there’s a lot of questions. But you know—but much of this stuff is not rocket science. I mean, the house is just sitting on a concrete block and it’s sealed up—it’s a wood structure sealed up tight. Like, when the water comes, it will float. To put a couple of straps on there? Ok, let’s look at the costs and see how difficult it is.
Q2: When you’re talking about cost—and particularly, construction of the— If it’s an upgraded construction of the building, whether it’s, you know, some type of, you know, the new construction, what’s done differently with the codes. I’m curious to know how the labor groups you said have been involved in, you know, some of the consulting, how they’ve maybe, you know, influenced or talked to you about—if there’s an overabundance of work, who is doing the work? Whether the work is done locally or if they would be willing to allow outside contractors to come in to, you know, perform some of this work? I mean, has any of that dialogue, you know, surfaced or is it just too early?
A: I mean, I think it’s a good topic for discussion, you know. We know that risks may occur. We know that after the risk will be this need for like, like a lot of work to be done very quickly. Does the need for the work to be done exceed the capability of you know the unionized labor force in New York City to respond? Like, I have no idea the answer to that question, and it’s probably different for different industries. But knowing that it’s a problem means that, like, owners and labors should be working in advance to have a plan, because if you don’t have a plan, then after the event, instead of like putting stuff back together, you may be wrangling about, “All right, are you going to give us an exception to this contract, because it’s an emergency and blah blah blah.” Like, wouldn’t it be better to have that worked out in advance? So… But again, that’s not a building code issue or a specific building issue, that’s like a financial or social, you know, labor relations issue and management issue, so. But I think it’s a great topic for discussion and I think a good part of social resiliency is, like, “Hey expect these things to happen. There are these discontinuous things. They’re not normal day-to-day operations. How do we intend to handle them?” And San—post-Sandy is a good time to sit down and have those discussions because they’re not theoretical for people.
A: Everyone can sort of picture what that means and like why it would be a good idea to have that discussion. And that’s something, you know, the banks get in the picture and insurance is important—you know, the people that are paying for that to happen. Yeah.
And—and it’s not just a labor issue is the work and the labor –just like, any work, like, if you need work done in a hurry, I mean, you can’t just like say, “Ok, come and do it, don’t worry about the contract. Worry about that later.” You know? You need to have—you need to be ready before someone does work. And if you don’t have those contracts prepared in advance so that people can start work, there’s a delay while you work it out. It could be good to have those things worked out in advance.
Q: So do you think you guys are doing anything particularly interesting or cutting edge in your working group—your taskforce—that we haven’t hit on?
A: That we haven’t hit on… Yeah, you know it’s an interesting thing, like, you want to encourage outside-of-the-box thinking, and on the other hand, like, much of what the taskforce will propose will, you know, be recommended for application city-wide. It’s not like, you know, it’s not like beta-test stuff. So we could say like, “Well what if, instead of doing it the way everyone—you know, a million buildings—have done it for a hundred years, we do this totally new thing?!” It’s like, yeah, we probably wouldn’t make that code this summer. Like, let’s let a couple of buildings try it. See how it works for a couple of years. So… But all sorts of wild ideas have gotten thrown out there, and I think the most cutting-edge stuff is, you know, some of the things we talked about in terms of, “hey, what are the opportunities in terms of mitigation or resilience overlapping?” We’re actually sort of commissioning separate studies to look at the building science of those issues. So…I think that—that’s— But again, where the results of those studies will take us—sometimes you get negative results and nothing ever comes of it. But I think the study is worthwhile, because I think it’s a good opportunity.
Q: Is there anything that you think we should’ve asked that we didn’t ask?
A: Let me just run through it in my head…[pause] I think one thing that’s—we didn’t really talk about too much– is about, like, social preparation and things like that. Like, you know, New York City already has like a process for what to happen when there’s an emergency—you’ve got the emergency broadcast network and websites and texts and, oh yeah, and blah blah blah. And, like, you know, probably the public response was not as robust as we would’ve liked to see it pre-Sandy, right? Not everyone actually evacuated who probably should’ve. Some of those people died, which is, you know, tragic in the face of a known risk and—you know, how often when we’re going to die do we get noticed in advance that we’re that much at risk? So that’s like—I feel is tragic. But even on a much more mundane thing—like, how many people didn’t bother to fill their bathtub with water or didn’t have a stopper that held the water in the bathtub, so they filled it and it leaked out overnight the first night and then still had four days with no water, you know? And, like—how do we— You know, how many people—like, yeah, so how do you get the word out? How do you get all the—if we have things that like you can’t really make into a code or legislate, but still are good ideas—like, how do you get the word out about that? Like, we try— whether it’s environmentalism, you know, health issues, public health issues, you know, whether it’s AIDS or whatever it is, you know—how do you get people do what’s, what’s healthy for them, you know? It’s like, it’s a big thing. And, like, we’re focused on Sandy right now, but I don’t think that the risk of dying in a hurricane is larger than your risk of dying of AIDS or like pedestrian safety. There are like these million other issues that are—it’s not like this is going to get top billing on every government piece of outreach for the rest of time, you know? So how are we going to get the word out about these things? And then on the building level—like, how do people know, ok, here are the units in the building with people who are elderly or disabled and can’t get out of the building and will need help during an event? Do we need a process for that? Just a best practice? Like how do you—you know? And, I do believe that there’s been some research, which you probably know far more about than me because you’re asking these questions, but either post-Katrina, post-Sandy, other disasters, like the, sort of neighborhood-ness and the knit-ness of the community like has a strong correlation to how well the people fare and how terrible they perceive the event post-event. It’s like, ok, that’s not something that anyone can mandate, you know. There’s a lot of interlocking factors that go into a neighborhood and people go and trust each other.
Q: We mandate you to knit closer.
A: Exactly. [laughter] Exactly. And—and I will say, however, that one of the city agencies on the taskforce is city planning, you know, who is really keeping this thing on track in terms of, you know, in the quest for individual building resiliency, we cannot ignore the things that make New York a vibrant and welcoming place to live. And make our streetscapes welcome, and help neighborhoods knit together. And you could build resilient buildings in terms of power outages and floods by having, you know, gigantic windowless concrete bunkers that, you know, blah blah blah. Like—that’s not what we want, you know? There’s a trade-off there. And—and— I don’t know why this is coming up for me, but I, you know, know an architect who said that it’s very important that sustainable buildings—and maybe I would say resilient buildings—you know, be aesthetically attractive and sort of architecturally pleasing. Because buildings that are sustainable or are resilient when they are maintained and cared for. And people have to like their building and love their building to care for it. And if it doesn’t look nice, it’s not—it won’t be cared for it in the same way, so as a result, good architecture is a part of sustainability, you know. It’s a part of resilience—to sort of draw the analogy. But again, that’s something that could be codified.
Q: Interesting. The beauty scale. Anything else or do you have any questions for us?
A: When are you going to release your first paper?
Q: We have no idea. Yeah, we’re still doing interviews. And especially things with policy-makers—they’re trickling in really slowly.
A: Hm. So who else are you interviewing?
Q: Who else are we interviewing—like, actual people’s names?
A: Well, or general types of people.
Q: So, we have four main types. We have policy actors. So we’re having trouble getting to Bloomberg’s office, but, like, Office of Emergency Response we’ve got all sorts of sort of things on— MTA, we’re getting into a lot of public housing, we’re getting into more of those sorts of guys, and then senators. Stuff like that.
A: I can imagine, like, nineteen of those folks must be terrified to speak on the record. They’ve been under such fire.
Q: Well, yeah. So, we’ve—but there are a lot of like public housing activists who work with NGOs, who work with—
A: Oh, I see, ok.
Q: But I mean mostly—like, yeah. So then—then that’s the second group is NGOs, which is basically what you fall into, NGOs, community groups, a lot of churches. There’s a guy who just does, like, religious sort of leadership and sermons. Actually, sermons are his main source material when he interviews people.
And then another group are first responders—professional and not—so— I mean, include sanitary in that, actually. But also Occupy Sandy. We can’t seem to get into FEMA, but, you know, FEMA-like sort of things that aren’t FEMA. And then our fourth are residents of, who are most affected. And we’re focusing particularly on Coney Island, but not exclusively—also other sorts of places. So those are our main groups.
A: Have you talked to other people on the taskforce?
Q: No. If you have—
A: I was just like, you’re extremely patient with the description of what the taskforce is, you know—
Q: Well, I’m very interested in it. So if you think there are other people that you think we should interview…
A: You can certainly go on our website and see who’s on it.
A: So…that may spark some—
Q: And if we can’t get their contact info, can I email you about contact info potentially, and then you can decide what to do with it?
A: Yeah. Yeah, I can definitely email and I’ll check in sort of with Russell and see. I mean, we’ve asked everyone on the taskforce not to speak with the press like until a report was released.
Q: We’re not press? Also—so we are giving everyone the opportunity to redact their transcripts.
A: Right, and that’s why I’m really not worried about it. I’ll sign a thing and you can read my real name and I’ll read through it, and I don’t think I said anything that’s particularly, you know— I mean, I think, again, the most sensitive stuff is about, I think, the mitigation—you know, the climate change mitigation thing, and like, people perceiving— It’s like, “it’s not overlap, it’s—you’re getting cover for the green stuff you wanted to do anyway and using Sandy as an excuse. It’s just going to increase my costs, and is it really necessary,” and– Sometimes there’s a disagreement about the measures proposed and if they’re important, then sometimes it’s just like a cost-sensitivity and sometimes it’s just like a political disagreement about the right way to go about it and our way of being honest actors by melding those things. So that’s the thing where it’s like, ok, well, I really don’t know how that one is going to play out so I don’t necessarily want you to release a thing, like, after we decide not to go forward with it because it was too much of political football.
It’s like, “Cecil Sheib says we should definitely do this” and it’s like, “I thought we already discussed this?!” It’s like, “Oh I did the interview before,” you know? It’s like—so.
Q: Yeah. Are you guys actually worried about people saying, like, “oh you crazy greenies, you’re taking over because of Sandy?” Like that sort of—
A: Oh, we’ve like had that discussion in the meeting about some of the specific measures. You know, like, specifically about saying like, “Hey, building envelopes should be built to be more energy efficient.” And being told like, “Yeah, you people have been hammering on that one for years, and this is another opportunity, and, like, don’t tell me how to build my building. I don’t believe that, you know, keeping it warm inside for a few extra hours during a power outage is like a major, like, life-safety issue. I think you’re making a Mountain out of a molehill because it’s just what you want to do, and I don’t want it run down my throat.” And it’s like, ok, I disagree with some of the science about the stuff because our studies—our initial studies, not yet finished—really show that it’s not a few extra hours, it’s the difference between the building going to the outside temperature or being able to maintain indoor conditions indefinitely, just from like your body heat and basic passive house level. But that’s far above code, that level of insulation. And it would be expensive. And you can’t just like willy-nilly mandate stuff, you know? So.
Q: Are you guys looking at changing your language at all, like, shying away from—“we’re not going to talk about energy efficient, we’re going to talk about hurricane resilient”?
A: Oh absolutely. Yeah, absolute—well, not that, because energy efficient is still energy efficient. But like, for example, we were going to call it passive survivability, because that’s a term that some people use. And it was just, in terms of like, “Oh passive, people think a certain thing and that’s not exactly what we mean.” So we have to call it, you know, fail-safe, life-safety instead of passive survivability—we mean the same thing, but it doesn’t have a previous meaning. So, yeah, worrying about the optics of it is definitely an issue.
And actually there’s just a lot of things where it’s like, oh yeah, it’s—not even that people have a negative impression, they just have like a wrong impression of using a term they think they already know. You have to sort of constantly be coming up with new terms for things so you can have a chance to define them on your own terms.
Q: Right. Yes, yes. Cool. Great, thank you so much. It was very informative.
A: Hey, you bet. It was a pleasure. Fantastic questions. I hope I didn’t talk too much.
Q: Uh, it was your job to talk as much as you wanted to.
[end of recording]
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