NEW YORK — First, life has to be rewound to Oct. 26 — the last weekday before Hurricane Sandy crippled and disoriented the region. To make that happen, repairs to damaged power grids, transportation networks and housing will grind on for months, at a staggering cost.
But the bigger question is what occurs after that.
Basic restoration leaves everything just as vulnerable to the next monster storm. Sandy is now a gauge of the region’s new fragility.
The authorities must not only reopen the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, but also ponder whether to put up sea gates or install inflatable plugs to protect it. In New Jersey, the historic Hoboken train terminal had 5 feet of water sloshing in the waiting room and switches and power substations exposed to salt water. Will it do just to dry them out?
More broadly, officials must ask whether it is sensible to replace buildings on the Manhattan waterfront, the Jersey Shore or the Long Island coast — and continue to dare nature. After all, the waters surrounding New York have been rising an inch a decade, and the pace is picking up.
In recent days, elected officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have warned that bold steps are needed, that to simply mop up is a fool’s errand. Experts agree.
“It’s a no-brainer for New York,” said J. David Rogers, a professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. “You’ve got such enormous assets and infrastructure that you want to protect.”
Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, an independent urban research group, said the region should consider measures like storm barriers and sea gates, as well as better ways to seal transit stations, tunnels and utility plants against water.
Power companies, he said, need to rethink continually putting wires back on telephone poles — when winds knock them down — rather than burying them, as costly as that can be.
But some experts warn that after rhythms return to normal, a no longer frazzled public may rebel if taxes and fees rise sharply to pay for better defenses. The cost of the repairs alone will certainly reach tens of billions of dollars. Far-reaching solutions will cost many billions more.
With this storm arriving so close after Tropical Storm Irene last summer, some experts said the moment might be right. “It takes two catastrophic events of this kind within a generation to build political support to make investments of this sort,” Yaro said. “I’m hoping that Irene was the wake-up call and Sandy is the hammer coming down.”