When Mike Dimarino purchased a building near Brooklyn's Red Hook waterfront to open a small manufacturing business more than a decade ago, he considered the risk of flooding. But he thought he’d be fine: His property was nine feet above the waterline plus the building itself was elevated a few feet, at loading dock level.
Then Sandy hit in 2012 and, all of the sudden, he wasn’t fine.
"I thought, ‘We’re never going to get a surge that would be above 13 feet.’ But lo and behold, we got a storm that was 13 feet and change. It came up to my doorstep. It was frightening," he says.
More than 23,000 businesses were inundated by Sandy floodwaters four years ago, and even more were affected by the significant damage to public infrastructure, including electric grids, subways, roads, and telecommunications services. Some of Dimarino’s machinery and equipment at Linda Tool was damaged, power was out, and he ended up spending about $50,000 on repairs, but he was running again within a week. Many businesses closed for months or simply never opened again.
The majority of businesses affected by the storm were small businesses, and they're the ones particularly vulnerable to infrequent but devastating natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Flood protection and resilience measures are often too expensive or impractical, and yet the effects of a storm can be catastrophic (Up to 40% of businesses never reopen after disasters.) After Sandy, Dimarino looked into buying sandbags but realized he’d need 18,000 of them to secure his property—way too many to store on-site or set up on short notice.
Hurricane Sandy taught New York City that it has to help businesses be better prepared for future disasters. One way it's trying to do that is through its RISE:NYC program, a $30 million grant to fund 11 technology projects that will help Sandy-affected small businesses bounce back from the next storm, as well as grapple with the slower-moving effects of climate change and sea-level rise. The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which is running the federally funded program, says New York has more people and businesses within its floodplain than any major U.S. city, and the risks for them are growing.
Dimarino’s business will be one of the beneficiaries of the program. The New York company Bright Power, one of the winners of the RISE:NYC grants, is preparing to install what is basically a mini-power plant at Linda Tool and two other businesses. Its "resilient power hub," consisting of rooftop solar panels, a lithium-ion battery, and a natural-gas fired cogeneration unit, will lower Dimarino’s energy bills and help stabilize the electricity grid during normal times and provide reliable backup power source when electricity goes down. If he had the system during Sandy, Dimarino could have minimized damage, had his business running again more quickly, and perhaps most importantly provided a large facility with power as a place of refuge for neighbors who needed it, he says.
"One of the key innovations with the RISE program is that it is intended specifically for smaller commercial buildings," says Bright Power president Jeffrey Perlman. "For a long time, us and others have been installing larger cogeneration units of 75 to 100 kilowatts. These units are 10 to 30 kilowatts, with similar technology, but the challenge is scaling it down."
After holding a competition to award the 11 grants, all RISE projects are now ready to be deployed at various small businesses around the city, NYCEDC says. All use commercially ready technologies, but like the Bright Power project, may not yet have a ready market at the small-business scale. The goal is to seed these markets locally, and help not only the participating small businesses but also their surrounding communities with each deployment.
"Small businesses are economic engines in the communities they serve. When we invest in the resiliency of a small business, we are investing in the vitality of the surrounding neighborhood," says NYCEDC president Maria Torres-Springer.
Some of the RISE projects, like Bright Power’s, address energy needs. Others focus on backing up telecommunications systems, such as goTenna, a Brooklyn-based startup that is creating peer-to-peer emergency communication systems for when the internet goes down. Others help with building upgrades, like Solatube, a Queens-based company that is installing daylight systems that deliver natural light to dark spaces.
But the key to some of this work isn’t about technology, it’s about people.
In six coastal New York City neighborhoods where broadband internet access is poor, the New America Foundation is working to create free open-source community Wi-Fi that can stay up as an independent network, enabling local communications even if internet goes down in a storm. It is working with about 60 business to install routers on their rooftops, also providing free Wi-Fi in the immediate area that could attract customers to their businesses. But the most important part of their program, says New America’s project director Greta Byrum, is that they are training community leaders who will be able to maintain these networks locally and mobilize around them during emergencies. She calls it "resilience organizing."
The program is based on the Red Hook Initiative, another RISE grant winner that had created a similar communications network just prior to Hurricane Sandy and is now expanding it. "It enabled them to keep organizing locally, to the point where even when FEMA showed up, they wanted to use that network," Byrum says.
One challenge, for all of the RISE projects, will be scaling these technologies beyond those dozens of businesses participating in the grants. Free storm resilience measures are great, but many small businesses would otherwise struggle to find the capital or capacity to implement them.
Bright Power says that costs will come down for its power hubs, especially as it takes advantage of various utility programs that pay owners of systems like these. Eventually, for both small businesses and smaller apartment buildings, Perlman says it could consider providing the systems as a service, the same way some solar companies install and maintain panels and sell electricity back to the property owner.
For New America’s decentralized Wi-Fi networks, Byrum says the service is the training that the nonprofit provides: "Applying the idea of scale to this has to do with local folks," she says. "We don’t want any of these networks to ultimately depend on us."
Sandy was a frightening warning of the future of New York City’s coast. After the storm flooded far more area than FEMA’s outdated flood maps, the agency revised them and nearly tripled the number of homes within the 100-year flood zone, which means the area that floods during the kind of storm that only comes once a century. This was controversial, because many more owners had to buy expensive flood insurance, and so recently the city announced it and FEMA would redraw the map yet again. Now it will create two: one that considers current flood risk (and the mitigation potential of the new seawalls and sand dunes New York City is installing) and one that also incorporates the effects of sea-level rise.
Regardless of the maps, coastal businesses and homeowners know they need to be more prepared. As with many of the RISE projects, Byrum points that resilience measures work best when they provide major community benefits—like cheaper electricity or free, high-speed Wi-Fi—all the time.
Dimarino knows that there’s uncertainty being located so close to the water in Red Hook, though he would never chose to move—real estate prices are too high in much of New York for a manufacturing business like his to thrive in many other neighborhoods.
"You look at it and realize we said this is a 100-year storm. But the question is, did we catch the only 100-year storm with Sandy? Or is there going to be another one in three or four more years?"
[All Photos: courtesy RISE]