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New York City flood protection won't be easy

By Adam Geller

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 26 2012 11:37 a.m. MST

— PROTECTING NEIGHBORHOODS: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some Wall Street companies sped up efforts to move their back office operations away from lower Manhattan, protecting them by decentralizing. But most of that relocation has been done, and with the industry's strong attachment to New York, a renewed exodus is unlikely, said Mark Gibson, who leads Ernst & Young's construction and real estate advisory services practice.

That leaves it to employers, landlords and government officials to figure out how to make the area more flood-resistant, perhaps by drawing on examples like the work done at Houston's medical campus. Engineers said the city could consider building an earthen berm around Battery Park. Individual building owners could investigate installing steel flood gates or fitting building opening with flood doors.

But retrofitting existing buildings won't always work. "Once you look at how water can get in ... then you have to calculate the flood loads and determine whether or not a building can accommodate those loads," said Christopher P. Jones, a Durham, N.C., coastal engineer who works on flood-resistant design. "There will be many cases, I'm sure, where flood-proofing the building will not be practical."

One possibility is to erect site-specific gates around building perimeters. When the Potomac River rises, managers of the Washington Harbour complex in Georgetown, in the nation's capital, can raise a series of 17-foot steel panels from concrete pockets underground. The panels, which cost about $1 million in 1983, have been raised more than 50 times since their installation, architect Arthur Cotton Moore said. The gates worked each time until an April 2011 flood, when operators failed to raise all of the panels fully, swamping some restaurants in 10 feet of water.

Since even the largest gates have limits, it's at least as important to rethink how the city and its buildings can be redesigned to accommodate flooding and minimize damage, engineers said. New York building owners should reshuffle the way they use space in buildings, moving backup generators, electrical vaults and switches and computer systems out of basements and limiting ground floors to use as lobbies. The city building code could be revised to require such design changes.

"You can't make New York City climate proof; what you can do is make New York City more adaptable," said Cas Holloway, the city's deputy mayor for operations.

But surrendering the city's 539-mile coastline is not an option, he added. "''We're not going to be pulling back or away from the water or retreating from the water."

AP National Writer Jeff Donn and AP researcher Julie Reed contributed to this report.

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