Photo by AP Wideworld
Workers deliver new equipment for flooded building systems in lower Manhattan. Downtown New York City went dark during Superstorm Sandy because of a utility substation failure.

While debate intensifies over long-term solutions to deal with storm surges in coastal New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the real estate sector is brainstorming for near-term solutions that would make the individual building the last line of defense.

"It's time to consider stricter requirements for flood-proofing boilers, generators and electrical equipment or [to require] water systems that use sensor-based technology that can work during a power outage," said New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn in a Nov. 13 speech to the Association for a Better New York.

At the request of Quinn, the Urban Green Council and the Real Estate Board of New York are convening a building-resiliency task force. They expect to have recommendations to the city by next summer. "We look forward to … working with the city to identify safe and practical solutions … to locate generators and fuel somewhere other than below the floodplain," says Steven Spinola, REBNY president.

The New York City code requires backup generator fuel tanks and their pumps to be in the basement. When lower Manhattan went dark, backup power failed at the New York University Langone Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital Center because the fuel pumps flooded.

"Some cities allow oil storage above basements, but most are concerned with leaks and fire safety," says Douglas Mass, president of local mechanical engineer Cosentini Associates, a Tetra Tech firm.

"If codes change to require equipment on upper floors, the city should give the developer some kind of zoning credit for the loss of leasable space," suggests George Leventis, president of the local geotechnical and civil engineer Langan International.

The Dept. of City Planning (DCP)says, based on initial evidence from Superstorm Sandy, newer buildings built to modern code requirements fared better than older ones. "We are focused on changes and strategies to better enable both new and existing buildings to address the risks the city faces," says Jovana Rizzo, a DCP spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, mechanical and electrical engineers are busy helping clients re-open flooded buildings. Building owners have rented generators and boilers and placed them on the street as an interim fix.

To expedite the re-occupancy of buildings, the city—for the first time—is allowing a New York state licensed professional to certify the building as safe, instead of requiring a Dept. of Buildings (DOB) inspection. The "self-certification" is one of many steps, including the suspension of water-discharge permits, the DOB and the city's Dept. of Environmental Protection have taken to support the recovery.

Licensed professionals must stipulate there is no standing water and that the structure is sound. All life-safety systems must be intact and in good working order. If there are elevators, the building needs at least one working elevator that serves all floors. Each building also has to have electrical power or a working emergency generator to power life-safety systems.

For damaged buildings, getting temporary power safely into the building is just the first step of a difficult journey toward a permanent fix. All flooded mechanical and electrical equipment first has to be assessed, salvaged if possible and then re-assessed. If equipment is damaged beyond repair or too old to make repair worthwhile, owners are studying whether to relocate it to higher floors rather than rebuilding in flood-prone basements.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. may not make any changes. It avoided flooding the old-fashioned way by surrounding its lower Manhattan and Jersey City buildings with sandbags. When the power went out, backup generators worked. To many, the lit Manhattan tower alone stood in the darkness, signifying an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure.