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New York City Official Talks Flooding And The Future Of Climate Change

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Days after Hurricane Ida slammed into the Gulf Coast, its remnants dumped torrential rain thousands of miles away in the northeast. New York City issued its first-ever flash flood emergency. More than a dozen people there died in the storm. Central Park set a new record of 3.1 inches of rain in an hour, a record previously set just a week ago, when Tropical Storm Henri barreled through the city. This is a deadly reminder that, like many big cities, New York was not built to deal with the intense weather events of a warming planet. Jainey K. Bavishi directs the Mayor's Office of Climate Resiliency, and joins us now. Welcome.

JAINEY K BAVISHI: Thank you, Ari, for having me.

SHAPIRO: Had you been expecting a weather event this intense at some point, or did it completely take you by surprise?

BAVISHI: We know that precipitation events in New York City are getting stronger and more intense. We've been preparing for that for a long time. In fact, you know, the city, as part of its $20 billion climate resiliency strategy, just released our first storm water resiliency plan earlier this year. So we have been working across all five boroughs to mitigate the impacts of intense precipitation.

SHAPIRO: And yet does this storm - the death toll, the damage that it caused - mean that timeline's going to have to be sped up or the upgrades are going to have to be even more intense? I mean, what have you learned from this?

BAVISHI: You know, every storm is different. And I think what we're seeing is that climate change is impacting us now, and those impacts are certainly getting more severe and more intense. We will take stock of all the lessons that we've learned over the coming days and weeks. We, in the meantime, are continuing to move with urgency to respond to the impacts of intense precipitation along with, you know, the impacts of coastal storm surge, sea level rise and extreme heat.

We've been working to, you know, coordinate traditional sewers with green space, recognizing that sewers have maximum capacity and using open space and streetscapes to use natural systems that intercept stormwater and keep it out of our sewers. We're also piloting cloudburst strategies. These are strategies that can respond to heavy downpours like what we saw last night. And we know there's more work to do, and we're going to continue to move aggressively to do it.

SHAPIRO: The definition of intense precipitation keeps changing, right? I mean, I mentioned that the previous record in Central Park for rain was set just one week ago and that it was broken yesterday. So as you try to upgrade infrastructure and imagine the future, how much more intense do you have to imagine extreme weather will get?

BAVISHI: You know, it's a great point. And that's also why we are working so closely with the scientific community. We want to make sure that all of the work we do is grounded in the best available science and grounded in the projections that climate scientists have confidence in. So we'll take this storm into account as well as Tropical Storm Henri, and we'll work with the scientific community to make sure that we're working based on our best and most recent understanding of climate impacts in the city.

SHAPIRO: What are the biggest obstacles to doing the kind of dramatic infrastructure improvements that are going to be required? Is it money? Is it political will? Like, what's standing in the way?

BAVISHI: You know, I'm so glad you asked that question. I mean, for me, I think last night's storm really underscores that cities need access to proactive funding to invest in resilient infrastructure. And the activity that, you know, I hope will resume soon after Congress gets back in session in September in a couple weeks on the infrastructure bill is just so important. We often see dollars for resilient infrastructure investments only come after the last storm. But we need to be able to prepare proactively. That's what this is all about. And I'm really hopeful that, you know, we'll have access to those kinds of dollars soon.

SHAPIRO: Jainey K. Bavishi is director of the New York City Mayor's Office of Climate Resiliency. Thank you very much.

BAVISHI: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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