Alex Washburn was one of those New Yorkers who stayed put, defying Mayor Mike Bloomberg's orders to evacuate when Superstorm Sandy came stomping into town. But unlike those who dug in their heels out of stubbornness or helplessness, Washburn stuck around out of pure curiosity. He's Bloomberg’s chief urban designer -- the guy responsible for shaping the city’s parks, streets, and other public spaces -- and he wanted to meet Sandy in person.
"I wanted to watch, feel, understand what a storm surge meant," he says. "If I don’t understand it viscerally, I can’t design for it."
So while his family and many of his neighbors headed for higher ground, Washburn sat in his 19th century Red Hook rowhouse and watched.
"The first inkling was water coming out of the storm drains," he says. "It rose very, very fast. Within minutes it had turned into a river. A little later, I remember looking out, and the power had gone out. It’s brown dark, it’s not black dark, and here I am in New York and there’s water between every building."
Washburn, who dropped by the Grist offices a few weeks back while promoting his new book, The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience, compared the sight out his window that night to the view of Mount Rainier on the Seattle skyline. "I got that sense: I don’t care what we do. That is big. That water was going to go where it wanted."
And that included Washburn's house. The storm surge, which peaked at about 12.5 feet, swamped his basement, rising about three feet inside his ground floor.
Months later, with the mess largely cleaned up, Washburn's biggest challenge began: Figuring out how to defend against the floods next time. In the process, he has discovered that the kind of innovation and outside-the-box engineering required to make coastal communities resilient to storms like Sandy often runs counter to rules and regulations that were designed for tamer times.