Brooklyn Boro

Wind gusts are increasing, and New York City is not prepared

September 15, 2021 Gitanjali Poonia
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New York City has 250,000 street name signs and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other signs — on roads, buildings, construction sites and parking lots. “We have 1,033,000 signs on the streets that we’re responsible for,” said Anthony Galgan, assistant commissioner of the Department of Transportation Planning and Management’s traffic control and engineering division.  “They’re designed to last anywhere from 10 to 30 years.”

Those signs, almost invisible in their pervasiveness, might need a lot more attention in future. In particular, those signs — and many other components of the urban infrastructure—may need to be, at minimum, wind proofed. According to  a recent study in the Journal of Engineering for Sustainable Buildings and Cities, researchers from the City College of New York, report that the city is not ready for the wind speeds that will likely hit it by 2050.

Tom Knutson, a climate modeler at the U.S. geophysical fluid dynamics laboratory, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explained that most projections point to the same conclusion: hurricanes are increasing in the Atlantic basin. “We live in a hurricane prone region here in New York City and when they come along, they cause a lot of damage,” he said. Strong winds with a storm surge and rain can be a dangerous combination.

Photo by Helen Ho.

The authors of the new study said they wanted to better understand the intersection between engineering and science and climate. They studied the effects of the changing climate in several complex coastal urban areas, including in Puerto Rico, California, and New York.  Part of their motivation to look at New York City was also to figure out, if they could, why some aspects of infrastructure were especially damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 where wind speeds reached 80 miles-per-hour, the highest speed recorded in the city.

“We wanted to review building codes on these types of projections,” said Jorge E. Gonzalez, a professor of mechanical engineering and one of four authors. “Shall New York take a look at fooling the future? And what is the long-term effect of climate change?”

To withstand increasing hurricanes, thunderstorms, tornados and high-wind gusts, the city will need to update building, electrical and mechanical codes, according to the study. After Hurricane Sandy, nine new codes were written, including raising or moving basements or low  floors, according to a spokesperson with the Department of Buildings, which funded the new study. Most of these codes addressed problems related to flooding. None addressed wind.

Photo by Helen Ho.

But the codes will need to address wind soon, the study authors note.

Using a global circulation model—essentially, a climate prediction model—they found that New York City is projected to experience higher wind gusts under a warming climate. Future wind speeds may reach up to 110 miles-per-hour by 2050 and 124 miles-per-hour by 2100—much higher than the current record of 80 miles-per-hour, and much higher than the 60-miles-per-hour that the National Weather Service classifies as life threatening.

Galgan does not expect current standards for street signs to change anytime soon. “They’re probably strong enough as it is,” he said. His department doesn’t have the data to analyze the causes of sign damage, because people who report broken signs by calling 311 don’t usually pay attention, or even know, to the reason behind the dangling sign.

But Galgan and his crew do. “When we go out in the field, we look at the sign and if there’s a lot of stress around where the nuts and bolts hold, it’s usually because of the wind,” he said.

In particular, big signs, like those on highways or by shorelines, can vibrate or become undone on one side because of high wind speeds. “When larger signs come down, they post a greater risk to the public,” Galgan said. During Hurricane Sandy and other similar hurricane events, “we did experience a much higher number of damaged signs,” said Galgan. “Probably a few hundred signs.” The only protocol they have for severe weather events is to maintain a high level of awareness.

Photo by Helen Ho.

Transportation inspectors in New York City use a case management system, an interactive data map, to track down problematic signs of all sizes. After locating, say a 8 feet by 20 feet stainless steel sign, they typically hop in a bucket truck, and tighten the screws. If the sign needs severe repair, they replace it. Repairs usually occur within nine business days, according to the Department of Transportation’s website.

On January 16, 2020, a 67-year-old woman delivering papers in Queens was killed when powerful winds caused a piece of construction site debris to hit her head. In this case, a wind gust of up to 50 miles-per-hour proved dangerous. This wasn’t the first time someone was killed or injured as a consequence of strong winds. The 10-year average of wind-related deaths in the United States is 58, compared to an average of five deaths caused by hurricanes, and an average of 99 deaths caused by floods, according to the National Weather Service.

Photo by Helen Ho.

Dozier Hasty, a Brooklyn resident since 1971 and a newspaper publisher, has seen extreme effects of strong winds firsthand. Wind tunnels often form at the intersection of Hickson and Montague in Brooklyn, which is where Hasty has seen many umbrellas turned inside-out. But that is not all. He has seen the traffic light swing from side to side, eventually completely bending into a horizontal position. “When wind comes along with the right speed, it can have fatal consequences,” said Hasty. “Everyone has to be more conscious weather conditions, of things that can take flight.”

Street signs, streetlights, old buildings, cranes, and scaffolding are among the components of infrastructure that may need more attention in the future. Yiannis Andreopoulos, a professor of mechanical engineering at the City College of New York and another author of the study, said that older buildings, in particular, will need adjustments. The older buildings can handle up to 90 miles-per-hour wind loads, he said. “What’s going to happen if the city is hit by a hurricane of 120 miles-per-hour, which only hits Florida?” he said. “The older buildings were constructed and designed without any requirements more than 100 years ago.”

“After a large windstorm, especially after a major hurricane, we do have a fair amount of repairs to make,” said Galgan. “I think that any anticipation of increased winds will be minimal enough where our current standards will be okay,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen.”

Photo by Helen Ho.

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