Surviving Sandy

As I sit here in upstate New York and I hear that “The Storm of the Century” is off west of Pittsburgh running out of steam, I need to reflect on how all this affects the wheel. To begin with, our hearts go out to our friends in the Staten Island community and all those affected by this devastating storm and we wish everyone a safe and speedy recovery. The New York Wheel has made a meaningful donation to Snug Harbor to kick off its clean-up/disaster relief campaign. By donating to Snug Harbor’s disaster relief campaign we feel we are also helping an array of Cultural Institutions like Staten Island Museum, The Nobel Museum, the Staten Island Children’s Museum, the Art Lab, the Montessori School, the Conservatory of Music and nearly 40 other tenants on that site. Snug Harbor services over 600 local employees daily and a multitude of visitors and is one of our “soul-mates” in bringing visitors and residents to the north shore of Staten Island.

Now let me get personal; I live in the South Street Seaport and our NY Wheel offices are at the tip of Manhattan (the better to keep our eye on our harbor-front site). That means both sides of my life are in Flood Zone A as the Office of Emergency Management of NYC defines it. Both buildings had their basements flooded, got 3 feet or so of water in their lobbies and have lost power for two weeks now with a prognosis of several more days without power. The corrosive effect of 48 hours of seawater on circuitry and other essential utilities in the flood zone cannot be underestimated. We are all fine and all our staff members are fine with the exception that we have a bit more time to reflect than normal.

With many citizens experiencing greater loss of life and property, for us this is not a tragedy, but certainly an inconvenience. How does it affect our project?

• Everyone is wondering what would have happened to the wheel in this sort of storm. One rarely gets to experience the “black swan” event while designing a project. But here we have it….the storm of the century.

o Operationally – NYW will be very much in the business of monitoring weather of all types in order to get out ahead of any dangerous events. We would close the wheel once wind gusts of 40 mph are projected at a height of 33 feet over the base. This is less due to danger and more to prevent rider discomfort. If there are riders aboard when this level of wind is observed, we evacuate the wheel, which we can do at normal speed in 38 minutes or in extreme conditions, better than half that time. We will always take into account the interests of the visitors, residents and businesses of Staten Island and will employ controlled shut-down procedures that will assure that our visitors do not get stranded on Staten Island.

o Protection – The stable design of our wheel, with four truss- structure legs firmly planted on a platform with deeply sunk pilings anchored into bedrock, would not require precautionary counter-balancing tie-downs the way a cantilevered design like the London Eye would require. We do not have stay cables like the London Eye and Singapore Flyer, which is good for us since they must use locking pins to create additional tension on the stay cables in adverse conditions. We would take added precautions to super-secure all capsule doors. And of course, we would shut the wheel and lock the drives and stabilizers onto the rim to keep it steady. The wheel is designed to absorb motion stress very well.

o Structural survival – The wheel’s structural designers have stress tested this design in wind tunnel, shake table seismic testing, weather room, load stress testing, and other stress testing environments. Compared to the wind stress realized in Hurricane Sandy, these stress tests are far, far greater. It is safe to say, that the New York Wheel would have survived Sandy very comfortably with a significant margin of error for even stronger stress forces.

• What about the storm surge? How does a 13.5’ surge do to the wheel?

o The NY Wheel site on the St. George northern waterfront is on the protected harbor and not directly exposed to open ocean forces, so wave action has less impact.

o The site is mostly in a defined FEMA flood zone, so we have had to plan for that. We are required to build “habitable” space at least one foot over the 100 year flood zone of 8 feet. That would mean building above +9. We had already decided to mimic the level used for building Battery Park City (our architects at Perkins Eastman were involved in that project) and build above +10. Clearly a 13.5’ surge exceeds that planned level and we have always assumed this might be the case in our planning.

o We do not feel that the surge impacts the wheel per se since the platform and its deep-seated pilings would not be affected significantly in a structural or stability sense by flooding and ground softening the way trees were uprooted under these conditions. In order to prevent any potential “scupping” of the earth around our structural pilings, we may choose to place a coffer dam structure around our wheel as an added precaution. Our continuous weather updates will help us get well prepared for any weather-related events.

o The surge of these unusual proportions would run the risk of flooding our lower level terminal and parking. We are studying this impact on our design, but believe that all emergency equipment including generators and diesel tanks would be housed in “bathtubs” designed to protect against such flooding disasters. In other words, being in a flood zone means we were always planning for this potential disaster in our design. Our materials and our lower level spaces (the next level is at +30) are designed to allow storm surge to low in and then out rapidly with minimal damage. Our site was relatively dry 24 hours after Sandy as would be the case when our project is in place.

o Our site, with almost 5 acres of green roof and captured water run off would actually improve the harbor situation versus existing conditions. We would not have significant run-off, but our water capture system would absorb the rainwater and filter/ purify it and store it and, as required, release it on a controlled basis into the harbor as cleansed water. In addition, it is safe to say that our project significantly protects what is now an exposed and relatively old retaining wall at Richmond Terrace. This wall has behind it major utility lines for St. George area, so one can fairly assume that our project will protect the recovery of the area from future seaborne disasters. The facility may also provide valuable emergency gathering or recovery space for the community at its time of need.

• We are on a tight approval schedule and with city agencies displaced (most of them are located in lower Manhattan as well) and preoccupied with disaster recovery, our process is suffering some delays. We need to work even harder to stay on schedule.

So, as bad it is to suffer the aftermath of loss from an historic storm like Sandy, it does have the silver lining to the New York Wheel in that it helps us think through extreme conditions and causes us to ratchet up our precautions to an even higher level of safety and protection to insure that the New York Wheel will stand strong on New York harbor for years and years.

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