Taller Buildings = More Storm Safety (Up to a Point)
Hurricane Sandy is over (at least as far as we New Yorkers are concerned) and commentators are already beginning to discuss its meaning for urbanism-- for example, whether coastal cities like New York may have to do more to protect their citizens.
But one area in which New York City has an advantage over suburbs and less compact cities is its ample supply of multi-story buildings. Why does that matter? Because in this storm, the most dangerous indoor spaces were basements and single-family homes.
Most indoor fatalities seem to have involved people who (1) drowned or (2) were crushed by falling trees- both of which are less likely in multi-story structures. If you are on the first floor of a single-family house or garden apartment (let alone a basement, which seems to have been the most dangerous indoor space during the storm), the only way to escape flooding by going to higher ground is to leave your house and risk your life going outside. By contrast, if you in a multistory apartment building, you can escape to higher ground just by climbing the stairs.
And in a multistory building, your danger from falling trees is less significant as well: unless you are the top floor, a falling tree is unlikely to hit you- and if you are on the top floor, you may well be above the nearest tree. By contrast, if you are in a single-story house or apartment, the only thing between you and a tree is the ceiling- which is not always enough protection. (For examples of tree-related indoor deaths, see here and here).
In sum, New York's mid- and high-rise structure wasn't enough to prevent an economic disaster- but if New York had been a low-rise city like New Orleans, more people probably would have died.
This does not mean that cities need more skyscrapers: it seems to me that the benefits discussed above exist even for a three-or four-story building.* But it does mean that low-rise sprawl is not the safest place to be in a storm.
*Assuming, of course, that nothing above the first story of a building is flooded.
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