Daniel Zarrilli '97 Talks Resiliency and Climate Change

The alum, now director of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's Office of Recovery and Resiliency, shares lessons from Sandy and looks toward the future


"In the last 15 years, we've had 9/11, a blackout, an Ebola threat, a plane crash in Queens, two tornadoes, two hurricanes, and an earthquake," Daniel Zarrilli '97 tells his audience at Lehigh University in October. As the director of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's Office of Resiliency and Recovery, it's technically Zarrilli's job to make sure New York doesn't turn into a sort of nightmarish disaster movie scene, but he prefers not to think of it in terms of worst case scenarios.

"Every time I see the Statue of Liberty underwater in a movie, I think how unhelpful that is," he said. "It paralyzes people and doesn't allow them to take necessary actions now."

His office focuses on what the city can and should look like through 2050. "By focusing on a timeframe that's within our life span," he explained, "it makes these enormous problems easier to understand."

And you'll forgive Zarrilli and his office for only focusing 40 years in the future when he lists the litany of vitally important projects and issues on his plate every day.

Not only does his office tackle the city's efforts to withstand and emerge stronger from the effects of climate change, he's also looking at ways to reduce the city's carbon footprint, improve its aging infrastructure, spur new construction efforts, strengthen communities, reduce income inequality, prepare for population growth, and even cut commute times.

These all came up during Zarrilli's lecture in STEPS at the end of a busy visit to Lehigh. He spoke for nearly 90 minutes about his office, their #OneNYC vision for the future, and how he progressed from someone sitting in Lehigh lecture halls to giving his own lecture as one of the leaders in his field.

Following his time at Lehigh during which he participated in the wind ensemble and was a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity Zarrilli received his M.S. in civil engineering at MIT, where he focused a great deal on policy. He went on to work at Bechtel Infrastructure Corporation and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. His first major city government appointment was made by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who named Zarrilli his director of resiliency.

Then Hurricane Sandy hit.

"It was a very unique, idiosyncratic storm in a lot of ways," he said. For instance, the water levels rose 40% higher than any other event in the city's history, and the storm's wind field was more than three times that of Hurricane Katrina.

But while Sandy was an odd and extremely rare storm, it still completely changed the game in terms of where people's heads were at regarding resiliency, Zarrilli explained. Shortly thereafter, he helped write "A Stronger, More Resilient New York," considered by many including Zarrilli's future boss de Blasio to be the definitive guide to rebuilding the city. Upon his election to the mayor's office, de Blasio kept Zarrilli on and put him in charge of a new office the one he directs today and even expanded the team Zarrilli managed, from six to now 20 and with plans to bring on as many as ten more experts in civil engineering and policy in the near future.

To the students curious how they can reach the heights Zarrilli has professionally, he encouraged them to learn skills not often taught in the classroom, like public speaking – something he hammered home in the three classes he spoke at, Science Technology & Society, CEE Professional Development, and Energy Economics, over the course of his day on campus. He also led a lunchtime discussion with CEE faculty on civil and environmental engineering education and practice, and following his main address, he dined with a group of approximately 30 students and expanded the discussion of resiliency and climate change to the global level.

In case you missed it, you can view Zarrilli's entire lecture here, and to learn more about what he's doing to help New York City withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change and other 21st century threats, visit nyc.gov/onenyc.

By John Gilpatrick

Daniel Zarrilli Lehigh

Daniel Zarrilli '97 speaks in front of a group of civil and environmental engineering students during his recent visit to Lehigh.

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