Awaiting the Next Storm: Staten Island Balances Long-Term Planning, Short-Term Needs

Editor’s note: This article was published in conjunction with a citywide analysis- Assessing Resilience Planning: Is the City Preparing Smartly for the Rising Risks of Climate Change?

****************************

Just over half of the deaths caused by Superstorm Sandy, 22 to be exact, occurred on Staten Island’s East and South shores, as the storm’s waves battered homes and swept some off their foundations.

Now the island is in a race against time to prepare for the next major coastal storm. Multi-million dollar resiliency projects are coming to Staten Island, from a sea wall on its East Shore to the expansion of innovative “natural drainage corridors.”

The projects are on target, say local officials, but the pace needs to be faster.

The island’s East Shore is directly exposed to the New York Bight, a coastline formation that can channel powerful storm waves and surges into areas within New York Harbor.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to construct a “mega” sea wall that will protect over half of the East Shore, from the Verrazano Bridge to Oakwood, said Staten Island Borough President James Oddo in a phone interview.

The Army Corps will be releasing a draft feasibility study on the proposed wall to the public next month.

Oddo estimated that the wall would be completed by 2020 or 2021. The city and state are also assisting with its construction, he said.

“This is a different timetable than [the initial plans] we talked about,” added the borough president. “Help has been all too slow in coming…There will be several hurricane seasons.”

What happens between now and 2020 or 2021?

Oddo said that smaller-scale protective measures were underway, such as the elevation of several hundred homes using new FEMA flood maps as a guide.

The city has also rebuilt 26,000 linear feet of dunes between South Beach and Conference House Park. But “[the dunes] were not designed to handle an historic storm,” said Oddo. “They were designed to handle beach erosion.”

What happens if you’re not behind the mega wall?

One area on the eastern shore that won’t benefit from the Army Corps mega-wall plan is the district of New York City Council Member Vincent Ignizio.

There, a package of other solutions has been developed in conjunction with the city, the state’s New York Rising program, and the federal government. They include construction of a series of “living breakwaters” and protective berms, home elevations, and, in some cases, strategic retreat.

Ignizio expects these initiatives to be effective, and the lack of a wall not necessarily a problem. “People want to be protected but not walled off,” he explained.

But what is missing, Ignizio added, is a more robust home elevation program. The city’s Sandy rebuilding program, Build It Back, will only pay for an elevation if half or more of the home was damaged, he said.

Since the goal is to elevate, the city and homeowners could share the cost in cases where less than half of the home was damaged, Ignizio argued. The city is reviewing his proposal, the council member said. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions about the idea.

Ignizio said that the de Blasio administration is moving at a faster pace than that of its predecessor, but he added that no matter what, “The sad reality is that these projects will be extremely helpful but will take a long time.”

Concluded Ignizio: “I’m getting tired of the studies and the reviews. …I want to see shovels in the ground and hammers in the streets.”

It’s more than coastal flooding

Staten Island’s vulnerability to flooding is tied to both a changing environment and lack of planning by the city over several decades.

Oddo said some neighborhoods along the East Shore still have no storm drains because of their haphazard conversion from summer bungalow to year-round communities.

“This community still remains vulnerable to moderate rain,” he said. “We are paying the price in 2013, 2015 for what we did in the 1950s and 1960s.”

The city has started to construct storm sewers and drains where possible. Some areas – like Midland Beach – are below sea level, a further complication.

The city has also been acquiring land for a “comprehensive Mid-Island Bluebelt,” which would drain a 5,000-acre area, encompassing the South Beach, New Creek (Midland Beach), and Oakwood Beach watersheds.

“It’s a decades-long, 30-year plan,” said Oddo. “We’re still a ways away.”

The hope is that the Mid-Island Bluebelt will mirror the success of the Staten Island Bluebelt, which makes use of natural drainage corridors — such as streams, ponds, and other wetland areas — to convey, store, and filter stormwater. Concrete pipes along the corridors move stormwater from conventional storm sewers into the Raritan Bay or the Arthur Kill.

The city describes the Staten Island Bluebelt as “one of the most ambitious stormwater management efforts in the northeastern United States.”

Ready to move inland

The ultimate objective, said Oddo, is to “help people re-start their lives.” And for many Staten Islanders on the East and South shores, this means moving back from the sea.

Oddo said that he and Council Member Ignizio brought the concept of acquisition for re-development to the Bloomberg administration in March, 2013 – about five months after Sandy. The idea was to allow residents to sell their homes to the government in order to be able to rebuild more safely somewhere else within the area.

The state and city have launched an acquisition program in three neighborhoods: Ocean Breeze, Oakwood Beach and Graham Beach. Representatives from neither the city nor the state responded to questions about the status of the program.

“Bloomberg should have embraced acquisition for redevelopment,” argued Oddo. “If you can acquire a block, then you can raze structures, and raise property — that never happened. Two years, four months later — what are the holdups?”

Failure to embrace the concept of acquisition for redevelopment is self-defeating, maintained Ignizio, since using the approach would limit exposure of homes to storm surge and lessen the need for resiliency projects.

“It’s hard not to be frustrated and angry,” said Oddo. “No mayor of New York City has stood up and told the people of Staten Island, ‘We fully believe in acquisition for redevelopment and are committed to it.'”

The city could show the type of truly resilient housing that may be constructed, said Oddo. And concerns about government [effectiveness] could be overcome. “People can buy into their neighborhood again.”

Added Oddo: “I believe in this program. It truly would have worked on a wide scale if we had gotten support from the Bloomberg administration. [It would be] a really powerful message if Bill de Blasio stands up [and] says ‘we’re ready to go.’ You’ll see lots of Staten Islanders come forward.”

Tell Us: Is Your Neighborhood Prepared for Climate Change?

High-Risk Neighborhoods of Red Hook, Lower East Side Are Focus of Live Coverage, Climate Crowdsourcing

Take the Survey: Is Your Neighborhood Climate Safe?

#AreYouClimateSafe

Live Coverage from Red Hook, Brooklyn

Live Coverage from the Lower East Side

 

Streets and buildings flooded, power out, trains down, lives disrupted and taken. No, we’re not talking about the effects of Superstorm Sandy two years ago. We’re talking about New York’s future, with the kind of extreme weather experts warn could hit the city in the years ahead.

Given the forecasts and the lessons of Sandy’s massive impact, do residents in some of the most climate-vulnerable New York neighborhoods think they’re any safer than when Sandy hit? Has the City made progress in fostering a more climate-safe New York?

To find out, we and a group of partners are launching a multi-faceted special project this week.

First, TODAY, the Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY sent teams of journalists to report in real time from two of New York’s highest-risk neighborhoods – Red Hook in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Both communities were slammed during Sandy and are now bracing for more.

We’re also launching a crowdsourcing initiative that will ask all of you the same question: Do you believe you’re safer?

The project is a joint reporting initiative between Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY, which covers how the city is adapting to climate risk, along with NY Environment Report, and more than 30 reporters from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

NYER’s focus in this project is getting City officials and planning experts to talk about progress made on climate resiliency preparations in Red Hook and the Lower East Side, and across the city.

It’s not the first time we have joined forces to look at this issue. Last year, the Gazette, AdaptNY and NYER editor Sarah Crean partnered on an investigative report highlighting the disconnect between city officials and some of its most vulnerable communities in planning for greater climate resilience.

What’s at risk for Red Hook, Lower East Side

Red Hook, home to Brooklyn’s largest public housing complex and a mixture of businesses and industry, was inundated when Sandy hit, causing severe infrastructure damage and affecting thousands of residents. Many remained without power, heat, or running water for weeks. Because of its low-lying geography and climate-induced sea-level rise, Red Hook remains increasingly vulnerable to coastal flooding.

The Lower East Side (LES) also felt Sandy’s force, with more residential units affected there than in the rest of Manhattan combined. Many LES residents lived without power or access to basic utilities for four days after the storm, some for much longer. The area was also at Sandy’s epicenter in another way, when nearly half of the two million New Yorkers who experienced outages in the hurricane’s wake were left in the dark by the explosion of a ConEd substation on 14th Street.

Both neighborhoods remain similarly at risk for future flooding. So much so that the city plans a massive project to shore up a low-lying ring around southern Manhattan with 10 miles of dual-use parks, berms and protections – a $335 million plan known as the Big U.

Tell Us What You Think About Climate Safety

We’re launching a two-pronged interactive effort to hear from New Yorkers directly.

Find out what residents and others in these communities think about their climate safety, especially relative to two years ago when Sandy hit. Check out the live coverage from Red Hook and the Lower East Side this Thursday morning.

The Gazette and AdaptNY are gathering rapid-fire reports, mutimedia interviews, maps, polls and more from both communities. Watch here for Red Hook coverage and watch here for Lower East Side coverage.

Meanwhile, you can also take part in the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram by using the #AreYouClimateSafe hashtag.

We’ve also opened specific Facebook pages to foster more conversation. Join in on Red Hook – Are You Climate Safe? or Lower East Side – Are you Climate Safe?.

Second, we’re inviting you to take part in a crowdsourcing project that will run for two weeks following the live event, through Oct. 17. You can take a quick survey about climate safety in New York. And you can help create a mosaic of community sentiment about climate safety by sharing comments, photos, videos or soundbites. Stay tuned for more information.

Our special project will culminate during the week of Oct. 20 with a major overview, prepared by NYER, to address the central question: Are we safer? That analysis will make extensive use of your contributions from our live reporting and the crowdsourcing projects and look into what progress the City has made with its own climate resiliency planning process, particularly for these vulnerable communities.

So, sign up now on the live event pages – Red Hook and/or Lower East Side – for email reminders. And watch for more news developments in the coming days.

***
This report was prepared by David Gershgorn, Eric Levitz, Derek Scancarelli and Marguerite Ward.

City Details Preparations as Peak Hurricane Season Arrives

Almost three million New Yorkers currently live in a Hurricane Evacuation Zone. Among those living in “Zone 1,” the areas of the city most vulnerable to coastal flooding, are the 6,500 residents of Red Hook Houses, Brooklyn’s largest public housing complex.

Last week, Mayor de Blasio and other city officials traveled to Red Hook to describe measures the City is taking to prepare for the next major coastal storm. Eighty-four percent of hurricanes form between August and October, officials said.

“It was deeply troubling to see how hard hit this neighborhood was,” said the Mayor. “Even without all the preparation that people deserve, people improvised in an extraordinary manner…We want to be ready for the next time.”

After Sandy, several thousand residents of Red Hook Houses remained without electricity, and heat and hot water for almost two weeks. The development’s mechanical systems, which were located in building basements, were destroyed by flooding.

The lack of power and heat became particularly dangerous as temperatures dropped below freezing. Many older and disabled residents were unable to leave their apartments to secure food and medical assistance because building elevators were not operating.

As part of its Coastal Storm Plan, the City says it has the capacity to shelter up to 600,000 people through a system of 64 evacuation centers and more than 450 hurricane shelters, including special medical needs shelters. The City also maintains an emergency stockpile of essential supplies and a database of several-thousand City employees and volunteers who would be called upon to manage evacuation centers and emergency shelters.

First Steps: Rebuilding Beaches

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the Bloomberg administration developed a rebuilding and climate resiliency plan which focused on five geographic areas: the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront, the East and South Shores of Staten Island, South Queens, Southern Brooklyn, and Southern Manhattan.

The de Blasio administration says it is furthering those efforts to protect everything from the city’s fuel supply to its health care facilities to New York’s 500+ miles of coastline in the face of rising sea levels and storm surges.

In his visit to Red Hook, Mayor de Blasio highlighted progress made on replenishing beaches in some of the city’s most vulnerable areas:

  • In Brooklyn, 600,000 cubic yards of new sand put in place to protect Coney Island;
  • On Staten Island, 26,000 linear feet of dunes rebuilt between South Beach and Conference House Park; and
  • In Queens, 2.5 million cubic yards of sand in place to protect the Rockaways, with another half-million cubic yards coming, said the Mayor.

Support for beach replenishment has come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Re-thinking and Fortifying the Coastline

In Manhattan, the City plans to construct a “protective system” around the lower part of the island, “10 continuous miles of low-lying geography,” stretching from West 57th street south to the Battery and up to East 42th street.

The first segment of the “Big U” proposal, which was the winning entry in the Rebuild by Design competition sponsored by President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, is a “berm” which will elevate and expand the riverfront parkland adjacent to the Lower East Side.

The berm will help to re-connect the Lower East Side to the East River, and “protect one of our biggest concentrations of public housing and affordable housing,” said the Mayor. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded $335 million for the overall Big U proposal.

HUD also awarded $20 million for flood protection projects at Hunts Point in the Bronx, where the Mayor noted, “our food supply is centered.”

And HUD is supplying $60 million to create a “necklace of living breakwaters” off the Staten Island coast to buffer against wave damage, flooding and erosion. The idea, said the Mayor, is to restore “what mother nature had in place to protect against storms.”

Protecting Critical Buildings & Infrastructure

The Mayor noted that new laws have been enacted to require flood-resistant construction for New York City healthcare facilities, and to require emergency plans for residential and commercial buildings.

He said that the City has also adopted new policies to protect critical infrastructure, such as sewage treatment plants and pumping stations, from future storm surge and sea level rise.

De Blasio referenced Red Hook’s ongoing vulnerability to rising sea levels. “We’re working with the State of New York to develop a comprehensive flood protection system for Red Hook, something this neighborhood needs,” he declared.

In the meantime, residents of the Red Hook Houses are still relying on temporary boilers. The New York City Housing Authority plans to replace them with elevated, more efficient boilers and an upgraded heat distribution system, said NYCHA General Manager Cecil House, who spoke after the Mayor.

The Mayor observed that protecting New York City from the impacts of climate change also means examining its underlying causes, and New York City’s role in the global climate crisis.

“We’re committed to addressing the root causes of global warming. And we’ll be saying a lot more about that in the next few weeks as we lead up to the United Nations global summit on climate change in September,” the Mayor added.

City Releases Sandy Recovery & Climate Resiliency Agenda

The Mayor’s office has just released One City, Rebuilding Together, its strategy for ongoing Sandy recovery efforts, and initial thoughts about preparing for the impacts of climate change.

The report notes that the city will be initiating a “public engagement process” to “share information, hear local concerns, and incorporate local planning efforts in advance of a revision to the city’s resiliency plan in 2015.”

From today’s statement to the press:

“The report represents a major overhaul of currently active recovery programs—including expediting the process for families and businesses currently rebuilding and expanding eligibility for immediate relief; using the rebuilding and recovery process to expand economic opportunity and create job pathways for more New Yorkers; and improving coordination within the city and across levels of government.

The report also provides details on the city’s infrastructure-related efforts to rebuild a stronger, more resilient New York to protect against future extreme weather and climate change.”

The city says that more than 40 resiliency project submissions to Federal grant programs are “currently stalled, waiting for New York State to review, approve, and send applications on to FEMA for final consideration.”

Projects that the city says it is trying to move forward include:

  • NYCHA Resiliency – More than $175 million in resiliency upgrades for New York City public housing, including waterproof boilers, the installation of emergency generators in public housing complexes in the 100-year floodplain, and new heat and power systems in flood-prone complexes.
  • Hospital and Health Care Systems Resiliency – More than $100 million in hardening and flood barriers for hospital facilities in flood zones across the city.
  • Flood Protection – More than $100 million in flood barriers, tide gates, and sustainable shoreline improvements, and flood protection improvements at critical city facilities including the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, and the Vernon Bain prison facility.
  • Emergency Planning and Resiliency Capacity for Neighborhoods and Emergency Operations – More than $20 million in emergency planning and the protection of critical services and resiliency improvements to police precincts.
  • Storm Water Management – More than $30 million in storm water management improvements like bioswales and permeable pavement in flood-prone areas.

 

News Analysis: More Urgency Needed on Mayor’s Rebuilding & Climate Resilience Plan

Tuesday, we ran a piece describing Mayor de Blasio’s visit to Staten Island, the New York City borough which suffered the most devastating loss of life during Superstorm Sandy.

It’s worth reiterating that Staten Island’s new borough president, James Oddo, is deeply concerned about future storms and the island’s vulnerability to them,  especially along the south and eastern shores. And the borough president is anxious to proceed with re-thinking the design of some of the island’s coastal communities while there is still time.

The concern expressed by the Mayor about communities recovering from Sandy is no doubt real. But he is beginning to show what seems like a surprising lack of urgency, especially given what New York City is facing.

Almost two months into de Blasio’s tenure as mayor, the team that will coordinate both the city’s rebuilding and climate change planning efforts has not been finalized.

A Looming Threat

As far as we know, there is still no leadership structure in place for tackling what some of the city’s own scientists have said is the biggest threat to New York City’s existence.

…there is still no leadership structure in place for tackling what some of the city’s own scientists have said is the biggest threat to New York City’s existence

Consider this: projections released by the New York City Panel on Climate Change in 2013 stated that by the 2050’s, sea level in the area is projected to rise 11 to 24 inches (middle range) and 31 inches (high estimate). Sections of Staten Island are already below sea-level now.

Every inch of sea level rise means a greater possibility of devastating storm surges striking New Dorp Beach, the Rockaways or Red Hook.

The Mayor has indicated that he agrees with much of what was proposed by former Mayor Bloomberg’s post-Sandy resiliency plan. But we don’t know what of the over 250 possible measures he supports and what he does not.

For instance, the plan proposes the construction of an enormous residential and commercial development on the East Side of Lower Manhattan -Seaport City- that would also serve as a “protective barrier” to sea level rise.

The local community board that represents the area has raised numerous questions about the project and says the city should focus first on protecting the community’s most vulnerable residents, especially those living in public housing.

What does the Mayor think about Seaport City? We know that he met with the Real Estate Board of New York on February 19th, but, as Capital New York reporter Dana Rubinstein noted, that meeting was closed to the media. REBNY’s members would almost certainly have opinions about the project.

What’s the Plan?

We also know that the Mayor wants to build on PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s multi-pronged sustainability plan, which was created to help the city plan for a million new residents by 2030. Like the SIRR plan, PlaNYC is a gargantuan document. It advocates, for instance, the city’s increased use of natural gas as a power source.

De Blasio has expressed major reservations about the extraction process for natural gas. And the New York Times reported recently on a new study showing methane leakage is a larger problem than originally thought.

It may very well be that natural gas’ benefits still outweigh the risks, but methane’s impact on the climate is a relevant question right now for a coastal city facing the dual challenge of locating sustainable energy sources and confronting rising sea levels.

In short, time is of the essence. We need to clarify how exactly we are rebuilding from Sandy, and what our priorities are as we confront climate change.

De Blasio: City Needs Resilience Planning that is Tied to Social Equity

Mayor de Blasio was on Staten Island yesterday, meeting with local elected officials about the island’s recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and its vulnerability to rising sea levels. “We know that there are tens of thousands of people in this city still feeling the effects of Sandy very sharply,” said the Mayor.

And the Mayor reiterated earlier statements that rebuilding efforts needed to be tied to broader goals, such as expanding access to city services and economic opportunity.

“Some of the communities that were affected [by Sandy] have been…neglected for decades. And never got the infrastructure they should have gotten in the first place. And if this is a moment for us to do something about that…for us to start to right some of those historic wrongs, we have to take it,” De Blasio argued.

The Mayor said that this philosophy applied as much to public housing residents in the Rockaways as it did to residents of Staten Island’s working class bungalow communities.

“It’s about taking a moment of crisis, trying to find the transformative possibilities within it, taking the resources that are coming in, and…saying what is the most we can get out of these resources that will leave people in better shape?” explained the Mayor.

Twenty-two of the twenty-three Sandy-related deaths on Staten Island occurred on its East and South shores. And while the East Shore, for example, is one of the areas in New York City most vulnerable to extreme weather and rising sea levels, it has suffered from flooding for decades, because of a lack of proper planning by the city and inattention to the area’s location and natural topography.

Originally a “vast swath” of marshes and swamps, development on the East Shore “far outpaced the construction of critical infrastructure like storm sewers,” said Carter Strickland, the outgoing commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Re-thinking the Bloomberg Administration’s Rebuilding and Resiliency Plan

For the first time yesterday, the Mayor outlined the process that will guide his administration’s development of a rebuilding and resiliency plan for New York City.

“Going forward we have a whole series of very complicated things that we have to address,” the Mayor said. “We’ve got important parts of infrastructure, where we are still as susceptible today as we were two years ago…where generators are still in the basement, where all sorts of fundamental physical realities are just as vulnerable as they were.”

De Blasio said that economic security is part of developing truly sustainable communities. “We have people in areas…that have been in many ways left behind for many, many decades. We have to try to create better and more sustainable housing and economic opportunities for them,” the Mayor declared.

De Blasio said he “commended” the Bloomberg administration’s resiliency plan “because I thought it was realistic. It depended on a number of measures that we can take in the short term”. He added that he also wanted to focus on “smart longer-term solutions like restoring wetlands, for example, which are an organic solution and a proven solution.”

The administration’s task is two-fold: both to develop a workable plan that addresses the thousands of New Yorkers who remain displaced by Sandy; and prepare for future impacts of climate change.

We know it’s going to take so much work to really get everyone whole and then to really make these neighborhoods strong and resilient going forward.

“Our job is to line them [rebuilding and resiliency needs] up…figure out where the resources are, what red tape we have to cut to get the resources in play, how to maximize the economic benefit it would have to the people who were affected…and just as quickly as possible, move each piece in a logical progression. That’s the way our game plan will look,” said the Mayor.

“We know it’s going to take so much work to really get everyone whole and then to really make these neighborhoods strong and resilient going forward. This is work we’ll be at together for years,” added de Blasio.

De Blasio said that City Hall would release a plan to move forward “in the next few weeks…I don’t think at this moment we have a clear starting point for that public discussion, and that’s our responsibility to put forward”.

Staten Island Pushes for A New Vision of Sustainability

But it was obvious yesterday that local leaders on Staten Island want to move forward immediately. Staten Island’s new borough president, James Oddo, is pushing the Mayor, arguing that the city should buy-out residents in some of Staten Island’s most vulnerable communities.

Oddo said that it was unlikely that the Cuomo administration would be providing more money for buy-outs, or that entire neighborhoods would be “seeded back to mother nature.”

But, he said, the city could confirm which residents remain serious about wishing to be bought-out. Using that information, swaths of contiguous property could eventually be acquired which would provide “a blank slate” for “smart” re-development. “And that means a different type of housing stock. That means putting in real infrastructure,” said Oddo.

Oddo believes the situation in Staten Island’s coastal neighborhoods is challenging but not untenable. “These folks live…on streets that are three or four or five feet below sea level…Any rain, they’re under water. [But] it’s a good place to live with the right infrastructure.”

The strategy proposed by Oddo, “Acquisition for Re-Development”, “gives help,” he said, “in the form of money, to people as quickly as possible, and it gives government a chance to…take a step back and figure out, how do we redevelop this property to create a better housing stock, to create a better community.” The borough president said this was a more forward-thinking and comprehensive solution than “doing one-offs– this bungalow here, that house there.”

De Blasio was enthusiastic but non-committal. “I am not ready to endorse a specific plan”, said the Mayor, “but I think it would be very healthy…to have a debate about where we’re going, and I think that’s one of the ideas that has to be on the table.”

Oddo observed that he was “dealing with some of the sins of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s here on Staten Island…I don’t want to be a part of making the mistakes that will impact the next generation.”

“We Have to Do Better”

The Mayor also acknowledged the mounting criticism of the city’s Build it Back program which channels rehab funding to Sandy victims. “It’s self evident that the pace [of the program] has been a profound problem,” de Blasio said.

Build it Back is managed by a private contractor, which received a reported fifty million dollars to administer the program. “We’re going to do a full review. That’s the whole point here,” the Mayor said.

“We know we have to do better,” de Blasio added. “It’s our obligation to put together a plan to build upon some of the things we think were done right…and address…some of the things that weren’t what they needed to be.”

De Blasio said his administration would also be announcing a new leadership structure for the city’s ongoing response to climate change.

Emily Lloyd, who ran the city’s Department of Environmental Protection from 2005 to 2009, is back at the helm at the DEP. The Mayor, when announcing her appointment last week, said that a major focus for the agency would be “infrastructure upgrades to improve our resiliency”.

It will also be Lloyd’s role, the Mayor said, “to convene public and private sector leaders to build upon the successes of PlaNYC [the Bloomberg administration’s far-reaching sustainability plan].”

“I had a lot of respect for and agreement with their plans of resiliency going forward and we’re using that as our initial blueprint,” said de Blasio. But, he added, “the response to Sandy was very uneven.”

Could de Blasio’s purported commitment to social equity impact other long-term environmental justice issues in New York City, from the siting of waste transfer stations to expanding access to open, green spaces to opening up the discussion about the city’s long-term energy strategy?

The Mayor observed when appointing Lloyd, “we also know, in everything we do, we have the potential to be the progressive leader.”

Legacy of Sandy Visible in Council’s Environmental Leadership

The New York City Council has a revamped Environmental Protection Committee with new leadership, and an entirely new committee that will focus on climate resiliency and rebuilding issues.

The leadership and makeup of the two committees were announced this week. Much of the Council’s new environmental leadership hails from New York City communities battered by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, like the Rockaways, South Brooklyn and South-East Queens, large sections of Manhattan’s waterfront, and the Eastern Shore of Staten Island.

Building on the Council’s Efforts to Address Climate Change

The Environmental Protection Committee was highly active under the leadership of outgoing Member James Gennaro, a trained geologist from Queens, who has now joined the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Gennaro will serve as the DEC’s Deputy Commissioner for New York City Sustainability and Resiliency.

During Gennaro’s tenure, the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee developed numerous pieces of legislation which helped to lock-in and expand Bloomberg-administration sustainability initiatives.

One of the Committee’s arguably greatest achievements during that period was crafting legislation that required the city to take the needs of its most vulnerable residents into account as it planned for climate change.

The Committee will now be chaired by Donovan Richards, who represents Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Springfield Gardens and Rosedale, Queens. Before joining the Council, Richards served as chief of staff for former Council Member James Sanders, Jr. Richards won Sanders’ seat in a special election last February.

Richards co-sponsored legislation last fall with Brad Lander and other Council Members to create a public online database tracking how federal Sandy relief funds are distributed and used. And, with local residents, he helped to lead a public tour last May of mold infested homes in the Rockaways to demand more immediate assistance for Sandy victims.

Richards has also called “for the Department of Environmental Protection to fund a $14 million dollar project in Rosedale’s Brookville Triangle to alleviate flooding.”

Connection to Past Leadership

Richards will be joined on the Environmental Protection Committee by:

  • Stephen Levin, who represents Brooklyn Heights, Greenpoint, parts of Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Boerum Hill, Brooklyn;
  • Costa Constantinides, who served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Council Member Gennaro and represents Astoria and parts of Long Island City, Woodside, East Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights, Queens;
  • Rory Lancman, who served as a state assembly member and will be representing Hillcrest, Queens; and
  • Eric Ulrich, who represents most of the Rockaways and several neighborhoods in South Queens.

Levin and Ulrich are incumbents; the rest of the Committee’s members are new to the Council.

Special Focus on Preparing for the Next Storm

The City Council has also created a Recovery and Resiliency Committee, which will be chaired by newly-elected Mark Treyger, representing Coney Island, Bensonhurst, Gravesend and Sea Gate, Brooklyn neighborhoods hard hit by Sandy.

Treyger’s Council biography states that before his election, he formed STRONG (Sandy Task-Force Recovery Organized by Neighborhood Groups) “to help spearhead the fight against the opening of a dangerous garbage station in Southwest Brooklyn and fight for federal recovery dollars to improve Coney Island and Sea Gate’s sewer system, beaches, and other vital infrastructure”.

Treyger will be joined on the Recovery and Resiliency Committee by Donovan Richards and Eric Ulrich, along with:

  • Incumbent Rosie Mendez, representing neighborhoods along the East River in Manhattan;
  • Incumbent Margaret Chin, representing Lower Manhattan;
  • Newly-elected Carlos Menchaca, representing Sunset Park and a section of the Brooklyn waterfront; and
  • Newcomer Steven Matteo, representing Staten Island’s “mid-Island” district.

Matteo served as chief of staff for outgoing Member James Oddo, who is now Staten Island’s borough president.

Matteo’s district includes communities such as New Dorp and Ocean Breeze, which suffered some of the greatest physical devastation and loss of life during Sandy.

After his appointment, Matteo, one of three Republicans on the Council, declared in a statement, “Sandy will be my number one priority. I am honored to be part of the team of Council Members that will look to make the City more resilient in the face of future storms.”

Safeguarding Staten Island’s East Shore From Future Hurricanes

The city announced last week that it will spend $100 million on flood-prevention infrastructure upgrades for the New Dorp Beach and South Beach areas of Staten Island.

Those two neighborhoods — located on Staten Island’s East Shore — were at the epicenter of devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy over a year ago.

The island’s East Shore is directly exposed to the New York Bight, a coastline formation that can channel powerful storm waves and surges into areas within New York Harbor. But its vulnerability to flooding is directly tied to both a changing environment and lack of planning by the city over several decades.

It’s no surprise then that both the East and South shores of the island have now been designated by the city as areas at “major risk” from storm surge.

And the threat of wave action and coastal flooding is likely to grow: Preliminary work maps released by FEMA earlier this year indicate the number of structures on the East and South shores within the 100-year floodplain — the area that has a one-percent or greater chance of flooding in any given year — has expanded by 46 percent. The number of residential units has expanded by 50 percent.

All beaches along the East and South shore coastlines are now within a city-designated V-zone, which is a coastal area at risk of storm waves of three feet or more.

While the East Shore is one of the areas in New York City most vulnerable to extreme weather and rising sea levels, it has suffered from flooding for decades.

Originally a “vast swath” of marshes and swamps, development “far outpaced the construction of critical infrastructure like storm sewers,” said Carter Strickland, commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, in a written statement.

Raritan Bay
Raritan Bay

That’s where the new flood prevention infrastructure could make a big difference in the years to come.

The area’s local City Council representative, Republican James Oddo, who is also the borough president-elect, said that many homes were not built to withstand punishing coastal storms.

And despite their proximity to the shore, areas like New Dorp Beach and South Beach developed without a comprehensive plan. “Summer communities became year-round homes. The city allowed the construction to happen with an ‘I.O.U.’…’we’ll come in at some later point’…the city is still playing catch-up,” Oddo said.

The lack of proper stormwater infrastructure has created systemic problems for communities like New Dorp Beach and South Beach. “Any time there is an average rainfall, [it’s a] terrible situation,” Oddo said. “There’s no place for the water to go…[the infrastructure projects] will give these folks a little peace of mind,” he added.

The planned infrastructure work in South Beach, for instance, has been “20 years in the making,” noted Oddo. The city has already carried out two major infrastructure projects in South Beach, he said.

Infrastructure work in both communities was slowed by the city’s need to acquire the property on which it would build.

The projects in the New Dorp Beach and South Beach areas — a $100 million capital investment by the city — will “significantly” upgrade existing water, sanitary sewer, and roadway infrastructure. The city says that miles of new storm sewers, which did not exist when Hurricane Sandy flooded the neighborhoods, will “make both communities more resilient to future storms.”

The work, which is currently in the design phase, is to be funded by the DEP and the Department of Transportation. Oddo said it was still possible that federal recovery funds could help pay for the project.

In both the New Dorp Beach and South Beach areas, at least 3 miles of new storm sewers will be installed; 2.4 miles of sanitary sewers will be reconstructed; 2.3 miles of water mains will be replaced; and roadways will be reconstructed.

Work is to start in late 2016, said Oddo.

But “the linchpin” in protecting the East Shore, said the borough president-elect, is a seawall, which would exist in “various iterations” along the coast, and “break the wave that is destined to hit us again.”

Twenty-two of the twenty-three Sandy-related deaths on Staten Island occurred on its East and South shores. As described in the city’s report on rebuilding and resiliency after the storm, Sandy’s “waves rose up over the East Shore’s beaches, battering homes and sweeping some completely off their foundations.”

The seawall is now the subject of a final study by the Army Corps of Engineers. Oddo said that the long path to the seawall’s execution is a “story in and of itself.”

“Now, after 20-odd people have died, we’re on the cusp,” he said.

And the city plans to fight flooding on the East Shore with tools beyond hard infrastructure. The DEP is in the process of acquiring land for a “comprehensive Mid-Island Bluebelt,” which would drain a 5,000-acre area, encompassing the South Beach, New Creek (Midland Beach), and Oakwood Beach watersheds.

The city hopes that the Mid-Island Bluebelt will mirror the success of the Staten Island Bluebelt, which makes use of natural drainage corridors — such as streams, ponds, and other wetland areas — to “convey, store and filter” stormwater. Concrete pipes along the corridors move stormwater from conventional storm sewers into the Raritan Bay or the Arthur Kill.

The city describes the Staten Island Bluebelt as “one of the most ambitious stormwater management efforts in the northeastern United States.”

And for an East Shore community like Midland Beach, Oddo said, the Bluebelt system is their only chance at survival. The neighborhood is 4 to 5 feet below sea level, and a traditional sewer system could not be built there.

Other necessities for the East Shore include building up the resilience of the housing stock, and moving critical infrastructure for facilities like hospitals above flood lines.

Oddo said that the Bloomberg administration’s approach to climate change planning made sense. “The city’s plan is a layered plan, [it’s the] right approach.”

“There will be many hurricane seasons between now and when all this work is completed,” Oddo observed. “What you need is time and time leaves us vulnerable.”

Did FEMA Know that Federal Flood Maps for New York City Were Inaccurate?

Investigative journalists at ProPublica say “yes”. They report that in the years leading up to Superstorm Sandy, the federal agency ignored state and city officials’ appeals to update the maps with better data until it was too late.

And the cost of inaccurate data to New York City and other areas is high. ProPublica quotes the Executive Director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, who maintains that “the absence of accurate flood maps could lead to an ‘entire cascade of impacts’: higher costs to taxpayers in the form of disaster assistance, higher likelihood of injury and death for residents, lost tax revenue and damaged infrastructure after flooding occurs.”

[Read more at ProPublica]

The Fire Island Breach: Sandy’s One Gift?

Listen to this great discussion on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show this past Monday, November 18th, about the inlet that was created on Fire Island by the force of Hurricane Sandy.

Freelance journalist Will James describes how the breach has actually led to a cleaner and healthier Great South Bay with noticeably more marine life. Inlets are typically naturally occurring and the breach on Fire Island has created a flushing effect in the Bay.

But some property owners argue that Fire Island needs to be re-connected. Will the breach be closed?

[Listen at WNYC]