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?

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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.”

More Flood Protection for Staten Island Communities Hard Hit by Sandy

Eighty percent of the streets in and around Midland Beach, Staten Island flood regularly due to lack of storm sewers. “Chronic flooding is [an] ongoing problem for homeowners and was exacerbated during Sandy,” says the City.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced yesterday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved $33 million in federal funding for the Staten Island Bluebelt which could help address this situation.

Twenty-four acres in Midland Beach will be added to the Bluebelt, which is managed by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Schumer described the Bluebelt as “a critical resiliency project.”

The Bluebelt provides an “ecologically sound and efficient” stormwater management system for one-third of Staten Island’s land area, the City said in a statement.

How Does the Bluebelt Work?

The Bluebelt “preserves and enhances wetland stream corridors to convey and cleanse stormwater, while conventional storm sewers transmit stormwater to the corridors from streets in watershed areas that are adjacent,” says the City.

Bluebelt drainage systems are in the process of being built out on the South Shore of Staten Island—in 15 watersheds plus the Richmond Creek watershed—amounting to a total watershed area of about 10,000 acres. The City says it is also in the process of developing more Bluebelts in the Mid-Island area.

Expanding this “already large” Bluebelt drainage system to Midland Beach will bring natural flood control to new neighborhoods “that desperately need it,” the City noted.

“Restoring and expanding the Bluebelt program will allow for damaged stream corridors and wetlands to be returned to their natural ecological state. By creating large wetland areas, this project will also limit the risk of harm to people living in the area,” the City added.

Federal Commitment to Flood Plains

Funding for the Midland Beach project is being routed through the federal Emergency Watershed Protection Program, and comes via a Schumer-sponsored Sandy Relief Bill. Schumer secured an additional $7.5 million for the Staten Island Bluebelt in an earlier round of USDA funding.

According to the Mayor’s office, “Senator Schumer fought to include $180 million for Emergency Watershed Protection projects in the Sandy Supplemental.”

Through the Watershed Protection program, the federal government helps to support the restoration and building of floodplains, which by storing water, offer a degree of protection to lands further downstream.

“Restoring these ecosystems ensures they are resilient to future storms. NRCS [USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service] obtains easements and restores the area to natural conditions, which enhances fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, flood water retention and ground water recharge.”

Schumer and de Blasio said that another $17.4 million in USDA funding will be used for the purchase of nine acres of floodplain easements on flood prone property in Midland Beach, and $5.9 million will go toward the purchase of 3.25 acres of floodplain easements in New Dorp.

“This is great news for both Midland Beach and New Dorp Beach residents,” said Borough President James Oddo. “Due to their geography, these communities are always at risk of flooding, even in relatively minor storms. The Bluebelt is meant to help alleviate those conditions.”

“Much of the flooding problem,” said the City “is a result of the loss of freshwater and tidal wetlands in the region, and this project would remove the invasive species that are responsible for this problem.”

The City added that some homes adjacent to the Bluebelt will eventually be acquired by the State, which will also help reduce flooding risk in Staten Island’s hardest hit areas.