A Big, Beautiful (Flood) Wall in Brooklyn

Here’s one wall Mexico won’t be paying for. The new Empire Stores retail facility, located inside seven century-old storehouses on the Brooklyn waterfront, has invested in a $1-million-dollar, seven-foot-tall portable flood wall to defend against rising waters.

The next time a Sandy-style flooding event is predicted for the region, 29 crates containing wall panels will be trucked to the site from a local warehouse. Workers will build the wall—all 1,100 feet of it—in four to five hours—and if all goes as planned, the retail stores will “ride out the flood like a tasteful island in a surging sea.”

An AquaFence deployed at Atlantic Wharf in Boston. Photo credit: Rupa Shenoy / WGBH News.

Made by Norwegian company AquaFence, the L-shaped wall panels are made of laminated plywood, stainless steel, and aluminum. Vinyl webs run between the panels to keep water out. The horizontal foot of the panels will face the river, utilizing the weight of the water to secure it in place.

The nearby Jane’s Carousel, which was inundated during Superstorm Sandy, has also been equipped with a wall from AquaFence.

It should be noted that deployable flood walls are not failsafe—according to Andrew Martin, the acting chief of the risk analysis branch in the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, during Sandy, there were a “large number of failures of these types of protection schemes.”

However, when combined with other strategies (placing mechanical equipment on higher floors, elevating ground levels, etc), the barriers can provide an important layer of defense against destructive stormwaters—something we are bound to see more of in coming years.

Our government may still be arguing over the validity of climate change, but it appears business owners and real estate investors have already come to their conclusion.

Uh Oh. Two New Studies Warn Sea Level Rise Is Coming, and Fast.

Two studies out in recent days put New York City at a severe risk of climate change-enhanced flooding—and much sooner than previously thought.

2 Degrees, Surging Seas

The first is a comprehensive new review in the journal Science that shows that if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F), sea levels will rise about 20 feet. Obviously, this could have dramatic impacts on  coastal cities across the globe—including our favorite coastal metropolis, New York City.

If the data is accurate, the authors suggest this could all happen by 2200.

Entire neighborhoods in NYC would be submerged—the East and West Village, TriBeCa, Chelsea, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Coney Island, Long Island City, and the Rockaways to name a few—and nearly 2 million people could be displaced.

A map built by the group Climate Control using this data, shows the impact that two degrees Celsius could have on America’s coastlines.

A significant portion of lower Manhattan would be underwater.
A significant portion of lower Manhattan would be underwater. Image via Climate Central.
Coney Island and the Rockaways would be completely submerged.
Coney Island and the Rockaways would be completely submerged. Image via Climate Central.

Help Me, Hansen

A bicyclist making his way past a stranded taxi on a flooded New York City Street as Tropical Storm Irene passes through the city in August, 2011.
A bicyclist making his way past a stranded taxi on a flooded New York City Street as Tropical Storm Irene passes through the city in August, 2011. Photo credit: AP

The second study is written by James Hansen, NASA’s former lead climate scientist, along with 16 co-authors, and will soon be published in the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry. It posits that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous estimates, which will result in sea level rise of at least 10 feet in as little as 50 years.

According to Slate, the study focuses on

“a feedback loop in the ocean near Antarctica that results in cooler freshwater from melting glaciers forcing warmer, saltier water underneath the ice sheets, speeding up the melting rate.”

Hansen gives no specific timeline, but suggests the feedback loop is likely to occur this century—that is, by 2100.

If correct, Hansen’s findings mean that ice is melting and seas are rising much faster than expected. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected closer to 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Even that amount that would mean serious consequences for New York City residents, and would put runways of JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports underwater.

As Slate’s Eric Holthaus puts it, “New York City—and every other coastal city on the planet—may only have a few more decades of habitability left.”

According to Hansen, this report requires “emergency cooperation among nations.” He continues:

“We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

Time to batten down the hatches and get to work.

Number of NYC Buildings At Risk From Flooding Has Tripled

Nearly 85,000 buildings in New York City are officially in a flood zone, according to a report released by the City Comptroller Scott Stringer last Wednesday, on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. Almost half of those structures are in Brooklyn.

More than 400,000 people live in these zones, and Stringer’s report estimates that the property value at risk is upwards of $129 billion.

Moving the Frontline

FEMA maps with 2010 updates compared to proposed 2016 FEMA maps.

The report, “ON THE FRONTLINES,” analyzed updated maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that depict which parts of New York City are at risk from a 100-year-flood—meaning areas that have a one percent chance of flooding each year.

FEMA’s flood maps for New York City have not been re-issued in any meaningful way since they were created in 1983. Small expansions or updates are occasionally released; Stringer’s report compares a 2010 update with overhauled versions proposed at the end of 2013. Those maps should take effect in 2016.

According to Stringer’s analysis, “FEMA’s revised maps depict a greatly expanded floodplain that places almost three and a half times as many structures in high-risk zones and anticipates greater severity of flooding for those buildings already in the flood zone.”

Properties included in the expanded flood zones jumped from 23,885 structures in 2010 to 84,596 in 2013—an increase of more than 60,000 buildings.

The number of buildings in flood zones more than doubled in all boroughs except the Bronx, but the largest spike came in Brooklyn: more than 42,000 structures are now identified as at-risk, compared to the previous 5,648.

The value of properties located within flood zones has also increased accordingly. The Comptroller’s Office estimates that $129,139,514,673 worth of structures are now at risk — an increase of more than 120 percent over previous maps.

In Manhattan and Staten Island, the value more than doubles. In Brooklyn, it triples.

Maps with Consequences

Storm damage from Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Pamela Andrade via Creative Commons.

The new FEMA flood zones will have important implications for resiliency projects, human safety, and government policy, but nowhere will the impact be felt more than on individual home flood insurance rates.

The National Flood Insurance Program uses floodplain maps to determine insurance rates for homeowners.

The expansion of the flood zone means that mandatory insurance rates could spike for thousands of New Yorkers by as much as 18 percent.

Researchers identified 28,000 homes that within the zones that could see insurance rates soar from $400 to between $5,000 and $10,000 for the same amount of coverage.

These dramatic increases pose an enormous hardship to thousands of New Yorkers. According to a study conducted by the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, more than 30 percent of homeowners in the floodplain earn less than 60 percent of the New York City Area Median Income.

FEMA Maps Fall Short

Despite the expanded coverage of FEMA’s new maps, some critics say they actually don’t go far enough.

In April, Natural Resources Defense Council released a report stating that the new FEMA maps are already based on outdated data that does not take into account future effects of climate change, including sea level rise that has occurred in the last 10 years.

In the summer of 2012, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which requires FEMA to update maps while taking into account the “best available science regarding future changes in sea levels, precipitation, and intensity of hurricanes.” But because the New York City region’s FEMA maps have been underway since 2010, they are exempt from the law.

In addition, NRDC found FEMA’s computer models were not calibrated against data from Hurricane Sandy. As a result “the new 100-year flood zone mapped by FEMA is significantly smaller than the area at risk of flooding assuming 3 feet of sea level rise or the surge from a Category 3 hurricane.” By comparison, Sandy was barely a Category 1 storm.

Click for a larger version. Graphic via NRDC.

“As a result, [FEMA maps] continue to underestimate the people, buildings and critical infrastructure at risk from flooding during future storms” states NRDC.

Investment and Reforms Needed

Flooding in downtown Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Patrick McFall via Creative Commons.

With more than $129 billion worth of property now officially at-risk from flooding, Stringer concludes that the City must move forward with “the necessary investments to protect our homes, our businesses and our neighborhoods from the future effects of climate change.”

These investments include surge barriers, artificial reefs, dunes, jetties, living shorelines, and floodwalls, which “have the potential to transform the City’s topography and protect our coastal areas.”

However, FEMA’s current mapping process does not take into account resiliency efforts, even though these enhancements “are proven to help stem the effects of localized flooding and substantially lower flood risk.” That means New Yorkers could continue to pay high flood insurance rates even though the risk of flooding has gone down.

“FEMA should be required to regularly review the efficacy of implemented resiliency measures on a regional basis, with an eye toward reducing premiums for homeowners in region’s that have chosen to invest in fortifying their shorelines,” states the report.

With Sandy’s historic impact still being felt two years later, it’s clear that effective preparation for the next storm—and effective protection of citizens—will require coordination and collaboration at all levels of government.

Map of the Week: Know Your Zone

In contrast to the Pacific Ocean, which has been a veritable assembly line for storms this year, the Atlantic has had a relatively quiet hurricane season.

We’ve seen just three named storms, none of which have reached “major” hurricane status. There’s actually one struggling northward right now —Hurricane Cristobal—which has brought some dangerous riptides, but little in the way of other weather.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Marie is currently churning up the Pacific, gobbling up smaller storms and producing “epic,” surf-board-breaking waves. On average, the left coast generally sees 15.4 storms per hurricane season (which runs through the end of November), with 3.9 major hurricanes. This year, all bets are off: there have already been 13 storms and 5 major hurricanes…and we’ve still got three months to go.

All that being said, New Yorkers (and all of our Atlantic Coast brethren) would be wise to remember that we’re only halfway through our hurricane season, too. In fact, we are actually most vulnerable between now and October—one only need to remember Hurricane Sandy to know that’s true.

Know Your Zone

This year, the New York City Office of Emergency Management launched an awareness cam­paign called “Know Your Zone” to encour­age New York­ers to find out whether they live in one of the city’s six evac­u­a­tion zones. Almost three million New Yorkers do.

Screenshot of Know Your Zone map.
Screenshot of Know Your Zone map.

The map is visually pleasing, if a bit retro, and incredibly easy to use: just type in an address to see the zone (and the location of the nearest evacuation center). The website contains tips on developing a plan and ways to stay informed, and even has downloadable “badges” to use on websites and a hashtag for social media (#knowyourzone).

Even if you think you know your zone, it’s worth a second look. Last year the City changed the hurricane evacuation zones from A, B, and C, to zones 1 through 6 (with zone 1 being the most likely to flood). The increased number of zones make evacuation more accurate, meaning the city is less likely to over- or under-evacuate areas.

The new zones also incorporate a new storm surge model from the National Weather Service, topographic data, and information from actual events such as Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy.

What’s your zone? Do you have an evacuation plan?


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.


Map of the Week: Mixing Electricity & Water In NYC

This past Wednesday, 13.57 inches of rain fell on Long Island in a 24-hour period, setting a new record for the state of New York. Cars were submerged, roads were washed out, and train stations inundated. In all, Long Island received more rainfall in one day than would normally fall in the entire summer season.

If it feels like these kinds of storms are happening more frequently, that’s because they are. Since the late 1950s, the Northeast has experienced a 71 percent increase in “very heavy precipitation.” Scientists have attributed this in part to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures.

A map showing observed change in Very Heavy Precipitation since the 1950s. Via U.S. Global Change Research Program
A map showing observed change in Very Heavy Precipitation since the 1950s. Via U.S. Global Change Research Program

And as it turns out, it’s not just our cars and our train stations that we should be worried about. Much of our energy infrastructure is also situated along coasts and shores, making them vulnerable to rising sea levels, storm surges, and flash flooding.

When Energy and Water Mix

The U.S. Energy Information Agency recently released a new mapping tool that shows how our energy infrastructure—think natural gas facilities, nuclear power plants, electricity stations—might be affected by hurricanes, heavy rains, overflowing rivers, and other flood events.

The map show areas that have a 1% (aqua) and 0.2% (orange) annual chance of flooding (a 1-in-100 and 1-in-500 chance, respectively), and overlays it with the location of our country’s energy infrastructure. To determine if a specific area is vulnerable, users can input an address, town, or county name and see street-level results. In fact, you must zoom in to street level view to really see the details.

Even a cursory look at this tool will confirm what you’re probably already thinking: a lot of our infrastructure is already at risk, especially in New York City.

The development of this tool was spurred by a request from New York City after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the East Coast, causing an estimated $65 billion in damage and extended blackouts in downtown Manhattan. The thinking is that the more data we have, the better decisions we can make in planning and in responding to emergencies.

In the image at the top of this post, you’ll see an area of Queens, the Bronx, and Randall’s Island with multiple power plants (we count at least seven, plus two petroleum terminals) at risk.

Here’s another shot, this time showing massive flooding in Red Hook and along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn:

Flooding in areas of Brooklyn, including Red Hook and Gowanus. Via US Energy Information Agency

Time to start battening down the hatches, NYC.


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.

Queens Residents Hope Sewer Upgrades Will Reduce Flooding

A flood-plagued section of Far Rockaway, Queens will finally dry out this summer thanks to a $22 million sewer and water main upgrade conducted by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.

The infrastructure project will add storm sewers and catch basins to select streets, and replace more than a mile of existing sanitary sewers—a slew of improvements that residents feel are long overdue.

Frequent Flooding

Streets that will be upgraded. Image via NYC DEP.

The network of streets, situated in the northwest corner of Far Rockaway at the end of Mott Basin, has been experiencing severe flooding for at least a year.

The floodwaters are believed to be overflow from the sewer and nearby Jamaica Bay. Some residents claim the issue has been an ongoing one since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and exacerbated by alterations to Battery Road.

Charles Burkhead, who has lived on Pinson Street in Far Rockaway for 10 years, said that previous DEP solutions, including pumping, have not been successful. “My yard is full of water. The sidewalk is full of water which freezes up and turns to ice [during the winter months]. The street has large pot holes under the water which causes cars to get stuck,” he told The Wave.

Other residents have begun referring to the floodwaters in jest as “Lake Pinson.” But what was at first a nuisance is now a full-fledged safety hazard: ambulances and school buses struggle to cross flooded streets, and the standing water has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Inadequate Infrastructure

Photo credit: NYC DEP
Photo credit: NYC DEP

According to the DEP, most of the streets in Far Rockaway are not currently equipped with the proper drainage infrastructure to handle the amount of water and runoff they currently receive.

“Many of the streets in this neighborhood were privately built, and either have inadequate drainage or no storm sewers at all,” said DDC Commissioner Dr. Feniosky Peña-Mora in a press release.

The upgrades slated for this summer will include the installation of side-by-side 9-foot by 4-foot storm water sewers. While the roadway is opened, the City will also replace more than a mile of distribution water mains. DEP Spokesperson Edward Timbers told NYER, “The new storm sewers, including the side-by-side barrel lines, will help to reduce flooding. And the new sanitary lines will reduce backups.”

Part of a Larger Plan

Photo credit: NYC DEP
Photo credit: NYC DEP

According to Timbers, the work in Far Rockaway this summer, slated to be finished in 2016, is just one of many projects that were drawn up as part of an area-wide drainage plan for the Rockaways.

Indeed, sewer and storm water improvements in southeast Queens are one of the goals are outlined in the DEP’s Strategy 2011-2014 document, which states that the City will:

Build out and upgrade the sewer network in southeast Queens, Staten Island, and other neighborhoods that need additional capacity. A robust sewer expansion and replacement program is essential to protecting public health and improving the ecology of New York Harbor.

DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd noted in a statement: “We are committed to building out and upgrading the City’s sewer and water infrastructure and over the next 10 years we are planning for more than $700 million worth of similar projects throughout Queens.”

Chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection Donovan Richards praised the current project. “This $22 million sewer and water main upgrade means residents will no longer spend days marooned by dirty water after it rains,” he said. “This is just one of the many projects slated for our district, and I am proud to continue our partnership as we make New York City more resilient.”

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]