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.”
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.
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.
Like everyone else, I have spent the last two weeks trying to wrap my head around the results of the presidential elections.
Without a doubt, Donald Trump’s election is a huge setback for this country’s efforts to come to grips with our changing climate and threatened natural environment.
Among my colleagues at NYER, there is a range of political opinions, but we are clear on the primacy of science, and everyone’s need for a healthy environment. The vast majority of the scientific community has been sounding an alarm for years that if our planet is to support future generations, we have to change course now, especially when it comes to fossil fuels.
For the time being, this country’s incoming leadership refuses to acknowledge the profound importance, and compromised state, of our environment. In light of that, here are five things that I am personally taking to heart as we head into 2017.
To be clear, these are my opinions, based on what I’ve learned as a reporter and as a person.
I really hope you’ll send us your feedback. And we’ll do our very best to keep covering the environmental issues — like air and water quality, trash management & recycling, energy supply, and climate resiliency — that impact readers in the metro area.
1.) We are not alone — there is a global environmental movement
There is not enough media coverage of the fact that people of all backgrounds are engaged in important environmental work across the world. You can hear their voices and stories from organizations like Greenpeace International, and news outlets like Democracy Now, which reported directly from the U.N. climate talks in Morocco last week.
There are a myriad of important and useful ways we can support — and be a part of — the global environmental movement in the next year.
For starters, citizens of this country can contact incoming members of Congress, and the new administration, to voice their opinion on whether the U.S. should remain an active participant in the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, and its 2015 Paris Agreement.
“Will that accomplish anything?” a friend said to me the other day. Well, the alternative is that we remain silent as the Trump administration tries to pull the U.S. out of the global climate accords. Consider this: 48 nations — including Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Philippines — promised to “rapidly move to 100% renewable power” at the UN climate summit last week, the Guardian reported.
It’s worth noting that significant public resistance to the Keystone Pipeline paved the way for the Obama administration to squash it, and, yes, this battle may very well be fought again.
(There are more ideas on what we can do below.)
2.) The majority of the American people accept the reality of climate change, and want to address it.
According to a Gallup Poll earlier this year, 65 percent of Americans now say that increases in the earth’s temperature over the last century are primarily attributable to human activities, rather than natural causes.
This represents a “striking” 10-percentage-point increase in the past year and is four points above the previous high of 61 percent in 2007, Gallup reports.
64 percent of U.S. adults told Gallup they are worried a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming — the highest reading since 2008.
3.) The facts, and science, will have the last word.
According to an analysis released this month by the World Meteorological Organization, the planet just had its hottest five-year period on record, with 2015 claiming the title of hottest individual year, which will be beat by 2016.
“The effects of climate change have been consistently visible on the global scale since the 1980s,” the WMO reported, pointing to “rising global temperature, both over land and in the ocean; sea-level rise; and the widespread melting of ice. It has increased the risks of extreme events such as heatwaves, drought, record rainfall and damaging floods.”
The WMO singled out Superstorm Sandy as one of several “high-impact” global weather events whose likelihood was increased by climate change.
The October 29th, 2012 storm caused the deaths of 43 New York City residents and created $19 billion in economic damage in the five boroughs. Sandy had a ‘storm tide’ over 14 feet above Mean Low Water at the Battery. Fifty-one square miles of New York City flooded during the storm, 17 percent of the city’s total land mass.
4.) Local action is going to matter — a lot.
Some of this country’s most populous states — like California and New York — are moving ahead now to cut carbon emissions, and transform their energy supplies. How much will it matter? I heard a participant at the U.N. climate talks last week argue that local governments in the U.S. could accomplish half of our carbon reduction commitments, as per the Paris Agreement, without federal support.
The State’s long-term goal is to decrease total carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. The City of New York has similar goals, and says it is looking even further ahead to a 100 percent carbon free future, along with zero waste to landfills by 2030.
Undoubtedly, there are many hard questions to be asked about how, for example, the State is reconfiguring our energy markets, and whether New York City can get to a zero waste future. But, we are arguably on the road.
5.) Building an environmentally sustainable society will be a long, challenging process, but we already knew that.
Building a truly sustainable society — which is not a net drain on the planet — could take generations. That was true before November 8th, and remains so.
And as quixotic as it may seem, we know that it’s worth it. Every child — and every adult — deserves a fighting chance at a decent life, which will not be possible on a degraded planet.
How can we participate? Here are just a few suggestions that show the wide range of actions (personal, and as part of a group) that we can take:
call your senators and congresspeople and tell them what you think about retaining the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the Clean Power Plan.
support candidates at all levels of government who share your views on clean energy, waste reduction, and strong protections for air and water
better yet, run for public office yourself!
get involved with and/or donate funds to national environmental advocacy organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and 350.org; and local groups like Environmental Advocates of New York and the NY League of Conservation Voters.
talk with your friends, neighbors and co-workers about climate change, and share fact-based information
participate in community meetings with local officials about issues like cleaning up polluted waterways and climate resiliency planning. If you live in NYC, these meetings are often sponsored by your local community board
learn about ways to reduce energy and water use, and generate less trash at home
participate in a neighborhood clean-up day
talk with the children in your life about environmental issues
you tell us — what can people do?
Finally, here are some interesting thoughts from Randy Cohen, who used to write The Ethicist column for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. In November, 2008, a Texas woman wrote to Cohen for advice because her neighbors had decided to lease their land for gas drilling, and she was under pressure to join them.
“For environmental reasons, we strongly oppose this drilling,” the woman wrote on behalf of herself and her partner. She asked Cohen if holding out, while all her neighbors went ahead, was a futile, meaningless gesture.
Cohen responded, in part:
“It is understandable that you feel powerless in the face of community-wide sentiment…but you should not sign the lease…
To fail to resist what you see as injustice simply because you fear that you cannot win the fight assures the very defeat you dread.
If nothing else, this is a short term view. Political struggle is long. Even if you lose the first battle, you fight on, and by resisting from the outset, you shape the conditions of that struggle.
The most potent argument for your declining to sign what you regard as a devil’s bargain is this: It violates your own principles…Ethics concerns our actions, not just our arguments.”
And so this next chapter in our history begins. As this post was being finished, President Obama moved to prohibit any new oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, one of his last actions before leaving office.
Editor’s Note: The growing number of surfers—and new residents—in the Rockaways has attracted significant public attention. A recent New York Times article focuses on the conflict between residents (new and old) and surfers who both feel they have a claim to the area.
Underlying these developments is the sobering fact that the Rockaway Peninsula is one of the most vulnerable areas of New York City relative to climate change. FEMA’s recently revised 100-year flood maps now include virtually the entire peninsula and its 100,000-plus residents. During Superstorm Sandy, sections of the Rockaways experienced 14-foot storm surges.
NYER contributor Jason Leahey spent some time exploring the Rockaways this summer and this is what he saw.
According to Jeff Anthony, the intersection of Beach 67th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard used to be, “just stray dogs and dune grass and garbage.” Then thousands of townhouses, in shades of cream and wash-worn blue, appeared. Then Superstorm Sandy hit land.
And today, the Rockaways are home to a booming surf scene.
Anthony, an instructor for Skudin Surf, one of a handful of schools that operate on the beach, grew up on this strip of sand crimped between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic. Standing on his boogie board by age seven, he grew into a member of a small but dedicated local surf scene. The Rockaways were different then. More off-the-map. Miles of beach were completely closed.
Around fifteen years ago, “train surfers” who lived across the city began hopping the A line with their boards and hitting the beach in the Rockaways.
Then, three years ago, Sandy put the Rockaways on a heap of New Yorkers’ personal maps of the city. And they started coming, too.
Surge in Surfers
The surf schools, spread beneath logoed shade canopies along the sand from 67th to 69th Streets, do significant business. On a Wednesday afternoon in August, Anthony and two other instructors wrapped up a class of six- to twelve-year-olds by calling them into a huddle, whispering words of encouragement, and leading them as they raised their hands in the air and cheered. The kids scampered.
Thirty minutes later, the men were leading a class of teenagers from a local religious camp, guiding them through their stretches, delivering advice: “Definitely drop into that second wave; you need to lean up and back,” and quizzing them on the effects of the sun’s heat on water. “If you’re a surfer, you also have to be a meteorologist,” Anthony stated. A few yards down the beach in each direction, other instructors taught individuals, pairs, groups of three.
Lauren Monte, a Brooklynite, moved here ten years ago. Her seven- and twelve-year-olds are spending their second summer surfing. She told how the schools lead beach cleanups, how they pooled together money to buy a board for a kid who couldn’t afford one, and how they work with groups of people with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. “It’s a very giving community,” she said.
These days, there are surf instructors who have moved here from South Africa, Germany, and Hawaii. There are surfers who live in Puerto Rico or Costa Rica the rest of the year but come to the Rockaways to live and surf in the summer.
Now, on any decent summer Saturday, anywhere from fifty to 100 surfers cram into the water from 67th to 69th, one of the two surf zones approved by the Parks Department (the other is at 88th Street). Some of these surfers are the old hands, some are beginners with a few local lessons under their belts, some are utter novices. What had been a small community of the experienced has turned, since Sandy, into a major weekend scene.
“It’s gotten to the point,” Anthony said, describing the sheer number of New Yorkers paddling out, “where it’s almost dangerous.”
But it’s also a part of a local boon.
A Local Boon
When you get off the 67th Street A stop, the first thing you encounter is a miniature strip mall: one short block of uniform white and blue architecture that starts with an Assemblyman’s office, ends in a Thai restaurant, and feels as crisp and clean as a pair of fresh bed sheets.
Across the street, the townhouses are part of Arverne by the Sea, a 2,300-home oceanfront community that withstood Sandy’s onslaught and continues to grow. A full city block is now framed in forest-green construction walls, the buckets of backhoes rearing up into view, swiveling, dumping their loads of dirt.
New businesses and restaurants have opened as well. The boardwalk is being rebuilt. Local New York State Assembly members have begun lobbying the City to expand the surf zones, citing the economic possibilities.
“After Sandy, people came and started patronizing the beach,” Anthony said. “Patronizing the beach led to the concessions turning into these new areas with great new food instead of just fries and burgers. There are restaurants, a nightlife. I can go out with my girlfriend now and I don’t have to just get bar food. I can get Uzbecki food; I can get Thai food; I can get great American gastropub food.” Uncle Louie G’s, the Italian ice mainstay of Brooklyn, recently opened a new store on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and 92nd.
Change Brings Conflict
This change hasn’t been without conflict. The surfers, organized into the Rockaway Beach Surfers Association, want an expanded surfing area to keep the students safe and enable the scene to keep growing. Many Arverne residents are fighting that effort because they want to swim in the ocean right in front of their homes—the same stretch of water in which the surf schools operate—but are currently forbidden to because of a lack of City personnel for lifeguarding.
And then there are the long-term residents, including some from the Sandy-devastated southwest tip of the peninsula, who are also unhappy with all the new attention and attractions.
Seen in transition like this, gentrification inevitably springs to mind. But developers and entrepreneurs didn’t demolish the old boardwalk or call attention to the overlooked possibility of a New York life lived in a beach town. Climate change did.
In 2015, the Rockaways have been discovered by a new generation of New Yorkers who, not that long ago, watched sections of it drown and burn on the news. They take the A train out and surf and eat and spend their money in the community. NY1 named Rockaway Beach the best beach of the year. Unless the next big storm dictates otherwise, the growth does not look like it will stop any time soon, and the swelling popularity of a once-secret surfing spot does not either.
“Sandy made this new surfing culture,” Anthony said, “where everybody from Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan wants to come and give it a try. I say bring ‘em. Everything’s coming. It’s gonna bring better roads, a better boardwalk. I’ll take that change any day.”
In the hours leading up to last night’s Republican presidential debate, Governor Jerry Brown of California tweeted out the following question to prospective candidates: What is your plan to deal with the threat of climate change?
Despite the intransigence of the Republican Party on the issue of climate change, the results of two surveys released in the last few days offer a glimmer of hope about where the national conversation on climate change may be going.
It’s not a moment too soon.
Federal inaction on climate change for the last quarter century has become almost surreal. News reports from the West, where devastating drought and historic wildfires are afflicting several states, point to a long-term crisis with no solution in sight. Governor Brown has drawn a direct line between California’s 4-year drought and climate change.
Why does this matter for New Yorkers? Because we won’t be able to go it alone on climate change even if we want to. No matter how much we cut back on carbon emissions, our area sea levels and weather patterns will be increasingly impacted by the collective amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
The wildfires this summer in California and other states are a case in point. One of the concerns -beyond the local devastation they are causing- is that they are releasing significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Consider this analysis published in yesterday’s Washington Post:
“Before 2000, there is no year on record with more than eight million acres burned across the U.S., according to figures going back to 1983 provided by the National Interagency Fire Center…
Since 2000, however, there have been six years with more than eight million acres burned, and three with over 9 million burned. And 2015, with nearly six million acres burned already — well above the ten year average for this time of the year — could potentially join this list….
It is becoming almost trite to state that this has something to do with climate change. Wildfire risks are strongly influenced by local climatic factors which, in turn, are trending because of changes to the global climate. Heat and dryness favor wildfires — that’s why this year has fire-watchers so concerned, because western drought has been so widespread.”
Even more interesting, a July, 2015 survey of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina indicates that there may be broader support than previously imagined for a pro-active national response to climate change.
The survey was commissioned by the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund and the League of Conservation Voters, and carried out by American Viewpoint, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia.
The survey found the following:
1.) The Republican primary electorate in New Hampshire and South Carolina is fairly conservative, yet they still show support for pro-environment policies.
2.) Republican primary voters want to expand the development of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar; and they have mixed views about “traditional” energy sources, such as coal and oil.
Almost three-quarters of Republicans polled -both in New Hampshire and South Carolina- want the U.S. to increase its use of renewable energy.
And, almost three-quarters (72 percent) of New Hampshire Republican primary voters and 68 percent of South Carolina voters say a clean energy plan is important to them when deciding which presidential candidate to support.
3.) There are several clean energy policies that have broad appeal to Republican primary voters.
These proposals all scored well (ranging from a high of 77 percent to a low of 46 percent approving) with Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina:
eliminating corporate tax loopholes for oil companies as part of reducing taxes for all Americans;
modernizing and upgrading power lines to minimize energy loss;
improving energy efficiency in homes, offices, businesses, etc.;
expanding access to job training for clean energy jobs; and
providing tax incentives for investment in new energy technologies like solar panels and hybrid or electric cars.
Smaller groups of Republican voters were surveyed about setting national targets for renewable energy use, and there was surprising support for this idea as well.
The goal that one-third of all U.S. energy should come from renewable sources by 2030 had the support of almost half of Republicans surveyed in New Hampshire and South Carolina; as did the even higher target of going 50 percent renewable by 2030.
4.) Majorities of Republican primary voters believe in climate change.
In New Hampshire, 51 percent of Republican primary voters said there is solid evidence that climate change is happening; while 48 percent of South Carolina voters agreed with the same statement.
It is worth noting that surveyors did not specifically refer to climate change as “man-made” when they spoke with voters.
5.) There is significant support among Republican primary voters for policies to address carbon pollution.
Nearly 60 percent of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina favored placing limits on carbon pollution.
Surprisingly, even a majority of Republicans in both states supported the EPA proposal to set strict carbon dioxide limits on existing coal-fired power plants (50 percent in New Hampshire and 52 percent in South Carolina).
There is even greater support for action at the state level. Three-quarters of Republican primary voters in both states favored their state “developing its own plan to reduce carbon pollution and increase the use of clean energy and energy efficiency.”
What makes these survey responses so powerful is that they show a potential way forward for U.S. public policy on climate change. Read more here about the survey’s results and methodology.
Will we ever address climate change at the national level?
In the face of federal inaction, New York State and City have moved ahead on both climate change mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (preparing for the impacts of more carbon in the atmosphere).
One reason we may never have federal action on climate change – it has long been argued- is that the American electorate is simply too divided about government’s role in addressing the issue.
The prevailing wisdom has been that a sizable proportion of U.S. voters, especially those not living on the “more progressive” East and West coasts, are ambivalent about concerted government action on climate change, such as establishing a carbon tax or subsidies for renewable energy development.
Republican voters, it is said, are especially reactionary on the topic. After all, they have elected numerous representatives to Congress (and other political offices) who even question whether climate change is real.
But the results of last month’s survey begin to call assertions about American public opinion into question. At the very least, people’s minds may be shifting as Americans suffer through catastrophic storms, historic flooding, devastating droughts and wildfires.
The real question is this: how prepared are any of the presidential candidates -Republican or otherwise- to fight for their constituents’ views on climate change?
While Hurricane Sandy is just a memory for many New Yorkers, thousands of the city’s public housing residents are still living with temporary boilers, closed playgrounds, mold, and other damage to their buildings, apartments and outdoor spaces caused by the historic storm.
Real help is supposed to be on the way from the federal government, but now there are concerns about more delays and even the assuredness of the repair dollars themselves.
On March 31st, the City announced the allocation of approximately $3 billion in federal funding -the largest FEMA grant in the history of the agency- to repair and protect at least 33 New York City public housing developments that sustained severe damage during Sandy.
The FEMA funds are supposed to go to 14 developments in Manhattan, 12 in Brooklyn, and 7 in Queens. Half of the funds are designated for repairs, while the other half will be aimed at implementing resiliency measures to better protect developments from future storms. This includes new construction of elevated boilers, installation of flood barrier systems, and acquisition of stand-by generators.
But a New York City Council oversight hearing yesterday found that “there is no clear timeline to begin construction and upgrades, and FEMA funding agreements remain unsigned.”
“It is evident…that NYCHA has no timeline or scope of work for upgrading its Sandy-impacted developments,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, chair of the public housing committee, in a statement after yesterday’s hearing. “NYCHA has only received $3.5 million from FEMA and it is not clear when it will receive the rest of the $3 billion grant it was promised.”
“There are still too many unanswered questions. I worry that months and years will go by and tenants will not see improvements,” Torres said.
Pushing for “Transparency and Accountability”
Torres said he would “continue to push NYCHA to articulate how it will ensure transparency and accountability to residents across the city.”
Yesterday’s hearing was chaired by the Council’s committees on public housing and recovery & resiliency. According to a statement released by both committees, the origin of the FEMA funding for the NYCHA repairs is now also in question.
“The bulk” of the $3 billion FEMA grant will actually be coming from insurance companies, maintained Torres and recovery & resiliency committee chair Mark Treyger, “further muddying how the money will be delivered to NYCHA.”
Council members Torres and Treyger also stated that they requested copies of the FEMA-approved project worksheets and a spending plan for the funds from NYCHA “several weeks ago.” NYCHA has responded that it must complete several procedural steps before the worksheets are finalized, the Council members reported.
Major Endeavor for a Struggling Agency
Both Council members Torres and Treyger say they question whether NYCHA has the capacity and workforce necessary “to carry out these historic levels of repairs and upgrades.” The agency is consistently underfunded, and has been plagued by reports of internal dysfunction.
According to the Council, NYCHA Executive Vice President for Capital Projects, Raymond Ribeiro, testified yesterday that construction will take place at 35 developments. Some of the projects will begin this summer, and will take between a year and a half to 3 years to complete, depending on the scope of the work.
Approximately 10,000 construction jobs will be created by the upgrades, Ribeiro noted. Council members and NYCHA tenant leaders say they will be watching closely to see how many residents obtain these jobs.
According to the City, the FEMA grant is subject to NYCHA’s recently negotiated Project Labor Agreement with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, as well as its affiliated unions – which gives NYCHA residents access to union jobs and training.
Council members and tenant leaders will also be tracking NYCHA’s development of specific timelines for work at each of the 35 developments, and the agency’s community engagement process as it carries out the upgrades.
“We want to ensure that this investment is appropriately monitored…and that public housing residents benefit from this funding,” said Reginald Bowman, President of the City-Wide Council of Presidents, which represents NYCHA residents. “The first priority must be an assessment and plan by engineers and architects that specialize in…these types of projects,” Bowman said.
Losing Time and Money
Time is of the essence. NYCHA is reportedly spending nearly $467,000 a month to rent the temporary boilers that are still in use at impacted developments across the city.
And the city’s public housing stock is just as physically vulnerable today as it was before Sandy struck in 2012. Several major NYCHA developments lie in the city’s greatly expanded flood zones.
“Residents have serious questions regarding when work will finally begin…and when their lives will finally return to normal after hearing about this historic $3 billion [federal] commitment…Progress must be made on behalf of those families,” said Council Member Treyger.
The History Project’s website is worth exploring. It has a treasure trove of photographs about one of New York City’s most famous -and distinctive- communities.
“I grew up near Coney Island Creek,” says Denson in his film. “And [I] began photographing it in the 60’s when the waterway was at its lowest point, polluted and neglected, but I always knew there was something special about the creek and that it would survive.”
The 18 minute video is part of a longer documentary film project that Denson is producing.
A Point of Vulnerability
One of the things that Denson discusses in his film is a possible City plan to construct a tidal barrier across the mouth of the two-mile long Creek.
Rising sea levels pose a mounting risk to the area’s residents. Indeed, the City has replaced 670,000 cubic yards of sand on Coney Island’s beaches to protect the coastline.
But some of the worst flooding that hit Coney Island (and Gravesend) during Superstorm Sandy came from the Creek, not the ocean. “Low edges and topography contributed to “backdoor” flooding that caused enormous damage,” says the City.
In response, the City’s Economic Development Corporation and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency have launched a feasibility study to examine a possible tidal barrier and other hydrological strategies. The core objective is to prevent and mitigate upland flooding and storm surges around Coney Island Creek as sea levels rise.
But the City says other goals can be accomplished at the same time:
Improve waterfront open space
Enhance water quality and aquatic habitat
Strengthen connections between neighborhoods
Support economic development in surrounding areas
Denson is dubious about the City’s idea. He says that constructing a tidal barrier will “most likely turn the waterway into a toxic cesspool and do little to prevent flooding.”
The Creek’s water quality has been heavily impacted by historic industrial pollution and ongoing releases of raw sewage during rain events. The City says a planned upgrade to the sewage pumping station at Avenue V will drastically reduce raw sewage releases – from almost 300 million gallons per year to less than 50 million gallons.
Another issue is the Creek’s natural design. The width of the Creek ranges from 900 feet at the mouth to 150 feet at the head (east side). The tidal water that enters the Creek twice a day is unable to adequately flush it, says the City.
What does Denson think should happen? Make Coney Island Creek a “restored wetland that prevents flooding,” he argues.
Do you live near Coney Island Creek? The City is requesting input from community members about the future of the Creek. Read more about the feasibility study here. Contact the City with your comments and questions here.