Five years since Superstorm Sandy

It is hard to tell from walking around waterside neighborhoods in New York if the city as a whole is better prepared for a Sandy-like storm five years later to the day. In particularly vulnerable neighborhoods like the Rockaways, beach sand has been restored and the brittle wooden boardwalk, which broke under the force of flooding from Sandy, has been rebuilt in concrete as a flood resiliency measure. On Staten Island’s east shore, an area decimated by flooding five years ago that remains extremely vulnerable, residents have begun a managed retreat from water. However, the city has a lot of work ahead to adequately protect lives and property from flooding and in some cases contradicts resiliency measures by building new and rebuilding along vulnerable waterfronts.

 

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Contradictions between resiliency efforts and new development are clear in neighborhoods like the Financial District, which was among the hardest hit by Sandy flooding. There are encouraging signs, like the installation of flood barriers at entrances to the South Ferry and Whitehall Street subway stations and continued work on the beautiful and lush Battery Park, which forms the anchor of the “Big U.” Building owners have also provisioned for the installation of flood barriers to protect their property in anticipation of a storm. Yet, completion of the Big U is still years away and development along the East and Hudson Rivers, like the luxurious Seaport Residences continues apace, placing more lives and property potentially in harm’s way.

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Anchors for temporary flood walls installed in the Financial District

Little flood resiliency work has been done in the Gowanus neighborhood, which suffered severe flooding from the canal that gives it its name. Here the contradictions between flood mitigation efforts and growth are quite clear. Hundreds of new apartments welcomed residents in the last year between Carroll and 2nd Streets along the banks of the canal in advance of a potential rezoning that would bring thousands more. There are plans for flood gates to protect the area, but as a recent dnainfo.com article states, “Not Anytime Soon.”

In the days leading up to today, the five year anniversary of the storm, most articles that have been published on the topic assert that New York did not learn its lesson and continues to build residences in flood-prone areas. Indeed, owing to the enormity of the city’s waterfront (over 500 miles) and its incredible geographic and built diversity, there is no silver bullet for flooding concerns. Though in some cases new developments built to higher design standards and with waterfront esplanades, as required in places, can be contribute positively to New York’s resiliency efforts, work done so far can maybe best be described as patchwork. And like a fence or a dam, one weak link or crack can lead to inundation in spite of other efforts.

On the streets of a seemingly invincible city that welcomes and says goodbye to thousands of new residents every month, it can be hard to remember the havoc that Hurricane Sandy wrought. But, five years later, the NYC Subway system like dozens of NYCHA properties, is still recovering from the storm, causing severe disruptions to peoples’ lives. Hopefully, when the L Train shuts down in 2019, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of people every day, we remember why it is necessary.

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Map of NYC flood zones, graded from 1 to 6 (Source nyc.gov)

In Washington DC, the official position on climate change of the President, the head of the EPA and many members of congress is denial, which imperils not just New York but the entire world. Storms like Hurricane Sandy are almost certain to become more frequent. In low-lying neighborhoods like Howard Beach, Queens, flooding is a daily tidal occurrence. It is perhaps up to New Yorkers then to avoid contradicting resiliency efforts by having long memories and frank conversations about the dangers and realities of flooding, sea level rise and storms fueled by a warming planet. Indeed the Federal Government and its denialist senselessness will only make things worse and in many cases, the best intentions of City and State government like “Build it Back” have failed to make New York more resilient, continuing to let people live in harm’s way.

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