Six years ago today, Superstorm Sandy hit New York City. Streets were flooded, buildings were destroyed, some $19 billion in damage occurred, and 43 people lost their lives. In the Seaport District, water levels reached four feet high. Six years after the city announced that it would build a U-shaped wall designed to protect it from future natural disasters, the plan still has not been carried out.
On Thursday, at a press conference on Pier 16, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer called for a more comprehensive plan to protect against future storms and sea-level rise.
In many parts of the city, the so-called “Big U” project hasn’t been fully funded, though promises have been issued by the municipal, state and federal governments. The Lower East Side has received $338 million in federal funding in addition to $422 million committed by the city. But the Financial District and neighboring parts of Lower Manhattan have been left vulnerable, without the proper financing and planning. Some elected officials believe the inaction is a direct result of governmental failures to come together and move toward a sustainable solution.
City Council member Margaret S. Chin and other members of the Seaport community are pushing for action. Chin, whose district includes the Seaport and the Lower East Side, said the Sandy anniversary should serve as ”a wake-up call about how far we have yet to go in terms of protecting our homes, small businesses, and infrastructure from the next big storm that we know will come.”
About two weeks ago, the city proposed a revision of its East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, which had called for a series of walls, berms, levees and parkland running from East 25th Street to Montgomery Street. The new plan, which doubles the cost of the project, moves flood barriers closer to the water in order to protect portions of East River Park and would speed construction by avoiding the need to partially close FDR Drive, Crain’s reported.
Critics say that $1.4 billion plan is more conducive for the Lower East Side and the East Village. Andrew Goldston, the press secretary for Gale Brewer, said there is still no comprehensive plan to protect Lower Manhattan. “The notion that you go higher and make these high walls and cut off access to the waterfront in some locations, but not others–that doesn’t really do anything. Surges will still come in,” he said. “It’s just not practical to build 10-foot walls around the city of Manhattan.”
Malcolm Bowman, a Stony Brook professor who is chair of a Storm Surge Working Group formed by the non-profit National Institute For Coastal & Harbor Infrastructure, said the group was calling for a “hybrid regional approach” to protect against two separate threats. “One-size-fits-all, impossibly high seawalls cannot realistically hope to defend the 1,000-mile shoreline against the combined threats of storm surges and future sea level rise.”
Bowman and his associates have proposed a two-part system. First, they suggest a sea gate system for New York Harbor that will close during extreme high tides and storms. It should be built as far away from densely developed areas as possible, the group says, and stay open during normal weather conditions, closing only when necessary. This would prevent the surges from affecting the land, without interfering with the normal tide circulation and river discharge that maintains the ecology of the water. Without it, they say, coastal communities in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, Manhattan and New Jersey are left without a solution.
Secondly, the group suggests local, land-based, low-profile seawalls to protect the city from rising sea levels. They say these are more favorable than the high-perimeter walls currently outlined in city plans, largely because they will not interfere with waterfront access. The walls, they say, would combat rising sea levels for the next 100 years.
In July, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed six potential ways to prevent another disaster along the lines of Sandy, one of which was a 5-mile sea barrier from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to Breezy Point in Queens that would keep storm surges from entering New York Harbor and adjacent bodies of water. But critics said it could change fish migration patterns and could reduce the tide’s dilution of industrial pollutants.
Jonathan Goldstick– senior director of the Waterfront and Marine Group at Langan, a consulting company that specializes in environmental engineering– says the pricing of the sea gate system is still an issue. “The Storm Surge Working Group has not put forth a comprehensive regional plan, and estimates for the construction cost of the storm gate at the outer harbor have been all over the map,” he said. “The [United States Army Corps of Engineers] is now using a number of $140 billion. This seems extremely high to us. We understand that part of the reason for the very high construction cost estimate is that the Corps is assuming an extremely long construction period, so they are applying decades of escalation due to inflation.”
Goldstick compared the project to a very open barrier in the Mississippi River, near New Orleans. That project, set forth by a USACE task force, estimated a cost of $1.6 to $2.6 billion for a half mile. Using this as a model, he suggested that New York’s budget would be roughly $16 to $26 billion, with yearly operating and maintenance costs of $80 million. “We have been very hesitant to supply construction cost estimates on large infrastructure for which a basic concept has not yet been agreed upon, and we don’t understand very well what the Corps is pricing either,” Goldstick says.
“We want to make sure this city and the powers that be are aware that work needs to be done now,” Council Member Chin said. She, alongside Brewer and Bowman, support the hybrid regional plan set forth by the Storm Surge Working Group, though Goldston and Goldstick indicate it has been met with some opposition.
Roland Lewis, President of the Waterfront Alliance, agreed with Chin. “We are behind the eight ball,” he said. “We need to do work now, and work diligently.” But, as it stands now, there is still no solution for the Financial District.