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Climate change in Trump’s NYC: How at-risk neighborhoods are combating rising sea levels

NYC’s Trump-supporting enclaves are also the neighborhoods at the greatest risk of being inundated by rising sea levels

Over the past four years, both the city and federal government have been building a system of defenses along New York City’s coastline to address the looming threat of rising sea levels. Entire neighborhoods are being demolished to create new flood-zone buffers; miles of sand levees and concrete barriers have been constructed along the coast; hundreds of homes have been lifted up above flood levels; and enormous stone barricades have been built out into the sea.

Ironically, most of these efforts in the city’s fight against global warming are taking place in the same neighborhoods that voted for Donald Trump, a man who once described climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese.

It is remarkable how closely the map of New York City’s Trump supporters resembles the map of which New York neighborhoods suffered the worst damage from Hurricane Sandy, and the map of communities that are at the greatest risk of being inundated by rising sea levels. These areas include the entire east coast of Staten Island, the western half of the Rockaways, and many of the coastal communities around Jamaica Bay, and range from Sea Gate in Coney Island to Broad Channel, Hamilton Beach and Breezy Point in Queens, and New Dorp Beach, Ocean Breeze and Oakwood Beach in Staten Island.

All of these Republican strongholds were devastated by Hurricane Sandy, and are now greatly benefiting from government assistance in their efforts to create new defenses against climate change.

Red represents the percentage of votes Donald Trump received in each NYC election district. Darker red means more votes.
Screen shot via DNAInfo

The inauguration of Donald Trump, however, has cast a shadow of uncertainty over the federal government’s plans to confront the consequences of global warming. In his first week as president, Trump has followed through on his threats to hobble environmental protections and climate change mitigation, and has so far nominated the CEO of Exxon-Mobil as his secretary of state, and put a contract freeze and media gag on the Environmental Protection Agency. (Employees of that agency have also told the press that they were asked to remove their climate change webpage, which, as of press time, is still online.)

Trump’s administration has also removed any mention of climate change from the White House website. And this week, Trump signed memorandums directing government departments to loosen environmental regulations and pursue the Dakota Access pipeline, while describing environmentalism as “out of control” to a roomful of auto manufacturing executives. What his presidency will mean for the hope of creating a comprehensive coastal protection plan in New York City is anyone’s guess.

Over the recent inauguration weekend, a walk around several of the waterfront communities in question revealed that residents were fully engaged in a number of different government programs designed to help protect their communities against the early stages of sea level rise.

In total, Trump received just 18.4 percent of the votes in New York City. On the west side of Broad Channel Island, where 68.5 percent of the voters went for Trump, flags and posters for his campaign were proudly displayed on inauguration day, although banners for the city’s Build It Back program were far more common. Workers here were out in full force, installing new bulkheads and raising street levels as part of a $28 million city project to protect the community from increased flooding.

In Breezy Point, a gated community at the western tip of the Rockaway peninsula where 74.25 percent of the vote went to Trump, even more Build It Back homes were being raised up above flood levels. This city-wide program recently announced it would need to use an additional $500 million of taxpayer funds to help repair homes damaged by Sandy, increasing the program’s total budget to $2.7 billion, for the benefit of approximately 11,000 private homeowners. Both Broad Channel and Breezy Point are predicted to be mostly underwater by 2100, when global warming is expected to raise sea levels in New York by up to 75 inches.

Shades of blue represent the areas that will may be inundated by sea level rise, as global temperatures increase
Screen shot via Climate Central

This past Saturday, as millions of protesters around the globe took part in Women’s Marches, a small handful of New York residents could be seen strolling along the newly-fortified coast of Sea Gate, a gated community at the western tip of Coney Island. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently completed a $25 million project here, creating a system of four enormous T-Groin breakwaters off the coast of Brooklyn.

Despite this, Sea Gate remains one of the most at-risk and unprotected neighborhoods in New York City, and many homes here are still fronted by nothing more than a corroded sea wall or a chain link fence along a pile of rocky debris. This majority-Republican neighborhood, where Trump received 63.7 percent of the vote, will no doubt experience enormous damage in future storms, as Coney Island is slowly inundated by the sea.

“Even locals who believe climate change is real have a hard time grasping that their city will almost certainly be flooded beyond recognition,” wrote Andrew Rice in New York. “If sea-level rise reaches 2.5 feet, the floodplain for a hundred-year storm will expand to nearly a quarter of the city…. that could happen by 2050.”

Although the current president may deny the impending disasters that climate change will create, his supporters in New York City are living on the front lines of sea level rise, and they are actively preparing for a future shaped by global warming.

Broad Channel Island, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, is situated at the frontlines of climate change in New York City, surrounded by the rising waters of Jamaica Bay.

To deal with increased flooding, and future floods, an extensive project is raising street levels along the western edge of the community.

The street here will eventually be level with the sidewalk, in a design borrowed from the Netherlands.

This city-sponsored project has torn up sidewalks and upturned daily life for local residents, who must enter their homes via wooden walkways.

Many of the homes on Broad Channel Island were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, yet flags, posters, and bumper stickers for Donald Trump, who has denied the existence of climate change, are a common sight.

In Breezy Point, a private gated community in the Rockaways, many homeowners have benefited from the city’s $2.7 billion Build it Back project.

Numerous Build It Back homes are now being constructed or raised up above flood levels throughout the community.

The change to the landscape is remarkable, as smaller bungalows are replaced with enormous multi-story structures built to withstand the next major storm.

The remaining bungalows that have not benefited from the city’s funding are surrounded by newer, larger homes. Much of this community, built on a sandy peninsula of land, is predicted to be submerged as sea levels continue to rise.

Empty lots and ruined home foundations still dot the landscape, a reminder of Hurricane Sandy, when the ocean destroyed large sections of the neighborhood.

In Sea Gate, a private gated community along Coney Island’s western end, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has shored up part of the coast with new rocks and pumped-in sand.

Around the bend from the repaired shoreline, however, the coast remains unprotected. A mound of rubble and a chain link fence are all that keep the ocean away from the homes here.

Further west along Sea Gate’s coast, a debris-strewn beach, corroded sea walls, and plywood barriers offer even less protection from the next big storm.

The Army Corps has created a system of T-Groins along the southern edge of Sea Gate, “each one the size of a football field,” according to the Brooklyn Eagle.

These structures are intended to “minimize sand erosion and reduce damage” during future storms.

From the T-Groin, there’s a view of the homes of Sea Gate, most of which are poorly protected from the rising ocean by crumbling or missing sea walls. The future of this community in the face of sea level rise is highly questionable.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

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