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In Queens, chronic flooding and sea-level rise go hand in hand

As “sunny-day flooding” increases in the communities near Jamaica Bay, residents seek solutions

If you’d like to get a good picture of New York City’s struggle against sea level rise, head to Hamilton Beach and stand in the middle of the road.

Every month during the highest tides, the streets of this small Queens community are flooded by the waters of Jamaica Bay. At first, as the saltwater starts to trickle in from Hawtree Creek, the small puddles forming around curbs and storm drains don’t appear to be so bad. But as the tide continues to rise, the roads are quickly submerged.

Soon, tiny fish begin to swim across the concrete, and the water is above your ankles. Then swans start to paddle into empty lots, and the water has reached your calves. Suddenly, the flooding is knee high, and the nearest dry land is much too far away. It is a deeply disconcerting feeling, to be standing in seawater in the middle of a neighborhood.

Yet for those living in Hamilton Beach, and in many other neighborhoods around the city, street floods like this are a regular, everyday occurrence. “This is nothing,” says Ginny Dunker, looking out from her front door at a recent six-and-a-half-foot high tide that had flooded midway up her block. “Come back on a rainy day, and then you will see something.”

Calhoun Road, Hamilton Beach.

Hamilton Beach is just one of several New York City communities that are regularly flooded by high tides. Many of these neighborhoods are clustered around Jamaica Bay, including nearby Broad Channel and Howard Beach, and in each of these areas, saltwater has come up into the streets every month for decades. In recent years, however, residents have reported a dramatic increase in the frequency and volume of these floods.

“It really has gotten worse over the years, as you talk to some residents who have been here, or their grandparents were here,” says Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., the New York state senator for District 15, which encompasses Hamilton Beach, Howard Beach, Broad Channel, and several other chronically flooded Queens neighborhoods. “People have lived in there for generations, so they understand it, they know how to live with it, but they will also tell you that is has changed over the years,” Addabbo explains. “If not more frequent, there is certainly more water.”

These local observations are supported by larger studies, which have reported an increase in tidal flooding in many parts of the coastal United States. “Federal scientists have documented a sharp jump in this nuisance flooding—often called ‘sunny-day flooding’—along both the East Coast and the Gulf Coast in recent years,” according to a 2016 New York Times article. “The sea is now so near the brim in many places that they believe the problem is likely to worsen quickly.”

Bayview Avenue, Howard Beach.

Throughout District 15, sunny-day flooding has caused a wide range of problems, from inaccessible roads, missed work days, and disrupted schedules, to more serious damages, including destroyed cars and inundated basements. At its most basic level, however, these regular floods have completely altered the lives of local residents, who have had to reorganize their existence around the vagaries of the lunar calendar.

During the tidal floods, which can happen several days each month, “you can’t have parties, you can’t have get-togethers, and you can’t have friends over,” says Dunker, whose street in Hamilton Beach has been repeatedly cut off by floodwaters since she moved in 23 years ago. “One year, it was flooded from Thanksgiving to Christmas. We didn’t get a holiday that year,” she explains. “That’s how it is. You’ve got to live with it.”

“Imagine that being a way of life for those residents. They have to deal with that water as part of their daily life in Hamilton Beach,” says Addabbo, who is working on several different projects that he hopes will alleviate the increasing disruptions caused by nuisance flooding. “My residents all understand that water has to go somewhere during high tide. But what the problem is for Hamilton Beach and others, is that as quickly as the water comes in from the high tide, it doesn’t go out.”

Some of the projects now underway in District 15 include construction of a new storm surge berm in Spring Creek, a recently adopted resiliency rezoning for Broad Channel and Hamilton Beach, and, coming in 2018, a pilot project to build a bulkhead at the end of Davenport Avenue in Hamilton Beach. The most closely watched project in the district, though, is the ongoing street raising and bulkhead project in Broad Channel Island.

“Broad Channel is trying something different. All eyes here are on Broad Channel,” says Addabbo. “Hopefully, it will alleviate their situation with regards to tidal flooding and the high tide. If it works there, maybe we will do the same in Hamilton Beach.”

Broad Channel, January 2017.

The deadlines for these projects may come sooner than expected, as the impacts from tidal flooding are only expected to increase around Jamaica Bay. “Hamilton Beach and Broad Channel are some of the most low-lying neighborhoods in New York City, and already face regular flooding from high tides—a condition likely to become more severe over time with climate change,” according to a recent study by the Department of City Planning. “By the 2050s, portions of these two neighborhoods may face daily tidal flooding according to sea level rise projections from the New York City Panel on Climate Change.”

And in the future, the problem of intermittent tidal flooding could eventually transform into the even more challenging problem of permanent flooding. “More than 12,000 of today’s New York City residents live in places that could be permanently flooded by a [sea level] rise of three feet, the vast majority along the shores of Jamaica Bay, Flushing Bay and eastern Staten Island,” according to a 2016 report from the Regional Plan Association. “Three feet could occur as early as the 2080s.”

Throughout District 15, several streets are already perpetually flooded, providing a glimpse into what may be in store if tidal flooding is not addressed. Although not caused by sea level rise, these flooded areas include Beach 38th Street in southern Edgemere, where the standing water stretches for hundreds of yards, and the sunken roads inside The Hole, which have been flooded nonstop for at least a decade.

Beach 38th Street, Edgemere.

Over the past few years, New York has slowly worked to upgrade the drainage and sewer systems in several coastal neighborhoods faced with chronic flooding.

In Meadowmere, a sewage system was finally installed in 2010, while in northern Edgemere, new storm drains, sidewalks and curbs have helped alleviate a variety of chronic floods. In Midland Beach, Staten Island, the New Creek Bluebelt is being expanded through neighborhoods regularly flooded by rainwater.

And in Willets Point, where permanently flooded streets border the Flushing River, hundreds of small businesses are being torn down and relocated to make way for a multi-billion dollar mega-project, which could finally bring plumbing to an area that city has neglected for decades.

What any of these efforts will mean in the long term is questionable, since New York City is predicted to have up to six feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, enough to overwhelm many of the new barriers and bulkheads being built around the city. For now, though, the residents of Hamilton Beach are hoping for even a short term solution.

“It gets into the whole conversation of global warming and the effect of the climate and everything else,” says Addabbo. “I don’t think my residents really are concerned too much of how or why it happens, just that it does happen and how do we deal with it.”

At the end of James Court, in Hamilton Beach, the waters of Jamaica Bay are held back only by a traffic barrier. Most of the neighborhood’s street ends provide direct access for the waters of Hawtree Creek.

During a recent high tide, seawater flooded in to McKee Avenue, also known as 164th Avenue. “It’s not clean water. This is not purified bottled water,” says Addabbo. “This is tidewater. So there is salt in there, which is corrosive”

The waters reached the front steps of homes along Calhoun Road, also known as 164th Road. “This is a good one,” says a resident of the street, who was unimpressed by the flood. “During a bad one, the water would be up to the top of the hydrants.”

“It happens every full moon. You get used to it,” says the Calhoun Road resident. “Usually you miss it. You sleep through it, or are at work. Just don’t park your car there—it will get ruined.”

In nearby Ramblersville, a small enclave just north of Hamilton Beach, the flood waters had completely engulfed Broadway. The water here was over knee high in places.

Along nearby Bayview Avenue, where homes are only accessible via a system of narrow boardwalks, small fish swam across the avenue. Several boardwalks were completely submerged, bobbing in the tide.

Most homes along Bayview Avenue were completely surrounded during the high tide. With their houses raised up above the water on pilings, many residents keep a boat tied off in the front or back yard.

Swans floating up to the boardwalk of Bayview Avenue. The tidewater immediately adjacent to the boardwalk would be at least waist high.

A Bayview Avenue lot for sale. During a regular tide, this area would be above water, and accessible on foot. Several waterfront homes are now for sale throughout Hamilton Beach and Ramblersville.

A flooded hydrant in the middle of Hawtree Creek. The difference between wetlands, open water, and residential areas is completely blurred during the regular tidal surge.

The flooded street end at 160th Avenue in Howard Beach is immediately adjacent to Addabbo’s offices. “Two of my staff previously lost cars because they didn’t move their car quickly enough,” he explains. “I’ve got a Jeep and it barely makes in above the water. It’s kind of severe.”

The water on 160th Avenue pours in from a narrow concrete walkway, the only access point to several homes on the banks of Hawtree Creek. Neighbors here have built raised driveways to protect their cars.

The waters here were knee deep at high tide, which is not particularly remarkable for the area. “If it’s a really bad high tide, I say let’s take all the things off the floor, and put them on chairs,” says Addabbo. “It’s a nuisance at times, no question. But we know we face it because of where we live or work.”

At the end of 161st Avenue, a storm drain had been completely flooded by the high tide. “We cannot ever eliminate the total flow of water; it has to go somewhere,” says Addabbo. “It’s a low lying area with a high water table, and water has to go somewhere.”

Nathan Kensinger.

As a rain shower began, the tide receded out from 161st Avenue. “It can be with a rain, or without a rain, but even with a slight rain, I have areas that are chronically flooding,” notes Addabbo. “This is just a fact of life around here. You wait for it to recede and then carry out your business.”

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. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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