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Five years after Hurricane Sandy, NYC's coastal communities remain vulnerable

Years of work still lie ahead before the coast of New York City will be ready for another major storm

In the five years since Hurricane Sandy, the landscape of New York City’s coastal communities has been radically altered. Hundreds of new homes have replaced those destroyed by fires and floods, hundreds of old homes have been raised up above the flood plain, and hundreds more have been permanently demolished as part of a managed retreat from the water.

In many of the neighborhoods that were inundated by Sandy, extensive new coastal defense systems have also been built. Along the shores of Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn, millions of tons of sand were pumped onto beaches; thousands of enormous boulders have reinforced the coast; and miles of concrete baffle walls, dunes, and plantings have been created alongside new bulkheads, T-groins, bluebelts, and sea walls.

Despite the reassuring appearance of these new barriers, a walk along the city’s coastline today reveals that many of the neighborhoods that were flooded during Hurricane Sandy would flood again tomorrow if Sandy returned, and that years of work still lie ahead before the coast of New York City will be ready for another major storm.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of millions of dollars were invested to create several new coastal defense systems on the shoreline of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Some of these barriers were permanent, while others were temporary measures put in place while waiting for larger projects to begin. The most impressive can be found in the Rockaways, along the newly rebuilt Rockaway Boardwalk.

Much of the old wooden boardwalk was pushed inland and destroyed by Sandy, and the new concrete structure that replaced it is actually an enormous elevated barricade, flanked by concrete walls and massive sand dunes. The entire 5.5-mile length of the boardwalk did not reopen until this past summer, almost five years after Sandy. As New York’s first substantial new coastal defense, it was worth the wait.

“In the first couple of years, there were some things we could implement in the short term—nourishing the beaches, fixing and upgrading the bulkheads, and the replacement of the boardwalk with a more robust and resilient structure,” says Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s Senior Director of Climate Policy and Programs, and Chief Resilience Officer, reflecting on the process of building the new boardwalk. “It’s definitely the biggest thing that we have finished. It was a $340 million project, so it was no small feat.”

While the new barriers along the coast of the Rockaways are impressive, they only provide partial protection to the communities they are guarding. The peninsula’s entire oceanfront is now lined with a series of new dunes and walls, but its flank along Jamaica Bay remains largely unprotected, and during Hurricane Sandy, the water surging in from the bay was just as devastating to the neighborhoods here.

Residents in communities on the shores of Jamaica Bay understand that they are not yet protected from another major storm. “All of these neighborhoods, tens of thousands of people, will just get flooded again from the back in another Sandy event,” the president of the Broad Channel Civic Association told the New York Times this summer. This includes neighborhoods like Edgemere, where the current coastal defense system is a handful of old traffic barriers, and Hamilton Beach, where streets already flood regularly during the monthly high tides.

The same problem faces Coney Island, where new storm barriers and beach replenishment have been completed along Brooklyn’s oceanfront, but where the backside of the community, along Coney Island Creek, has been left unprotected. “During Hurricane Sandy, Coney Island Creek was the main source of inundation for much of the Gravesend and Coney Island neighborhoods,” according to a NYCEDC resiliency study. “Low edges and topography contributed to ‘backdoor’ flooding that caused enormous damage.” In another major storm, much of Coney Island would flood again.

In other neighborhoods along the coast, new storm barriers have been installed that were not necessarily intended to provide permanent protection, or protection from storms comparable to Hurricane Sandy. Along the east shore of Staten Island, several lengthy stretches of dunes and sand-filled TrapBags were quickly erected in Sandy’s aftermath, stretching along miles of coastline. Sections of this interim barrier have since been badly damaged by the elements, especially in New Dorp Beach, where erosion has begun to eat away at the new dunes.

In Tottenville, at the south end of Staten Island, numerous TrapBags have burst open, spilling sand onto the beach, while others are now leaning out into the ocean, undermined by the constant pressure of the tides. And just beyond the end of this temporary barrier, many homes are protected by little more than a pile of rocky debris. In another major storm, these parts of Tottenville would flood again.

In Red Hook, where the storm surge flooded homes and businesses with more than 10 feet of water, just one new barrier has been built by the city. It is constructed out of several segments of HESCO bags, each of which is filled with a ton of sand. During a storm, these segments would be joined together by temporary water-filled Tiger Dams to protect one of Red Hook’s low points, along Beard Street, from up to four feet of flooding.

“We say it’s for an Hurricane Irene type of storm. This program is more built towards a storm of that magnitude,” says Heather Roiter, the director of hazard mitigation for the New York City Emergency Management Department. “The measures will stay out for five years. The goal is to have permanent mitigation implemented in that time.” In the meantime, Red Hook’s other streets remain unprotected, and would flood again in another major storm.

Plans are being made to protect many of these coastal communities, but ground has not yet been broken on any other major coastal barriers. Some of the projects being planned include an inlet barrier at the mouth of Jamaica Bay created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which would provide protection for the many communities along its shores; a new USACE coastal defense system along Staten Island’s east shore, which would better protect areas like South Beach and Oakwood Beach; the Living Breakwaters and Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project, which would provide a more resilient form of protection to the southern end of Staten Island; and the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project, which includes elements from The Big U proposal.

Some of these projects are expected to begin work in the next few years, while others are not yet fully funded. “We’ve lined up about $20 billion already for many of these projects all across the city, and we are spending that now, and we will need to identify more,” says Zarrilli. “We almost can’t afford not to make these investments, because if that next storm comes, we know the damage is going to be extensive again.”

How many billions of dollars of funding will be needed to realize these projects remains to be seen, and with the recent devastation caused by hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, federal funding for New York City’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy may no longer be a top priority. But as the city plans for its future, in the face of rising sea levels, investing in these types of large scale projects will become increasingly urgent.

“We are looking out into the 2050s and 2100s, and trying to do some advance planning on getting ahead of those risks of sea level rise, but that is clearly a major existential challenge,” says Zarrilli. “In reality, this is something that we are not only going to be doing for a generation. We may never stop having to do these kind of investments, as the climate changes and sea levels rise. We are going to be constantly reevaluating and investing and making choices on how we are adapting to our new reality.”

All along the Rockaway Peninsula, new storm barriers were erected in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In Breezy Point, a gated community at the western end of the peninsula, residents constructed a new dune using $130,000 of their own funds.

The dune is still the only major barricade along the oceanfront, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may be providing $57 million in funding towards the implementation of other barriers.

In Belle Harbor, a one-mile-long system of baffle walls and dunes is now complete, replacing barriers that were destroyed during Hurricane Sandy.

The new dunes provide an imposing barrier from the ocean. Many of the mansions on the coast of Belle Harbor were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, and empty lots remain along the waterfront.

The new baffle wall system, which was completed by 2013, “is connected to 22-foot deep pilings and extends four feet above ground,” according to WNYC.

From the neighborhood’s streets, the wall and dune do not appear particularly imposing, but the ocean is completely blocked from view, and from homes.

Further east along the peninsula, in Rockaway Beach, the newly constructed boardwalk has created a much more imposing concrete wall. Built underneath the walkway, the wall holds back an enormous sand dune.

The boardwalk here is raised high above the streets, and above the first floor of nearby homes and buildings. This section of the boardwalk is one of the most impressive barrier walls created in the aftermath of Sandy.

The dunes created here are far more extensive than any of the other barriers in the Rockaways. Accessing the beach is now a challenge, but it is unlikely the sand will erode anytime soon.

The flank of the Rockaway Peninsula, facing Jamaica Bay, remains largely unprotected. Some work has been done to repair the sea wall along Beach Channel Drive, but at Beach 106th Street, the bulkhead is collapsing into the bay near enormous sinkholes.

The same problem faces Coney Island, where there are no significant storm barriers on the backside of the island, along Coney Island Creek. During Hurricane Sandy, the storm surged up the creek and into the neighborhood. A barrier and other resiliency measures for the creek are being contemplated.

On the ocean side of Coney Island, the 2.5 mile long beach has been raised up so high that it is now almost level with the boardwalk, which you once could walk under. Since Sandy, sections of the boardwalk have also been replaced by concrete and plastic boards.

At the western end of Coney Island, in Sea Gate, four large T-groins have been built by the USACE. These rocky structures are connected to the shore by a metal barrier, and are intended to prevent tidal erosion and mitigate surges.

Further west in Sea Gate, the USACE has also laid out a stone barrier on shore to further prevent erosion. The work here was completed in 2014.

A long line of green plantings has also been created since the storm, in a kind of moat between the beach dunes and the various sea walls fronting each individual home. Many of the beachfront homes here were destroyed or flooded during Sandy.

At the western end of Coney Island, no new barriers have been built in Sea Gate, and the coast has been largely denuded of sand, leaving only a jumble of rocks between the ocean and homes. Sandy flooded these same homes in 2012.

The only protection from the sea here is a broken wooden barricade. It is clear that much of Sea Gate would be flooded again by another major storm.

Further north in Brooklyn, the coastline of Red Hook has just one new storm barrier, which extends along Beard Street and, in a smaller section, along a portion of Reed Street near the end of Van Brunt Street.

Composed of more than 200 HESCO bags, much of the barrier is built along several pre-existing walls and buildings, which face the protected Erie Basin. At four feet tall, the barrier is not intended to prevent a storm of Sandy’s magnitude.

In Staten Island, where Hurricane Sandy surged deep into of the neighborhoods along the east shore, several coastal barriers have been built. The northernmost is an elevated sand dune which runs alongside the Franklin D. Roosevelt Boardwalk.

The dune continues south for 2.5 miles, past Ocean Breeze and Midland Beach, two of the neighborhoods that were devastated by Sandy. Throughout its length, it is topped off by several varieties of grass and shrubs.

Construction of this interim barrier was overseen by the NYC Parks Department and completed in 2014. It rises approximately five feet above an adjacent bike path. A much larger permanent barrier is now being planned by the USACE.

The next section of coastal defenses begins in New Dorp Beach, where a continuous line of dunes and Trap Bags stretches 1.3 miles down to Oakwood Beach. A number of the bags here have split open, spilling their contents into the sea.

Along the beach, a double row of bags is topped by a sand dune and a variety of plantings. The barrier here is relatively low and already beginning to erode, but in the years before Hurricane Sandy, there was no significant line of protection between the ocean and the nearby residential community.

As the barrier travels south, it increases in height. In Oakwood Beach, it sits above a newly reinforced rocky shoreline. Behind the barrier, at sea level, is a wide marshland.

As the barrier continues south, its height dips down, and it ends in an overgrown coastal defense that pre-dates Hurricane Sandy. The USACE plans would extend a barrier through this area, and further south, to Great Kills.

Along the coast immediately south of Oakwood Beach, the current coastal defense is a rotting wooden barricade that stretches out into the distance, immersed in the ocean.

Large sections of Staten Island’s southern coast are also unprotected from storm surges and high tides, including this stretch of beach in Tottenville at Sprague Avenue.

A mound of rubble and a lawn are the only immediate line of defense for some of the homes here, although the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery is currently planning the Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project (TSPP) here.

The TSPP will create a series of berms, dunes, and eco-revetments along the coastline here, where many homes are currently unprotected or protected by privately built sea walls.

To the south, the storm barrier erected after Sandy is already eroding and collapsing, with Trap Bags directly exposed to the ocean’s tides.

Many homes in Tottenville are built almost at water’s edge, and the current storm barrier here is very low in height. To combat storm future surges, the Living Breakwaters project, an oyster reef, is being planned offshore.

Until these new barriers are constructed, Tottenville’s coast is minimally protected from a storm surges. But like many areas of the city, homes here would be flooded again by another storm of Sandy’s size.

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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