It has been almost six years since Hurricane Sandy inundated New York’s coastline, and the city is still not prepared for another major storm. Seawalls, levees, and barriers have been built, houses have been raised, and flood gates installed, but if Sandy were to return today, many of the same neighborhoods that flooded would be underwater again. That could change sometime in the future, if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has its way.
This past July, the Corps launched a series of public presentations for its New York/New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study. This study presents five different proposals for how to address future storm surges and flooding around the New York City region.
The scale of the USACE proposals is staggering—nothing of this magnitude has ever been attempted on the coastline of New York City before. They range in size from an enormous five-mile storm surge barrier between Breezy Point, Queens, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to a series of coastal defenses built along the shorelines of lower Manhattan, East Harlem, Astoria, Long Island City, and several Hudson River towns.
Four of these proposals call for the erection of a 1.75-mile barrier through Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, connected to a storm surge gate across the Hutchinson River. Three of the proposals call for a barrier at the mouth of Jamaica Bay, as part of roughly 20 miles of “shoreline based measures” stretching from Sheepshead Bay, around Coney Island, and out to Far Rockaway. The proposals also include barriers and gates at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Arthur Kill, Newtown Creek, Flushing Creek, and Gowanus Canal.
The USACE study impacts an area covering 2,157 square miles, including 25 counties with 16 million residents. However, during the initial launch of their plan, the Corps scheduled just five public meetings in three counties, and a 45 day window for public comments, before they planned to select one of their proposals for further refinement. At that rate, they would have needed 3.2 million people to show up to each meeting, and over 355,000 individuals sending in a comment every day, to fully reflect the opinions of everyone affected by these proposals.
The response to the public launch of this study has been contentious, to say the least. A long list of newspaper editorials, along with state Senators and members of Congress, have all demanded more time for public comments and meetings, while several prominent environmental groups have called the proposed storm surge barriers “a death threat for the Hudson River.” The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) stated that the barriers would “strangle the life out of the Hudson River, New York-New Jersey Harbor, and Long Island Sound” while Riverkeeper has said they would threaten the existence of the entire Hudson River estuary.
As a result of this feedback, the USACE has extended the deadline for public comments twice; now, it’s set for November 5.
Last week—on the same day that their extended period for public comments was supposed to have ended—the USACE held a public meeting in Coney Island. The gathering took place along the boardwalk, at the education center for the New York Aquarium, an area that was underwater during Hurricane Sandy.
Although the Coney Island peninsula has over 80,000 residents living at the frontlines of sea level rise, only about 60 people were in attendance at the meeting, including several reporters and representatives from environmental groups.
“So, what’s a feasibility study?” one local resident asked his partner, before the meeting began. “These proposals—they won’t affect this area, right?”
Although the USACE’s presentation was clearly organized and well articulated, it is difficult to understand what, exactly, they are proposing to build. The maps and graphics they have presented at public meetings are basically rough outlines, with dotted lines tracing out imaginary boundaries across a bare-bones map of the New York Harbor. And their descriptions of the gates, walls, levees, and dikes that they might one day build have also been kept purposefully vague, because they are still in the initial proposal stages. But, as one example of the scope of the storm surge barriers they are considering, they cite the Maeslantkering barrier in the Netherlands, which is one of the largest moving objects on the planet.
“We are kind of at the beginning of this study,” Bryce Wisemiller, the project manager for the feasibility study, explained during the presentation. “We are not saying any of these alternatives, at this point in the study, are economically justified or environmentally acceptable. These are only our initial conceptual alternatives to just span the spectrum, to see which ones might have the greatest benefits.”
After the extended period of public comments ends in November, the USACE plans to move forward with one or more of its proposals. It will publish a draft report of its findings this fall, with a Tentatively Selected Plan (TSP). Reaching the actual construction stage could take years, and the USACE admits that some of their proposals would take decades to complete, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars.
“I’ve been with the Corps for 30 years. It’s very difficult to get projects constructed,” said Wisemiller. “There are a lot of challenges, technical and institutional. The best we can do is to try to evaluate these alternatives and advance them as best we can.”
Gaining a clear picture of the area where the USACE has proposed its largest storm surge barrier—the five-mile structure that would stretch between Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and Breezy Point, Queens—is also no simple task. To reach the tip of Breezy Point, at the western edge of the Rockaways, visitors must hike more than a mile along a dirt road through a protected bird habitat, and across the crashing surf of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
This end of the Rockaways is one of the more remote areas in New York City, and is home to the nesting grounds of several endangered bird species, including the Piping Plover, Least Tern, and Black Skimmer. It is mostly frequented by a small group of fishermen, who have special licenses from the National Park Service to access the beach using 4-wheel-drive vehicles. From their perches atop a rocky sea wall, the coastline of Sandy Hook is just barely visible in the distance, across a wide expanse of open water.
The northern tip of Sandy Hook is just as remote. The most direct route from New York City is to take a seasonal ferry from lower Manhattan and then hike north, past the ruins of old bunkers and batteries, along a fishermen’s pathway that cuts through another protected wilderness area. At the end of this path is an isolated coastline, mainly visited by bird watchers, fishermen, endangered shorebirds, pods of dolphins, and ancient horseshoe crabs.
Sandy Hook is recognized as a “globally significant” habitat for bird species, according to the National Audubon Society, and is one New Jersey’s “most significant natural areas.” It is difficult to imagine backhoes carving a roadway through this protected wildlife habitat, and through Breezy Point, in order to bring in the cranes, trucks, and other heavy construction equipment that would be needed to build an enormous barrier.
The USACE proposals raise many difficult questions about the future of New York City, but one of the most daunting is whether we are prepared to sacrifice rivers, estuaries, bays, fish migrations, bird habitats, and a host of endangered species, in order to keep our own homes, economy, and infrastructure afloat. For a city that is built on islands and streams, accepting these proposals seems like a Faustian bargain.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and Riverkeeper are opposed to any of the USACE proposals that include storm surge barriers being built in the water. “From Day One, these offshore barriers would start to restrict the tidal flow, contaminant and sediment transport, and migration of fish,” according to Riverkeeper, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to protect the Hudson River and its estuaries. “We fear that a slow death would be inflicted on the river, and that in time, the barriers would slowly, but surely, strangle the life out of the river as we know it.”
Perhaps one of these proposals could be the silver bullet that will help save New York from a future storm. Perhaps they are just a temporary solution, which may buy us a few more years. In any case, it remains to be seen if they will ever be approved, funded, built, and operated. In the meantime, sea levels will continue to rise, and climate change will continue to transform the planet.
Accessing the tip of Breezy Point, at the western end of the Rockways, involves a long hike through a protected bird habitat, along a dirt road primarily used by specially licensed fishermen.
The coastline here is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, and is administered by the National Park Service. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ largest proposal would line the beach here with a “shoreline measure,” like a levee or sea wall.
At the very end of Breezy Point, fishermen use an old sea wall to cast out into the ocean. The USACE proposals a five-mile-long storm surge barrier extending from here to Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
According to Riverkeeper, any barrier here “would significantly restrict migrations of striped bass, Atlantic sturgeon, herring, shad, eel and other species essential to the Hudson estuary.”
“What we need are simple solutions,” said one fishermen, pointing out that the existing sea wall here is already too low to stop the beach from eroding. “We need a higher sea wall, not a billion dollar barrier.”
“We are cognizant here at the Army Corps that no coastal storm risk management project can eliminate the risk of flooding,” Olivia Cackler, a senior planner at the USACE, said at the Coney Island meeting. “Because given time, no matter how high you build a wall, it will be overtopped.”
The sand dunes here are home to several endangered species, including the piping plover. “Their populations are jeopardized by development and human disturbance,” according to the Audubon Society. “The species is listed as threatened and endangered by the U.S. government.”
At the northern tip of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the USACE proposal for a storm surge barrier would also greatly impact another protected wildlife habitat. This area, which contains the North Pond, is also part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
“The pond is an excellent location for a variety of waterbirds including Least Bittern, American Bittern… Sora, and Virginia Rail. The list of rarities here is long and includes Eurasian Wigeon, Purple Gallinule, Sandhill Crane, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Cave Swallow,” according to the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.
The protected area is adjacent to North Beach, one of the many popular beaches that stretch along the peninsula here. Reaching the beach involves a hike across a wide open expanse of sand.
“You just missed a pod of dolphins,” said a fisherman, while waiting for a bite. “They were 50 yards off the beach.”
It is difficult to picture a storm surge barrier being erected here, in what is a relatively remote and pristine coastal environment. The USACE proposal here also includes miles of “shoreline measures” to ensure that floodwaters are not forced up onto the beach and into communities.
“The barriers would close off New York Harbor from the Atlantic Ocean, causing sewage, contaminants, and other pollution to accumulate along our waterfront and threatening marine life, including fish like the Atlantic sturgeon,” according to the NRDC.
Even if one of the USACE’s proposals is never built, New York is facing a difficult future. “We are still going to see the effects of climate change for many decades,” said Daria Mazey, a senior environmental planner with the USACE, during the Coney Island meeting. “We do expect the sea level rise in this area to be significant, and with that increased sea level rise comes increased risk.”
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.