The Latest Plan to Protect New York City from Storm Surges
Environmentalists are pushing back against a proposal to install 12 moveable gates in local waterways. They say the plan needs more local input and less focus on the storm surge problem.
It’s been over a decade since Superstorm Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, killing scores of people and causing billions of dollars in damage. Strong winds and heavy rains were responsible for much of the destruction, but flooding from high waves and storm surge took the largest toll. When it was over, 17 percent of New York City was under water, a total area of more than 50 square miles.
Coastal Brooklyn, Queens, Southern Manhattan and Staten Island were hit hard by the onslaught of water. Located in vulnerable, low-lying areas, much of the city’s critical infrastructure, including hospitals, power stations and wastewater treatment plants, was imperiled by the storm. Subway lines and roads remained closed for days and weeks.
Ten years later, crews are still working to shore up the damage done to the 115-year-old train tunnels that run under the Hudson River. Salt water from Sandy’s floods is steadily corroding the ancient concrete and network of electrical cables that power the tunnels. It could have been worse. The area’s three major airports, shipping infrastructure, oil tanks and refineries are in close proximity to the city’s 520 miles of coastline, making them vulnerable to floods and sea-level rise.
The devastation caused by Sandy was a wakeup call to an area long thought to be immune from storms of this magnitude. Almost immediately, local jurisdictions began to plan and build barriers against future storms. But many believe that the only real solution is a comprehensive plan that provides protection for the entire New York Harbor region. The cost of such a project, out of reach for cities and states, requires a level of funding that only the federal government can provide.
The Army Corps’ Preferred Option
The Corps’ preferred plan, known as Alternative 3B, is one of five options presented in the report and was selected through cost-benefit analysis and predictions of performance over a 50-year period, beginning in 2044. According to the report, the plan should cost $52.6 billion, making it one of the largest infrastructure projects in the city’s history. The federal government would provide 65 percent of the funding. The other 35 percent will be the responsibility of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Along with the dozen surge gates, Alternative 3B also includes more than 40 miles of human-made shoreline barriers including floodwalls and elevated promenades in Lower Manhattan, East Harlem and Jersey City, dramatically reshaping New York City’s waterfront.
If approved, construction of the Corps’ preferred plan wouldn’t begin until 2030 and will take 14 years to complete. Even if all goes according to plan, the metro area won’t benefit from the project’s protections for another 21 years.
In the meantime, New York City will experience sea-level rise of between eight and 30 inches by the 2050s, according to a study by the New York City Panel on Climate Change. By the turn of the century those numbers are expected to double. While many local environmental groups support meaningful investment in climate change adaptation, they take issue with the Corps of Engineers’ proposed solutions.
The Case Against Storm Surge Gates
Opponents of Alternative 3B argue that storm surge should not be the sole focus of the Corps’ plan. Closing gates during major storms might offer some protection, but they are not intended as a defense against rising sea levels, flooding from increased rainfall and rising groundwater, all of which threaten inland communities. Critics also contend that the Corps is relying on outdated climate projections that are more optimistic than studies done by the New York City Panel on Climate Change and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
There is also concern that storm gates would interfere with tidal energy, destroy marine habitats, threaten fish migration and trap combined sewer overflows and rainwater runoff. Three of the waterways where storm surge gates have been proposed are Superfund sites, some of the most polluted bodies of water in the country. There are concerns that toxic contaminates would be disturbed during gate construction and operation. Closing the gates, something that is expected to occur with increasing frequency, would trap contaminates and interfere with the ongoing decadeslong cleanup process.
Tracy Brown is the president of Riverkeeper, “New York’s clean water advocate.” Riverkeeper has also come out against the Corps’ proposal, instead supporting locally driven solutions that incorporate green stormwater infrastructure and enhance natural habitat as a better way to protect communities from destructive flooding and storm surges.
“We are happy that there’s federal attention on this need, and a willingness to take action,” Brown says. “But we feel that the myopic focus of the Army Corps of Engineers to just be looking at storm surge is not sufficient to address the complexity of the flooding problems that we face. … We certainly want action. We just don’t think that this is the right action.”
Since releasing their report last September, the Corps of Engineers is asking for public comment on “tentatively selected” Alternative Plan 3B. Having already been pushed back twice, the deadline for feedback is now March 31. After considering all recommendations, another report and environmental assessment will be made public.