Anti-flood plan surging ahead too fast, many activists say

“Alternative 2” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ “New York and New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study” features a massive storm-surge barrier that would connect Sandy Hook and Breezy Point, plus a second, much smaller barrier up at Throgs Neck, in the Bronx.

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | A public meeting with hardly any public notice. Five proposals with no details on environmental impact or economic feasibility. And a planning process that’s raising doubts on whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can choose the best storm-surge protection plan to shield more than 2,150 miles of New York and New Jersey shoreline.

Nearly six years after Hurricane Sandy swamped Lower Manhattan with 7 feet of water and killed two people in the community, this is where the Corps’ New York / New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries study stands after starting in 2016.

The Corps is expected to submit a final recommendation to Congress in summer 2022. However, by the Corps’ standards, this pace is quicker than usual.

“Believe it or not, the 2022 time period is actually somewhat accelerated,” said Bryce Wisemiller, the study’s project manager.

Back in 2012, the Corps implemented so-called “SMART” planning, which expedites study processes with the goal of increased efficiency and spending less taxpayer dollars.

“One feeling engineers and scientists always have is that, ‘We want to get more data and answer every last question,’” he said. “And at some point, you never can. We’re trying to answer as many of the high-risk questions as we can in our studies, and acknowledge that there are some risks that we aren’t.”

Community Board 1 passed a resolution months before Sandy requesting the Corps study storm-surge barriers. The board has rapidly mobilized to grapple with how to respond to the Corps before the end of the public comment period, which had been set for Aug. 20, but has since been extended to Sept. 20.

The board wasn’t informed of the Corps’ July 9 scoping meeting until just days before.

“It’s sort of ironic that you have a board that represents the community, and yet these groups don’t come to us,” said Alice Blank, chairperson of C.B. 1’s Resiliency Subcommittee. “I’m sure we’re not the only ones, of course.”

Blank added that she thinks, going forward, the Corps will provide frequent updates about the study, whose local sponsors are the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

The “Herculean task” of coordinating groups is just beginning, she said, adding, “Everybody’s trying to figure out what’s the next step, and how do we get there as quickly as possible without cutting any corners.”

In a last-minute meeting in late July that wasn’t included on the C.B. 1 Resiliency Subcommittee’s agenda, a Corps rep explained the study for more than an hour, detailing his concerns over the so-called SMART planning.

The Corps is operating with these rules that “never contemplated something of this scale,” Thomas Hodson, the chief of the Corps’ plan-formulation branch, told C.B. 1.

He expressed doubt about the planning process and its ability to find the best alternative to protect two states from storm-surge flooding.

“SMART planning rushes to make a decision,” Hodson said. “Headquarters has decided to rearrange the trade-off in favor of using less time and less money to make a decision. Does that increase the probability that you’ll make any wrong decision? Does that increase the probability that you will arrive at what’s called a Type 2 error?” he said, referring to a type of statistical error — sometimes called a “false negative” — that could lead the study to ignore significant risks with one or more of the five different proposals the Corps study is evaluating.

“If we knew what the storm pattern was going to be in advance, this would be easy,” Hodson told C.B. 1. The five plan options the Corps presented span the gamut from only offshore storm-surge barriers to only protective shoreline measures.

On one end of the spectrum, the Corps is floating a 5-mile-long regional storm-surge barrier connecting Breezy Point, New York, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey, along with a much smaller barrier at Throgs Neck, in the Bronx. Another proposal has no barriers, but would implement shoreline measures at key points in New York and New Jersey up the Hudson River to Albany.

Three other plans include a mix of elements from these two — Alternatives 3a, 3b and 4. The Corps released maps of the five alternatives in early July, which are viewable in the agency’s online presentation.

The largest barrier plan, Wisemiller explained, “would be a monumental engineering challenge” and could cost from $30 billion up to even $50 billion, with more than 100 gates.

“Yes, you’re protecting the broad area, and you have that certainty,” Wisemiller said. “But you have the concern that all those gates have to work perfectly while that storm is approaching, and there’s really no way to test those systems until there is a storm in place.

“I’m not advocating for one or the other, but the flipside is that you have measures that are tailored for different areas. That you have less area at risk if any one of the measures should fail for whatever reason,” he said, “poor maintenance over time, whatever the conditions are.”

Though the full board of C.B. 1 didn’t endorse a specific proposal, they voted July 31 against the SMART planning process, writing in their resolution that the “expedited review process could have serious implications in terms of an inadequate review of all the critical variables that need to be evaluated for a study of this magnitude.”

The community board further requested that the Corps evaluate how each alternative does or does not address sea-level rise, costs of interventions that would address sea-level rise, and better communications between the board and the Corps.

But for some on C.B. 1, the lack of detail remains alarming.

“It’s really hard to comment on it because there’s not a lot of detail, and it’s hard to know how it’s being coordinated with the city,” said Laura Starr, who runs Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners, which took part in developing the “Big U” waterfront-protection plan.

Catherine McVay Hughes, a longtime advocate of the largest barrier plan and former chairperson of C.B. 1, said storm surge must be addressed in the harbor and sea-level rise on the waterfront.

“It’s a multipronged attack,” said Hughes, who is on the Metropolitan NY-NJ Storm Surge Working Group, which supports the regional barrier plan. “It’s really important that this is really seriously considered because it would be a shame that Alternative 1 — which is inaction — is what happens.”

Hughes co-authored a study this April with that working group’s chairperson, Malcolm Bowman, and others arguing that an extensive regional barrier plan — with more barriers than the Corps’ major barrier proposal — is the only approach that would equitably protect all at-risk parts of the region.

The study cited how Sandy disproportionately impacted poor, immigrant and minority communities, which also had slower recoveries, particularly in the outer boroughs. The largest concentration of deaths, too, were in low-lying neighborhoods in Staten Island, in contrast to Manhattan’s two fatalities, according to the study.

“Only such a combined, layered regional storm-surge and sea-level rise barrier system will provide comprehensive protection for all of the region’s residents and communities, regardless of their economic or social status, for the next 100 years,” the paper concludes.

However, Riverkeeper, a 52-year-old environmental advocacy group dedicated to protecting the Hudson River, has serious doubts about the regional protection barrier.

For one, advocates worry a barrier would choke the life out of the Hudson River, restricting tidal flow and blocking fish migration, which could have cascading effects on North Atlantic fisheries, according to John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper’s patrol boat captain.

“These barriers pose an existential threat for the Hudson,” Lipscomb warned.

Plus, the regional barrier alone does not address sea-level rise, nor does the Corps’ entire study itself.

“The Corps was asked the wrong question,” Lipscomb stressed. “They were asked about storm risk and not sea-level rise risk.”

After the Corps’ years of work already, Lipscomb said, “It’s almost as though the train has headed down the track and we’re early on, and we know it’s on the track to the wrong destination and we cannot turn it around.”

A West Villager at the early July scoping meeting worried the massive barrier was an “all eggs in one basket” approach.

“I’m extremely concerned about this Alternative 2 over here, for example, where we’re going to put a ton of money — all eggs in one basket — and then if that thing doesn’t work, you’re exposed in all these other ways,” said Tom O’Keefe, a private tutor and climate activist. “In the meantime, you cause a lot of other problems by making this massive intervention.”

Meanwhile, much of Lower Manhattan remains exposed to storm surges, and even medium-term protections by the city won’t be implemented until the 2019 storm season. The Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project’s Two Bridges portion recently had its fourth public meeting and is considered fully funded, but that’s just 0.82 miles of Lower Manhattan. The “Big U” plan, which would cover 10 miles of Manhattan waterfront, is mostly either delayed or underfunded. Plus, as Hughes and Bowman’s study notes, that piecemeal approach ignores environmental and social justice.

“The multilevel approach, right now — ‘the Big U’ — is a broken ‘J’,” Hughes said. “It’s conceptual.”

Coordination between multiple city agencies, the state and the federal government seems lacking, Starr added.

“The fact of the matter is — the water is the water,” she said. “It’s going to go where it wants to go. The water doesn’t know about the political jurisdictions. The political jurisdictions have to come together to really collaborate to address the water.”

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