A flood of concerns over resiliency plans six years after Sandy

State Senator Brian Kavanagh, at podium, along with Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin, to the left and right of him, respectively, and other local leaders and storm-surge experts spoke at the South St. Seaport about the East Side and Lower Manhattan coastal resiliency projects. Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | In the days following Superstorm Sandy, Tanya Acevedo, a mother of two, remembers that it “felt like we were living in the end of the world.”

While waiting for the power to return, her apartment in the Lillian Wald Houses on Avenue D was dark and cold.

“It felt so surreal,” she said.

She recalled that her son, then 3 years old, would cry from how cold it was in the late October, early November days after the storm hit New York.

Sandy killed 43 in the city, knocked out power for 2 million people, and caused $19 billion in damage in the city alone. Parts of Downtown Manhattan were inundated with more than 10 feet of water.

Today, Acevedo stocks extra blankets, nonperishable food and batteries in her apartment in case of another storm.

But just east of her apartment is East River Park, where the city’s major resiliency infrastructure project, intended to protect her and 110,000 others from storm surges and sea-level rise, has been long delayed — and, in fact, recently overhauled entirely.

After years of plans to build a system of berms between the F.D.R. Drive and East River Park, plus a floodwall along the F.D.R. Drive, city honchos announced in late September that some 70 percent of the plan would be re-designed, entirely different from what the city presented in its March update to Community Board 3.

The new plan, which city officials presented to C.B. 3 in mid-October, would bury East River Park — which was recently renovated at a cost of millions of dollars — in 8 to 10 feet of added soil to raise the park’s elevation, as well as add a floodwall near the river’s edge, west of the existing esplanade. North of E. 13th St. and to the south between Montgomery and Cherry Sts., the East Side plan would stay the same.

The city says construction on the East Side resiliency project would begin next spring with flood protections in place by summer 2023 — sooner than under the previous plan. East River Park would be closed for three years during the work, according to Phil Ortiz, mayoral spokesperson.

A schematic rendering for the city’s new resiliency plan for East River Park, showing how the park’s height would be raised.

Michael Claudio, a general contractor who has lived on Avenue D for 35 years, echoed how many in the community and Downtown politicians feel.

“They’re still at a talking stage,” he said of the East River Park plans. “Nothing has started or been done.”

Claudio rode out the storm in 2012 in the neighborhood. He remembers having to go to Harlem to buy groceries, and powering his phone at charging stations brought into the East Village.

The city has allocated $760 million for the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, which includes $338 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The new plan is expected to cost a total of $1.45 billion. Ortiz said city capital funds would cover the additional cost.

“We were taken completely by surprise,” said Trever Holland, C.B. 3 Parks Committee chairperson and founder of Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side, or TUFF-LES.

Holland, who lives in the Two Bridges neighborhood, which has a separate Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project, is now nervous the city will return to the community with an entirely new plan for his neighborhood, too, just four months after a community engagement meeting about flip-up storm barriers along the F.D.R.

South of Two Bridges, the portion of the city’s resiliency plans for Manhattan’s southern tip is underfunded, with roughly $108 million allocated for a plan with no preliminary design.

Short-term protections for Downtown and Lower Manhatan are trickling in — including giant sandbag walls and deployable barriers that are expected to be in place next year.

Downtown politicians and community leaders blasted the lack of concrete action on the larger infrastructure plans last week at a press conference at Pier 16 — at the high-water mark where Sandy flooded the South St. Seaport.

Six years after the epic storm, the city is “still talking about the same issues,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said. “It’s the same discussion, right here, today in 2018.”

The “Big U” — a 10-mile conceptual plan to protect much of the lower East and West Sides of Manhattan — “is a line on the paper,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, former C.B.1 chairperson and a part of the Metropolitan NY-NJ Storm Surge Working Group.

“The ‘Big U’ at year six — I don’t see anything in the ground,” she said. “Nothing has changed at the waterfront.”

Another major aspect of the larger plan to “save” the city — as Malcolm Bowman, Stonybrook University professor and chairperson of the Storm Surge Working Group, put it — is the regional plan to protect more than 2,100 miles of New York and New Jersey shorelines.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently studying the feasibility of five different alternatives of offshore storm-surge barriers and shoreline protections for the New York and New Jersey region. By 2022, the corps is expected to file recommendations to Congress for a plan that would account for storm-surge risk — though not necessarily sea-level rise.

However, sea-level rise and storm-surge flooding are two distinct problems that need to be dealt with, Bowman said last week.

“We need to split that problem into two pieces,” he said.

The massive storm-surge barrier his working group supports could protect the city from storm-surge flooding for 100 years, he said. It calls for a 5-mile barrier between Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and Breezy Point, Queens, plus a smaller barrier at Throgs Neck between Queens and the Bronx. It’s one of five plans the corps is studying. But critics of the largest barrier plan say it would destroy the Hudson River’s ecology.

“I’m as green as anybody,” said Bowman. “If we’re going to come up with an engineering solution, it must not impact the ecology of this treasure, of this mighty Hudson River.”

Brewer supports the working group’s alternative plan.

“The main obstacle, even if there has been funding allocated, we’re not sure if it’s going to be enough,” Brewer said of the “Big U.” She also raised concerns about the possible regional storm barrier’s operational funding to manage it decades into the future, if it’s chosen.

“I support what [Bowman] stated,” she said. “Maybe we’re right, maybe we’re wrong, but let’s get going and do it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *