I’m No Longer Sure New York Will Protect Itself From Rising Waters
Ten years ago, as Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York City, I was standing in knee-high, yellow rubber boots on the ground floor of the Downtown Manhattan building where I live and work. We had piled sandbags outside the front door, covered them with tarps and borrowed sump pumps in preparation. I was frightened.
As the water started spilling over the riverbanks just after sunset, Tom Wall, my tenant and an engineer from New Orleans who had weathered Hurricane Katrina, warned, “If it gets above your knees, we’re going to have to run.”
Within minutes, water lapped over the sandbags and rushed in through the walls of the adjoining buildings. The power went out. In the darkness, we heard creaks as the weight of the river, lifted by storm surge, pressed against the storefront. “Time to go,” said Wall. As we shot up the stairs, we heard a crash as water six feet high shattered 36 square feet of glass.
By the next day, the floodwater had ebbed. But 10,000 bottles of wine we had secured in our rear tasting room were gone, swept out to sea, replaced with a thick, black muck. Not even a broken bottle could be found.
These days, I still keep those boots by the door, to the amusement of some of my friends.
Many Manhattanites I know scoff at people who rush to rebuild along the Florida coast after Hurricane Ian, since those communities are likely to be flooded again as the seas rise and storms become more powerful from climate change. But why would New Yorkers be immune to those same threats? Is relocating something that only other people do? Maybe we should have the courage to recognize that we too should be moving on to higher ground. I am thinking about it, because I am no longer convinced that we’ll succeed in safeguarding our city in the long term — or even from the next flood.
After Sandy, which took the lives of 43 New Yorkers and damaged 70,000 housing units, I threw myself into trying to ensure that our area would be better prepared next time. I joined my local Community Board and formed a neighborhood improvement group, the Old Seaport Alliance. I was appointed to the Climate Coalition for Lower Manhattan and other local commissions. I pleaded our case at City Hall.
The single biggest civic leap forward in my lifetime, I argued, was the dismantling of the West Side Highway and subsequent re-embrace of the Hudson River waterfront. I was sure we could do the same in the Seaport area on the East Side, and also make it more resilient to coastal flooding and sea level rise.
We’ve made some progress. The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, which connects Brooklyn with Lower Manhattan, now has gates to prevent a repeat of the 60 million gallons of water that gushed in during Sandy, filling it to the ceiling. The M.T.A. has weatherproofed subway stations. Con Edison has hardened our underground infrastructure to protect from power outages. In the last 10 years I have also met dozens of smart, well-intentioned civil servants committed to protecting our city from the effects of climate change. But in private conversations, many of them share frustration that not enough has changed.
One sign that our lobbying paid off is a temporary sand-filled barrier built by the city that stretches, with a series of interruptions to allow water access, like a dotted line from Wall Street to the Brooklyn Bridge. The slots are designed to be filled by inflatable dams, stored in Brooklyn to be installed by crews during an emergency.
But there’s a catch: Those crews would have to get to Brooklyn, retrieve the inflatable dams and then hope they have enough time to set them up. What’s more, these temporary levees, which the city says offer only “nominal protection,” are already halfway through their anticipated five-to-seven-year life span. Then what?
Last December, the Economic Development Corporation unveiled another big plan. The Financial District and Seaport Climate Resilience Master Plan is meant to address storm surge as well as two other critical issues: sewer overflow after intense rainstorms and regular tidal flooding exacerbated by sea level rise, which is projected to affect the Seaport monthly by 2050 and daily by 2080. The plan is to raise the coastline 15 to 18 feet by extending it up to 200 feet into the East River.
What’s the timeline for this $5 billion to $7 billion project? To be determined, according to the city’s latest update on Oct. 17.
Until then, the E.D.C. has proposed one more interim solution, Seaport Coastal Resilience, to focus on one of Manhattan’s lowest-lying and most vulnerable neighborhoods The goal is a mini-version of the big master plan: Raise the shoreline three to five feet and offer some storm surge mitigation. The E.D.C. is adamant that the project is fully funded, but says it is still in the design stage. Construction is not scheduled to start until 2025, with a targeted completion date of 2027.
With soaring inflation, I hope we still have enough money for whatever gets built. But I also worry that three to five feet won’t be enough to keep the neighborhood dry until the longer-term solution is in place.
Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its own vision for the region, the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study. The 549-page report proposes a slew of resiliency measures. The currently preferred plan, “Alternative 3b,” envisions storm surge gates located at strategic spots in New York Harbor buttressed by varied shore-based measures like levees and sea walls. One of the planned sea walls in my neighborhood would be 16-and-a-half-feet high — taller than parts of the U.S.-Mexico border fence — and would block views, light and access to the waterfront.
The total cost is $52 billion. Even more breathtaking is the timeline. If all goes smoothly and the state agrees to pony up 35 percent, or $18.1 billion, the project could be complete by 2044, by which time the city already anticipates “frequent” flooding.
What I’ve learned over the past 10 years is that we have the ability to defend our city in the face of climate change. But what is also clear, given the funding gaps and ever-extending deadlines, is that we won’t do it in time. In that case, is it better to be realistic?
In her book, “The Resilience Dividend,” Judith Rodin, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, defines resilience, partially, as the capacity to “adapt and grow from a disruptive experience.” Maybe growing, in this case, means accepting that things are not going to go your way.
The cobbled streets of the historic Seaport have been my home for 20 years and I love them. But I wonder whether I should just accept that the future of Manhattan’s most threatened neighborhood lies under water.
Marco Pasanella owns Pasanella & Son, Vintners, a wine shop in the South Street Seaport neighborhood of Manhattan.
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