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Construction & Design

New York storm barrier plan causing big waves

Rendering of a storm barrier that could be built in Staten Island Sound, the tidal strait between Staten Island and New Jersey.

New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer has criticized plans to protect New York from Superstorm Sandy-size floods with barriers that are too big, too costly and would take too long to build.

Instead, Stringer wants the Army Corps of Engineers to take a more environmentally-conscious approach, using wetland restoration, living shorelines, reefs, and levees to protect the city from floods.

“There’s no question about it — a future Superstorm Sandy will come and New York Harbor will bear the brunt of it,” said Stringer.

“Too many of our waterfront communities are all too vulnerable to the next storm, or even the next high tide. I am urging the Army Corps of Engineers to get shovels in the ground on shorefront resiliency options like floodwalls, dune systems, wetlands, and levees that can protect New Yorkers and their livelihoods.

“Lives are at stake, homes and businesses are on the line, and futures hang in the balance. We need to act with urgency, plan strategically, and build out resiliency efficiently in the era of climate change, because time is not on our side.”

The US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is investigating measures to manage future flood risk in ways that support the long-term resilience and sustainability of the coastal ecosystem and surrounding communities, and reduce the economic costs and risks associated with flood and storm events. The Corps completed the North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study, which identified nine high-risk, focus areas on the north Atlantic Coast for further in-depth analysis into potential coastal storm risk management measures.

One of the nine areas identified was the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries study area.

Among several proposals is a plan to construct offshore storm surge barriers in New York Harbor which Stringer claims won’t adequately protect coastal communities from the threat of sea level rise and associated flooding.

In a letter to the engineers, String highlights the long construction timeline associated with the storm barriers and their high cost estimate — noting that the largest of the options outlined in the proposal would take a quarter of a century to build out, cost six times that of shorefront resiliency options, and endanger the delicate ecosystem of the harbor including the region’s network of marshes and wetlands that are critical to mitigating storm surge.

The letter follows a May 2019 report published by Comptroller Stringer, “The Costs of Climate Change: New York City’s Economic Exposure to Rising Seas,” which exposed substantial underspending of federally-appropriated Superstorm Sandy recovery funding that the City had not yet allocated to protect vulnerable coastline communities including only 57 percent of a combined $14.5 billion in federal funds.

The report concluded that lagging spending posed a threat to the 520 miles of coastline citywide, which is estimated at a combined property value of $101.5 billion within the city’s current 100-year floodplain map — marking a more than 50 percent increase in value since 2010.

“As Comptroller Stringer wisely observes, we need to take thoughtful, comprehensive steps to protect our communities from coastal flooding, and in-water barriers simply won’t do the job,” said Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay.

“Massive in-water storm surge barriers would do nothing to protect us from sea level rise. They would take decades to build, cost exorbitant sums of money, do real damage to our river ecosystems, and put communities outside of the barriers at much greater risk. Also, we’re seeing them fail in communities like New Orleans. ”

Roland Lewis, president and CEO, Waterfront Alliance, said, “We appreciate the US Army Corps of Engineers’ work to study our options. We are, however, concerned about the approach, particularly that the authorized study is solely framed around addressing storm surge, when thousands of homes and businesses lie in areas that will likely be permanently inundated from sea level rise by the end of the century.

“Further, we are concerned about a process which millions are unaware of, and which may be decided without their true engagement. There is no silver bullet to the challenge and we support efforts to get federal dollars to our region. But in doing so, we ask of the Corps and our congressional colleagues to address sea level rise from the outset; significantly increase investment in public engagement; and ensure local leadership in project design and community engagement. We do need solutions and soon, but we need to do it right,”

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