By Malcolm J. Bowman
Storm surges and sea level rise represent existential threats to the future well-being of New York City, coastal New Jersey and the south coast of Long Island. Superstorm Sandy was a rude awakening to the clear and present danger of how climate change and rising sea levels threaten the very existence of the city as we know it. More recently, the tragic effects of the coronovirus pandemic serve to remind us that the unlikely and even the unthinkable can and do occur.
This hurricane season continues as global temperatures rise to dangerous levels, leading to warnings of an above average hurricane season.
The Metropolitan New York-New Jersey-Long Island Storm Surge Working Group (SSWG), a professional association of scientists, engineers, urban planners and social scientists, continues to advocate for intensified objective scientific, engineering and environmental evaluation of the dire need for, and the construction of, regional storm surge barriers to stop extreme surges arising from hurricanes and winter nor’easters from pouring through the two portals to NY Harbor (the Lower Bay and upper East River) and flooding the city ever again.
We advocate for the restoration of funding for the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Harbor & Tributaries Study (HATS) which was abruptly cancelled just two months before the long-anticipated identification of a Tentatively Selected Plan that would have identified the leading alternatives for coastal storm risk mitigation for New York Harbor. The absence of Army Corps funding leaves at a complete standstill the only region-wide effort with a scope appropriate to the scale of the challenges presented by future storm surges for at least the next 100 years.
This is a travesty of enormous dimensions and consequences. For several years the Army Corps has investigated several alternative proposals. HATS identified the most effective and most costly of these to be a regional system of offshore storm-surge barriers, with sea gates for navigation and tidal exchange, built far away from dense infrastructure. This alternative would block extreme surges from both the ocean and from Long Island Sound. The least expensive but also least effective proposal examined was a limited string of onshore perimeter walls, some built as high as 17 feet above ground level.
In the absence of a regional strategy, ongoing municipal attempts to design local systems of perimeter walls and shoreline protection proceed in fits and starts. Virtually none of these have been completed: most are mired in controversy, cost overruns and delays. Many are of questionable effectiveness and would, to varying degrees, block views, limit waterfront access and disrupt urban life and property.
Fundamentally, storm surge and sea level rise are regional challenges requiring regional solutions. We need to evaluate and implement a hybrid system of barriers with movable gates to protect the region from the sudden acut— in human terms—‘heart attack’ of devastating storm surges as well as a network of low onshore barriers to protect against the ‘chronic community-health’ issue of long-term sea level rise.
Bill Keller, former Executive Editor of the New York Times, wrote soon after Superstorm Sandy:
“The problem is not just that smart people differ wildly about what to do; it’s that the problem crosses multiple jurisdictions, that everything costs loads of money and that humans have short memories. The will to do anything ambitious tends to recede almost as fast as the tide surge”… “The number of local, state, regional and federal agencies that have a piece of the action in disasters is paralyzing. Everybody is in charge, so nobody is in charge. This problem needs a chairman of the board.”
Time is short, political will has evaporated, funds are withdrawn and confusion and misinformation proliferates. Do we want New York City to last at least another 100 years? Then wake up, seize the moment and let’s move ahead to keep the city, livable, safe, vibrant and healthy. Would the chairman of the board, please step up!
Malcolm Bowman is a Distinguished Professor of Marine Science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He currently serves as the Chair of the Metropolitan NY-NJ-LI Storm Surge Working Group.
THE 48,000-TON VIKING STAR transits the Thames Barrier during its maiden voyage. The Barrier has effectively protected London from the ravages of storm surges and sea level rise since 1984. A similar, enlarged design could protect New York City. Photo credit: Viking Ocean Cruises.