What is the New York Harbor Storm-Surge Barrier?

By Brian J. Pape, AIA

Well before Hurricane Sandy struck Metropolitan New York in 2012, Mayor Michael Bloomberg authorized the New York City Panel on Climate Change in August 2008, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, to investigate the city’s vulnerability to a variety of climate-induced risks including a major storm-surge event. The eight year risks to the New York metropolitan region also include wind and flooding damage from winter nor’easter storms that can be as serious as rarer hurricanes.

In December 2012, the NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) convened to address the creation of a more resilient New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, with a long-term focus on preparing for and protecting against the impacts of climate change. As the largest storm ever recorded by the National Weather Service (at 1,100 miles in diameter), Sandy’s storm-surge impacts on New York and New Jersey were severe. Almost immediately, President Obama and his Secretary of HUD Shaun Donavan (from NYC) developed Rebuild by Design to conceive of flood-protection proposals.

According to Wikipedia, The New York Harbor Storm Surge Barrier is a proposed barrier and floodgate system to protect the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary. It would consist of one barrier located across the mouth of Lower New York Bay, between Sandy Hook (N.J.) and Rockaway (N.Y.), and a second on the upper East River, to provide a ring of protection for most of the bi-state region. Through extensive use of floodgates, both barriers would have largely open cross-sections during normal conditions to minimize environmental impacts on the estuary and port operations. The barrier system could also be extended eastward, filling in gaps between barrier islands, to protect the various communities lining the south shore of Long Island.

MAP OF PROPOSED STORM SURGE BARRIER locations around New York Harbor. Image
by Wikipedia.

The barrier proposal was developed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy by the Metropolitan NY-NJ-LI Storm Surge Working Group (SSWG), composed of prominent entrepreneurs, civic leaders, social scientists, oceanographers, marine ecologists, meteorologists, engineers, architects, economists, attorneys, and media experts. 

A barrier with physical scales similar to the Hudson was constructed for St. Petersburg, Russia, while the impacts of the barrier for the relatively well-mixed Oosterschelde in the Netherlands have been studied extensively and provide some guidance.

Meanwhile, Rise to Resilience is a campaign and coalition of residents, leaders in business, labor, community and justice volunteer organizations, scientists, environmental advocates, and design professionals collectively calling on our federal, state, and local governments to make building climate resilience an urgent priority in 2022 and beyond. The Rise to Resilience campaign is spearheaded by the Waterfront Alliance, and applauds full passage of the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (WRDA) signed into law in December of 2020, with bipartisan support as part of the larger Covid-19 relief and appropriations package.

The legislation authorizes $9.9 billion in federal funds for 46 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) flood control, environmental restoration, coastal protection, and other projects, said Paul Gallay of (Hudson) Riverkeeper. Priorities secured successfully in the bill include: reforms to Corps principles and requirements to better incorporate considerations of climate change, environmental justice, and environmental impacts; $421 million for 621 acres of habitat restoration through authorization of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan; expanded authorization for the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Study to better address sea level rise and engage communities, particularly those of color, tribes, and low-income communities; direction for the Corps to revise existing planning guidance documents and regulations to consider sea level rise and inland flooding for all future flood mitigation projects, and to ensure that they are based on the best available peer-reviewed science and data; increased ability to coordinate across agencies and levels of government, including the use of data developed by state and other agencies; provisions to increase the use of natural approaches to flood resilience. To address the problem of sea level rise, a storm-surge barrier system combined with coastline adjustments would form a two-tiered strategy to protect the region.

The 57-acre John V. Lindsay East River Park is being totally bulldozed and landfilled to a higher elevation. Credit: Wikipedia.

Instead of a barrier system, the NYC SIRR report identified a plethora of local measures; they include local walls or barriers against storm surge on some sections of the coast, and smaller-scale projects to increase seawall heights or otherwise raise vulnerable coastlines as necessary. Because of the variety of governmental entities involved, as well as differing community reaction, there is a lack of coordination on goals and standards of storm protection among the various projects. As a result, these scattered efforts have proved to be more difficult to execute, as well as more expensive than was expected, and have raised doubt about how much of the shoreline will be protected in the end.

If a barrier takes a long time to implement, so do local projects. Almost ten years since Sandy struck, local projects have yet to be completed and have experienced the same problems (costs, public resistance, etc.) that were attributed to the regional storm surge barrier approach. For example, a barrier had been funded as part of an inner defensive ring for Lower Manhattan to be integrated into the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway. The 57-acre John V. Lindsay East River Park had an approved plan called the “Big U” to protect the adjacent public housing developments. The city is already building retaining walls around the housing projects and raising utility machine rooms to a higher level.

Additional “tide gate” and other barriers are proposed to be added north of the John V. Lindsay East River Park, at left, along the East River in Manhattan. Credit: Wikipedia.

After almost five years of planning and community involvement, however, the city reversed itself and unilaterally decided that the park, with over a thousand mature trees, the East River Greenway, and other expensive amenities, had to be totally destroyed, depriving the community of their beloved recreation spaces for the next decade at least, judging by nearly every city project’s history. This certainly recalls an old trope—that we must destroy the park to save it. Now, the city has started destroying the precious mature trees there. The New York Times featured a special section on this on Friday December 3, 2021, written by Michael Kimmelman, founder of Headway.

And once the newly reconstructed park is complete, sometime in the distant future, what happens to the neighboring shorelines that will be flooded in the next storm? It doesn’t make sense to take such drastic measures for so little benefit; it makes more sense to work on protecting all of Manhattan’s shorelines at once.

Of course, no academic study would be complete without the conclusion that more study is needed. Thus, Dr. Philip Orton (Stevens Institute of Technology) and Dr. David Ralston (WHOI), in their Preliminary Evaluation of the Physical Influences of Storm Surge Barriers on the Hudson River Estuary, The Hudson River Foundation and the NY/NJ Harbor & Estuary Program recommend:

  • Continue with 3D estuary modeling of estuary conditions and surge barrier-induced changes.
  • Continue to develop a more detailed set of parameters describing influences of barriers on estuaries.
  • Find/fund studies of built barriers for similar estuaries—what did models predict and were they realized?

Lost in all this activity are the conclusions of (Netherlands hydrologist) Dr. Aerts’ study—that because of the expectation of rising sea level and increased global warming, by 2040 the benefit/cost ratio of a regional barrier system will far exceed the ratio of the measures the city is now taking (see sidebar: “How Practical Would a Sea Barrier Be?” Benefit/cost ratios of previous barriers exceed 2/1, some at 10/1, and grow with each new flood avoided), a regional barrier may be needed soon, and planning for it should begin now.

Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee, is co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of AIANY Historic Buildings Committee, and is a journalist who specializes in architecture subjects.

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