A Rising Tide
Unlike the month of March, which famously comes in like a lion but goes out like a lamb, Hurricane Michael both entered and exited the southeastern United States like a lion. Looking at the photos of the extraordinary destruction caused by the storm surges, I thought back to the weeks after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and its impact on New York City. Elderly people trapped in their apartments, often without electricity, as elevators stayed still for weeks. Widespread flooding and houses submerged or even washed away along the beaches of the Rockaways and the waterfront communities of Queens. Lower Manhattan in the dark for a full week, its streets turned into canals, short circuited basement generators, and water pouring into subway stations and subway tunnels, grinding train service to a halt. What’s going to protect us from the next Sandy?
With sea level rise an acknowledged reality and a particularly dire set of climate change predictions released only last week by international scientists, the ongoing viability of many parts of New York City, a port town almost entirely encircled by water, remains a matter of grave concern. Already the city and state have demolished houses in several parts of Staten Island, planting grass and wildflower seeds to allow them to return to a more natural state which creates a floodplain between the water and inhabited areas. Whole areas of Broad Channel are seeing both homes and streets raised by a state sponsored project to make the neighborhood safer, while the Army Corps of Engineers has built huge concrete baffles in the water off Sea Gate. With all that, many predictions see these low-lying areas bordering Jamaica Bay and Coney Island being completely submerged by the year 2100.
Even as these remediations go on, development continues at a rapid pace in other low lying and increasingly popular areas of the city, including Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Long Island City, and Tribeca/Financial District/Battery Park. At the same time, longer term strategists are looking at such possibilities as turning the whole Bowling Green area into a planted flood plain which greenbelt arms extending up both the East and West Side waterfronts (much of this has already happened on the West Side.) As New Yorkers, we tend to believe we are able to face any challenge, and certainly we have proved a resilient lot over the past few decades. The inexorable rise of the waters which surround us nonetheless presents an entirely new sort of challenge.
Holland, a small country with a lot of coastline, devised seawall protections which enabled most of its low lying fields and towns (many actually below sea level) to remain dry. With so much water exposure all around us, the challenges facing our city are much greater, but then, so are our resources. It’s not enough (although it helps) to simply move the building generator from the basement to the roof. The powerful intellects and resources of our city and state must remain focused on problem solving these issues.
Politicians are notoriously reluctant to plan ahead. That issue, exacerbated by the presence of a climate-change denier in the White House and a recent tax cut which actually is a tax hike for many New Yorkers who have now lost substantial SALT deductibility, reduces the likelihood that adequate funds will be allocated to solving the water problem before it is quite literally on us again. The “out of sight, out of mind” attitude places the city both physically and economically in limbo, waiting to see how bad the next one is. So please, all you New Yorkers, when you communicate with your representatives in government, remember the rising tide. It may float all boats, but we don’t want those boats floating in Madison Square Park!