The destructive impact of Hurricane Ian on Florida was more than a warning signal. It is a notice of the future for coastal regions in the United States including New York City. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a plan that can lessen the destructive impact of the next super storm, but it will be expensive and a major political fight to get it approved and funded. As we have witnessed with Hurricane Ian, there are vulnerable coastal regions up and down the Atlantic seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico. The cost of addressing all of these weak points will be astronomical.
According to the Army Corps’ 569-page NY & NJ Harbor & Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study (HATS), it would cost $52 billion to build storm surge gates that would protect the New York City metropolitan area from storm surges and coastal flooding when hurricanes hit. This study has been pending since Hurricane Sandy devastated the metropolitan region in 2012. The Army Corps report suggests five different options. Its preferred option, Alternative 3B, is a 14-year construction project for 12 moveable storm surge barriers on the largest waterways in the region. This option includes the construction of over 40 miles of coastal barriers and seawalls and floodwalls in East Harlem, Lower Manhattan, southern Brooklyn, and the entire Rockaway Peninsula. This would create the largest coastal protection system in the region and reshape the New York City waterfront. An even more costly option, priced at $119 billion, would place a five-mile storm surge barrier from Sandy Hook, New Jersey to Breezy Point, Queens. This would make it possible to close off the entrance to Lower New York Bay as a storm approached the region. Even this plan would still leave most of Long Island and the New Jersey coast exposed to storm surges.
The Army Corps release included a best-case timetable that would still leave the city vulnerable for almost two decades. Public feedback on the plans will be accepted through January 6, 2023. A final design for the plan would be submitted to federal and state governments by 2025 and if Congress and New York and New Jersey approve funding, construction would hopefully begin in 2030. Release of the proposals was tentatively scheduled for late 2019 or early 2020, but funding for the study was canceled when then-President Donald Trump mocked the idea on Twitter. Trump called the proposal “a costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly idea that, when needed, probably won’t work anyway.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a similar protective system on the Mississippi delta to protect New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the city in 2005. It cost $14.5 billion to construct levees, floodgates, and seawalls along 133 miles of New Orleans coastline. It was not completed until 2018 and a year later a study found it already needs an upgrade because of rising sea levels. The Army Corps report estimates that its Alternative 3B plan for the New York metropolitan region, when completed, would reduce the economic damage caused by sea-level rise and major coastal storms by over $300 billion over a fifty-year period.
Under Alternative 3B, the largest storm surge gates would be on the Arthur Kill and the Kill Van Kull between Staten Island and New Jersey and across the entrance to Jamaica Bay. Gates would also be built at the entrance to New York harbor near the Verrazano Bridge and at the mouths of Flushing Creek, Newtown Creek, Gowanus Canal, Sheepshead Bay, Gerritsen Creek, Shellbank Basin, Hawtree Creek, and at the head of Jamaica Bay, and in New Jersey on the Hackensack River. The Army Corps report estimates that Alternative 3B, when completed, would reduce the economic damage caused by sea-level rise and major coastal storms by over $300 billion over a fifty-year period.
A project of this magnitude will have an environmental impact on local marine habitats, wetlands, beaches, and wildlife species, but the Army Corps report estimates that it would be low to moderate. The most serious impact would be on Jamaica Bay where there is a wildlife preserve along bird migration flight patterns. But the bay, which was seriously damaged by the Hurricane Sandy flood surge, would be at grave risk anyway without the project. Because of the environmental impact of the plan, some local environmental groups are expected to oppose it. These groups have raised the possibility that closing the floodgates during major storms would trap rainwater runoff, raw sewage, and other pollutants causing flooding and the spread of pollutants in residential neighborhoods. Three New York City waterways are highly polluted Superfund sites that will require lengthy and costly cleanup by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The best-case scenario means New York City, the financial hub of theUnited States, will be vulnerable for another two decades. Meanwhile global warming continues, hurricanes intensify, and sea levels rise.
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