Turning Data Into Action: The Future of Coastal Resiliency

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated the New York metropolitan area, resulting in hundreds of lives lost, eight million people without electricity, and over $19B in damages. The hurricane exposed our greatest vulnerabilities to climate change and increasingly intense coastal storms.

Like many great cities around the world, New York has learned from the past. The city has successfully implemented many efforts to hopefully prevent its citizens from being susceptible this kind of environmental disaster again.

However, potentially dreadful resiliency plans from the United States Army Corp Of Engineers (USACE) study, such as a $119B sea wall, have been proposed and put on hold. This is tremendous news because all of the coastal resiliency plans by USACE fail to account for both sea level rise and storm surge—a fatal flaw.

Now is the opportunity to fix the study in order to produce a holistic coastal resiliency plan that accounts for key pieces of environmental data. The potential result? A socioeconomic and environmentally conscious coastal resiliency plan that benefits everyone.

Lessons from the past

Flooding during Hurricane Sandy

If NYC did nothing to protect our coastlines and another Hurricane Sandy hit in 2050, it would cost $90B in damages – a staggering increase from the $19B in damages in 2012.

While Hurricane Sandy was a historic event, it will certainty not be the last storm to greet NYC’s front doors. Let’s review how Hurricane Sandy was handled in 2012, to see how we might learn from the lessons of the past.

New York City’s response

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated New York City’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) report in 2012. The purpose of this report was to analyze Hurricane Sandy’s impact, recommend initiatives on how to rebuild the city, and develop plans to address our greatest vulnerabilities to climate change.

The report examined the baseline coastal resiliency measures in place during Hurricane Sandy, and propsed a 10-year plan with 257 initiatives to address future climate change risks. To help inform these reports, federal flood maps were created. These maps indicated that 400,000 New Yorkers and 85,000 buildings are in high-risk flood areas.

To carry out the initiatives recommended in the report, Mayor Bill de Blasio established the Office of Recovery and Resiliency in 2014. This office is the City’s central management and coordination agency for carrying out the implementation of the SIRR report initiatives. This department remains one of the core lines of defense against another Hurricane Sandy because at a federal level, such as plans from the USACE, have not been implemented. But why is that?

Federal Government’s response

In reply to the hurricane in 2012, Congress passed the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, an emergency relief bill valued at $48B. From those funds, 80% went to rebuilding infrastructure or providing direct assistance to those in need, and 20% went towards mitigation and resilience programs.

One of the major programs funded was USACE’s Flood Risk Management Program. This program focused on a study that aims to produce a comprehensive plan to protect our coastal areas, including New York Harbor and its tributaries.

As a result of the study, the USACE proposed a variety of resiliency options for our coastlines. One rather rather dire plan happened to be the $119B sea wall, which was not well received by environmental justice groups and community-based organizations.

The $119B sea wall

Of all the resiliency plans proposed by the USACE, the sea wall was by far the most outrageous. In my opinion, this plan was never going to happen. It only solved half of the problem, storm surge issues, and did not take into account sea level rise. But one positive that came from it was the attention it drew to coastal resiliency plans.

So what would this proposed $119B sea wall look like? It includes the closure of three gates to protect New Jersey, New York Harbor and its tributaries from storm surges.

  • One sea wall would be at the narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island.
  • One sea wall would be at the Arthur Kill between Staten Island and New Jersey.
  • One sea wall would be on the upper reaches of the East River.
Coastal resiliency proposal by the United States Army Corp of Engineers - The storm surge barrier wall

While these sea walls would act as a shield against storm surges, they also pose a major flood risk should water get stuck behind these walls.

Remember when Hurricane Karina caused levees to break in New Orleans, resulting in immense flooding to low-lying, low-income, underserved communities? Well, similar calamities could occur in New York and New Jersey.

Additionally, these sea walls would create a choke hold for the estuaries. They’d prevent tidal flow and the migration of fish, thereby causing irreversible damage to Hudson River Estuary.

“We welcome good, common-sense ideas to prevent massive flooding in our region. A 5-mile ‘sea barrier’ is not one of them.”

– Editorial, The Record (N.J.)

The SIRR report also estimated the three gates option would cost $20 – $30B, not accounting for maintenance cost. The sea wall is by far the most costly plan that was proposed.

The most devastating aspect of this proposed plan is that it doesn’t take into account both sea level rise and storm surges. It’s sort of like spending $30B on a pair of shoes that are meant to protect you for the next 50 years, but you only got one shoe and it’s not even weatherproof. For all these reasons, many groups have vehemently opposed such an option.

Nevertheless, we had a chance to catch up with Kate Boicourt from the Waterfront Alliance, and she made a great point:

The USACE had to study the sea wall to understand its benefits. However, the states laugh at the maintenance cost and the fact that it’s only accounting for storm surge and not sea level rise.

Kate Boicourt, Director of Resilience, Waterfront Alliance

Additionally, with the USACE’s budget for community outreach being minuscule, (through no fault of their own), communities would be unaware of the coastal resiliency plans being decided for them. With this sea wall plan creating waves of media frenzy, at least people are now cognizant of what’s happening.

I’d also like to point out that sea walls are not the only option for us. Many other cities around the world are in the same predicament as New York, and they have implemented a range of innovative coastal resiliency measures. To USACE’s point, we should consider all options, but perhaps we can make them a bit more realistic.

Lessons from other cities

Waterways in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, reducing flood risk is a national priority especially considering that two-thirds of their population live below sea level. The Dutch government created a guide to reduce flooding risk through 2200. This plan takes into account all aspects of resiliency—including storm surges, rising sea levels, financing, and climate change resulting in more intensified storms.

Boston coastline illustration

In Boston, a similar sea wall plan was put forward from the USACE to protect their coastlines. However, they voted against it in favor of on-shore resiliency plans. Why? Because the most realistic coastal resiliency plan will include both grey and green infrastructure.

New York Flood Risk Map from the Mayor's Office of Resiliency

By looking to other flood prone cities, NYC can model parts of the resiliency plans off existing plans to ensure a sound socioeconomic and environmentally beneficial plan is created. But to start, these plans need to incorporate key pieces of environmental data.

Turning environmental data into coastal resiliency action

The key takeaway from the $119B sea wall plan is that it did not take into account both types of environmental data—storm surge and sea level rise. But there’s more. We discussed this more with Kate Boicourt, Director of Resilience at the Waterfront Alliance, in order to get her insights into other types of data and community engagement still needed for success.

Flood risk maps for future flooding

Flood risk maps (FRM) provide a geographic overview and representation of flood risks within a project area. FRMs are not a regulatory product and are optional to produce for a flood risk project.

According to Kate, there’s already a lot of environmental data out there, but one type of information that needs to be obtained is regulatory flood risk maps that account for future flooding.

At the moment, many FRMs are based on historical data. This means that these maps cannot predict future flood risk due to both climate change and sea level rise. If predictive maps are created to take into account these factors, they’ll be able to help influence resiliency plans and ensure resources are going to those that are most vulnerable.

Public engagement data

Public engagement is essential. The public needs to be informed on the various options, given a chance to share what they want to do, and provided with information on how much it will cost.

Oftentimes, communities are left in the dark when major infrastructure decisions are being made. Not only is this an issue regarding community input, it also creates a disparity of local knowledge that could be extremely helpful to city agencies.

For example, oftentimes locals are the only ones who know which low-lying neighborhoods flood. With citizen-science efforts, cities can engage the public to share photos of flooded streets, which can then help them understand vulnerabilities that may not be in their FRMs.

Land use policies data

One of the biggest missing pieces in the proposed plan is understanding how different land use policies will be affected over time and how that impacts the cost of resiliency—be it green infrastructure vs. gray infrastructure, or a mix of the two.

By combining land use data with projected cost and climate data, there will be more clarity around the costs associated with short-term and long-term coastal resiliency measures.

Indefinite postponement

On February 21, 2020, the USACE announced the indefinite postponement of the New York New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study (AKA the $119B sea wall plan). Apparently, the study did not receive federal appropriation funding for the fiscal year work plan. However, it could still receive funding next year.

There’s no question that this indefinite postponement is odd on all accounts. Was it due to President Trump’s tweet or a true lack of funding? No one quite knows.

An opportunity to get it right

With the postponement of the USACE’s study comes an opportunity to correct all the major errors in the original effort. The Waterfront Alliance, Riverkeeper and its allies, elected officials, and the USACE, are all working to offer fixes going forward.

In a joint statement, Waterfront Alliance outlined 3 high priority asks to Congress for improving the study:

  1. Expand authorization for the NYNJHATS to address sea level rise and coastal storms in order to prioritize socially vulnerable communities and natural resources.
  2. Prioritize environmental justice in communities and nature through mandating the implementation of 2013 principals & requirements.
  3. Increase resources available for public engagement.

They also outlined 2 high priority asks to improve the study to New York and New Jersey:

  1. Thoroughly evaluate natural, nature-based, and non-structural strategies.
  2. Dedicate resources to public engagement.

Supporting coastal resiliency efforts

The response to Hurricane Sandy is impressive, and I’d like to take a moment to highlight the work that has been done including:

  • New York City’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) report in 2012
  • The creation of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency in 2014 & the implementation of the 10-year, 257-point SIRR plan
  • The creation of the New York City Panel on Climate Change
  • Coastal resiliency being in the OneNYC Strategic Plan
  • USACE’s continued work to protect high-risk areas in the New York Harbor and its tributaries

I’d also like to highlight the critical work done by the 40+ waterfront allies. Without them, our voices as concerned citizens would not be heard, and proposed plans, such as the $119B sea wall, may not be known to us.

If you’d like to get more involved with our 40+ waterfront allies, there are a few ways to help out. You can find various pre-drafted letters and newsletters on Riverkeeper and Waterfront Alliance’s respected websites advocating for our elected leaders to require storm surge and sea level rise data be included in USACE’s future work. You can also find out about public hearings regarding waterfronts and coastal resiliency measures on Stormwater Infrastructure Matter’s page. Finally, if you’re a resident and want to help, you can rise to the challenge within your own neighborhood.

People working together on resiliency efforts

Rising to the challenge as a citizen

Grassroots community-based organizations are the lifeblood of change in many neighborhoods and have a large influence on community and regional development. The opportunities to work with these 40+ waterfront allies and community-based organizations are ample.

Perhaps you’re interested in stewarding street trees, community gardens, or advocating for environmental education? Maybe you’d like to organize a corporate volunteer day for you and your co-workers? Or maybe you don’t know yet, but still want to help. That’s okay because there are a large amount of community-based organizations that need your help through donations and support.

If you’re interested in finding out how you can support your local group by helping to collect environmental sensor data, send us a message at support@temboo.com.