Great barrier grief: Study to evaluate five storm-barrier plans, but locals, experts pan process

One proposal is to protect all the waterfront around New York Harbor with a five-mile storm-surge barrier between Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Breezy Point in Queens, with a smaller barrier at Throgs Neck in the Bronx.
Army Corps of Engineers

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA

A public meeting with hardly any public notice. Five proposals with no details on environmental impact or economic feasibility. And a planning process that  an insider has doubts can determine the best storm surge protection plan for the city.

Nearly six years after Hurricane Sandy swamped Lower Manhattan in seven feet of water and killed two in the district, this is where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stands in its efforts to protect over 2,150 miles of New York and New Jersey shorelines from the next superstorm.

The Corps isn’t expected to complete its New York/New Jersey Harbor & Tributaries study and submit a final recommendation to Congress until the summer of 2022. But by the Corps’ standards, even that pace is quicker than usual, according to the study’s project manager.

“Believe it or not, the 2022 time period is actually somewhat accelerated,” said Bryce Wisemiller.

Back in 2012, the Corps implemented so-called “SMART planning,” which expedites studies by narrowing the number of questions they seek to answer.

“One feeling that engineers and scientists always have is that we want to get more data and answer every last question,” Wisemiller said. “And at some point, you never can. We’re trying to answer as many of the high-risk questions as we can in our studies, and acknowledge that there are some risks that we aren’t.”

Members of Community Board 1 — which had passed a resolution months before Sandy requesting the Corps study storm surge barriers for New York Harbor — were irked that they weren’t informed of the Corps’ July 9 public scoping meeting until just a few days before.

“It’s sort of ironic that you have a board that represents the community, and yet these groups don’t come to us,” said Alice Blank, chairwoman of the board’s resiliency subcommittee. “I’m sure we’re not the only ones, of course.”

Another proposal envisions a more piecemeal approach, with shoreline protection along various of the waterfront, which could mitigate flooding from both storm surges and sea-level rise.

But she conceded that coordinating all the different groups of stakeholders around such a vast project is a “herculean task,” and is just the beginning of a long process which they all agree has to be done right.

“Everybody’s trying to figure out what’s the next step, and how do we get there as quickly as possible without cutting any corners,” she said.

And Blank isn’t the only one concerned about cutting corners.

In a last-minute meeting of the resiliency subcommittee in late July, a rep from the Corps explained the study for over an hour, and detailed his own concerns over applying the SMART planning process to such a huge project.

The Corps is operating with these rules that “never contemplated something of this scale,” Thomas Hodson, the chief of the Corps’ plan formulation branch, told CB 1. He expressed doubt about the ability of the expedited planning process to find the best alternative to protect the vast area from storm surge flooding.

“SMART planning rushes to make a decision,” Hodson said. “Headquarters has decided to rearrange the trade-off in favor of using less time and less money to make a decision. Does that increase the probability that you’ll make any wrong decision? Does that increase the probability that you will arrive at what’s called a Type 2 error?” he said, referring to a type of statistical error — sometimes called a “false negative” — which could lead the study to ignore significant risks with one or more of the five different proposals the Corps study is evaluating.

The five options the Corps presented span a spectrum ranging from only offshore storm surge barriers to only protective shoreline measures, with mixed alternatives in between.

On one end of the spectrum, the Corps is suggesting a five-mile regional storm-surge barrier across New York Harbor connecting Sandy Hook in New Jersey with Breezy Point in Queens, plus a much smaller barrier at Throgs Neck between Queens and the Bronx.

Another proposal would have no offshore barriers, but rather implement shoreline protections targeting key points along the New York and New Jersey coasts and even up the Hudson River to Albany.

Three alternatives in between feature different combinations of elements of those two plans.

The offshore barrier plan, said Wisemiller, “would be a monumental engineering challenge” and could cost anywhere between $30 million  and $50 billion dollars. It would also have lots of moving parts — requiring more than 100 gates to close the vital shipping corridor in the event of a major storm, he said.

“Yes, you’re protecting the broad area, and you have that certainty,” Wisemiller said. “But then you also have the concern that all those gates have to work perfectly while that storm is approaching and there’s really no way to test those systems until there is a storm in place.”

Wisemiller also pointed out that the shoreline-focused option — which he said would likely cost only “a few billion” dollars — would be much less susceptible to catastrophic failure than the all-or-nothing offshore barrier, which could leave the entire region unprotected if it malfunctioned.

“I’m not advocating for one or the other, but the flip-side is that you have measures that are tailored for different areas that you have less area at risk if any one of the measures should fail for whatever reason,” he said. “Poor maintenance over time, whatever the conditions are.”

Though the board didn’t endorse a specific proposal, it passed a resolution on July 31 condemning the SMART planning process, writing that the “expedited review process could have serious implications in terms of an inadequate review of all the critical variables that need to be evaluated for a study of this magnitude.”

The board also asked that the Corps evaluate how each alternative would protect shorelines from continued sea-level rise, and requested better communication from the Corps going forward.

The Corps has already extended the public comment period to Sept. 20, citing “interest generated by the public, at meetings and through their elected officials.” So CB1 has roughly another month to submit formal comment of the proposals being studied, but some board members said the lack of detail makes it difficult to offer informed input.

“It’s really hard to comment on it because there’s not a lot of detail, and it’s hard to know how it’s being coordinated with the city,” said Laura Starr, a landscape architect whose firm Starr Whitehouse helped develop the “Big U” waterfront protection plan, which would wrap Lower Manhattan in a 10-mile belt of berms and levies.

Former CB1 chairwoman Catherine McVay Hughes, a longtime advocate of an offshore surge barrier, said that protecting Downtown from flooding will require addressing storm surge in the harbor and sea level rise on the waterfront.

“It’s a multi-pronged attack,” said Hughes, who is part of the Metropolitan NY-NJ Storm Surge Working Group, which supports the regional barrier plan.

Hughes co-authored a report earlier this year with the working group’s chairman, Malcolm Bowman, and others arguing that an extensive regional barrier plan — with more barriers than the Corps’ single-barrier proposal — is the only approach that would equitably protect the region.

The report cited how Sandy disproportionately impacted poor, immigrant and minority communities — which also had slower recoveries  — particularly in the outer boroughs.

“Only such a combined, layered regional storm surge and sea-level-rise barrier system will provide comprehensive protection for all of the region’s residents and communities, regardless of their economic or social status, for the next 100 years,” the paper concludes.

But Riverkeeper, a 52-year-old environmental advocacy group dedicated to protecting the Hudson River, has serious doubts about the regional protection barrier option.

For one, river advocates worry a barrier would choke the life out of the Hudson River — really an estuary where the river mixes with seawater — by restricting tidal flow and blocking fish migration, which could have cascading effects on North Atlantic fisheries, according to John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper’s patrol boat captain.

“These barriers pose an existential threat for the Hudson,” Lipscomb said.

Plus, the regional barrier alone does not address sea-level rise, nor does the Corps’ study itself.

“The Corps was asked the wrong question,” Lipscomb added. “They were asked about storm risk and not sea-level-rise risk.”

After the Corps’ years of work already, Lipscomb said: “It’s almost as though the train has headed down the track and we’re early on, and we know it’s on the track to the wrong destination and we cannot turn it around.”

A West Villager at the early July scoping meeting worried the massive barrier was an “all eggs in one basket” approach.

“I’m extremely concerned about this [barrier] over here, for example, where we’re going to put a ton of money — all eggs in one basket — and then if that thing doesn’t work, you’re exposed in all these other ways,” said Tom O’Keefe, a private tutor and climate activist. “In the meantime you cause a lot of other problems by making this massive intervention.”

Meanwhile, much of Lower Manhattan remains exposed to storm surges, and even medium-term protections by the city won’t be implemented until the 2019 storm season. The Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project’s Two Bridges portion recently had its fourth public meeting and is considered fully funded, but that’s less than one mile of Lower Manhattan’s coastline. The Big U plan, which would cover 10 miles of Manhattan waterfront, is largely unfunded.

The study the Corps presented last month actually outlined six different alternatives, with the first one, called “Future Without Project Conditions,” assumes no action and serves as the baseline case for the study. But Hughes cited that as a warning, and urged the public to get more engaged with the process to assure that something actually gets done.

“It’s really important that this is really seriously considered because it would be a shame that Alternative 1 — which is inaction — is what happens,” she said.

You can see the study materials at: http://www.nan.usace.army.mil/Missions/Civil-Works/Projects-in-New-York/New-York-New-Jersey-Harbor-Tributaries-Focus-Area-Feasibility-Study/

Comments can be submitted via email at NYNJHarbor.TribStudy@usace.army.mil or by mail to Nancy Brighton, Room 2151, US Army Corps of Engineers, New York District, 26 Federal Plaza, New York, New York 10278.

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