Six years later, Downtown no safer: Lower Manhattan still waiting for protection over half a decade after Sandy deluge

At a press conference by a marker showing how high Hurricane Sandy’s flood waters reached at the South Street Seaport six years ago, former chairwoman of Community Board 1 Catherine McVay Hughes, at podium, joined local pols in calling for faster action on plans to protect Downtown from future superstorms.
Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA

In the days following Superstorm Sandy six years ago, Tanya Acevedo, a mother of two, remembers that it “felt like we were living in the end of the world.” 

While waiting for the power to return, her apartment in the Lillian Wald houses on Avenue D was dark and cold. 

“It felt so surreal,” she said. She recalled that her son, 3-years-old at the time, would cry from how cold it was in those late-October, early-November days after the storm hit New York — killing 43, knocking out power for two million, and causing $19 billion in damage in the city alone. Parts of Downtown were submerged under more than 10 feet of water. 

Today, Acevedo stocks extra blankets, nonperishable food, and batteries in her apartment in the case of another storm. 

But just east of her apartment building, at East River Park, the city’s major resiliency infrastructure project intended to protect her and 110,000 others in her neighborhood from storm surge and sea level rise has been long-delayed and recently overhauled entirely. 

After years of plans to build a system of berms between the FDR Drive and East River Park, and a floodwall along the FDR Drive, city honchos announced in late September that some 70 percent of the plan would be re-designed into something entirely different from what the city presented to Community Board 3 in March. 

The new plan, which city officials shared with CB3 in mid-October, will bury the East River Park under up to 10 feet of dirt to raise the elevation, and then add a floodwall at the river’s edge west of the esplanade. North of 13th St. and between Montgomery and Cherry streets, the east side plan will stay the same. 

The city says construction for the east side will begin in spring 2020 with flood protections in place by summer 2023 — sooner than under the previous plan, but more than a decade after Sandy. The East River Park will be closed for three years, according to mayoral spokesperson Phil Ortiz. 

Michael Claudio, a general contractor who has lived on Avenue D for 35 years, echoed the frustration felt by many in the Downtown community.

“They’re still at a talking stage,” he said of the East River Park plans. “Nothing has started. Nothing has been done.” Claudio rode out the storm in 2012 and remembers having to go to Harlem to buy groceries and charge his phone at charging stations brought into the neighborhood. 

The city has allocated $760 million for the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, which includes $338 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The new plan is expected to be $1.45 billion. Ortiz said the city will fund the additional cost. 

Members of CB3 were taken aback by the sudden, drastic revamp of the project.

“We were taken completely by surprise,” said Trever Holland, the CB3 parks committee chairman and founder of Tenants United Fighting for the Lower East Side. 

Holland lives in the Two Bridges neighborhood — which the city plans to protect with a separate project called Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency — and now he’s worried the city will return to the community with an entirely new plan for his own neighborhood, just four months after a community engagement meeting about a plan for flip-up storm barriers along the FDR.

But Holland’s neighborhood is still better than points south.

Below Two Bridges, the “Manhattan Tip” portion of the city’s resiliency plan is woefully underfunded, with only $108 million allocated so far for a potentially multi-billion-dollar project that still has no preliminary design. 

Short-term protections for Downtown are in the works though — namely, long sandbag walls and deployable flood barriers that are expected to be in place next year. 

Downtown pols and community leaders blasted the lack of concrete action on the larger infrastructure plans last week at a press conference at a sign marking Pier 16’s high water mark — where Sandy flooded South Street Seaport. 

Six years after the storm, the city is “still talking about the same issues,” said Borough President Gale Brewer. “It’s the same discussion, right here, today in 2018.” 

The so-called “Big U” plan — 10-mile, conceptual design to protect much of the east and west sides of Manhattan — “is a line on the paper,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, former CB1 chairwoman and a member of the Metropolitan NY-NJ Storm Surge Working Group. 

“The ‘Big U’ at year six — I don’t see anything in the ground,” she said. “Nothing has changed at the waterfront.”

Another major aspect of the larger plan to “save” the city — as chairman of the regional working group Malcolm Bowman put it — is the regional plan to protect over 2,100 miles of New York and New Jersey shorelines, but that project is even further out on the horizon.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently studying the feasibility of five different alternatives for offshore storm-surge barriers and shoreline protections for the region. But the Corps isn’t expected to even make its recommendations to Congress for a plan to consider until 2022.

And even then, the project will only be designed to protect against storm-surge risk, not necessarily sea level rise. 

The design that his working group supports — a five-mile storm-surge barrier between Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Breezy Point in Queens —  could protect the city from storm surge flooding for 100 years, according to Bowman. But additional shoreline protections would be needed to protect the city from the “slow, chronic, but sure sea level rise,” he said. 

Critics of the off-shore barrier plan say it will destroy the ecology of the Hudson River, but Bowman pushed back against that argument at last week’s press conference. 

“I’m as green as anybody,” said Bowman, a professor at SUNY Stonybrook’s marine and atmospheric sciences school. “I’m an avowed tree-hugger myself, and so I understand just as much as anybody that if we’re going to come up with some sort of engineering solution, that it must not impact the ecology of this marvelous area, of this treasure, of this mighty Hudson River. We have to find ways of working together to make sure that we can ensure that,” he said, adding that if he thought the five-mile barrier plan would destroy the Hudson, he wouldn’t endorse it.

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