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Will New York City act to block future surges?

By Jeff Donn

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Even more simply, the rock and concrete seawalls and bulkheads that already ring lower Manhattan could be built up, but now perhaps with high-tech wave-absorbing or wave-reflecting materials.

Seizing the initiative from government, business and academic circles have fleshed out several dramatic concepts to hold back water before it tops the shoreline. Two of the most elaborate proposals are:

— A rock causeway, with 80-foot-high swinging ship gates, would sweep five miles across the entryway to inner New York Harbor from Sandy Hook, N.J., to Breezy Point, N.Y. To protect Manhattan, another shorter barrier is needed to the north, where the East River meets Long Island Sound, and another small blockage would go up near Sandy Hook. This New Jersey-side barrier and a network of levees on both ends of the causeway could help protect picturesque beach communities like Atlantic Highlands, in New Jersey to the west, and the Rockaways, in New York City to the east. This so-called outer barrier option was conceived for a professional symposium by the engineering firm CH2M HILL, which last year finished building a supersized 15-mile barrier guarding St. Petersburg, Russia, from Baltic Sea storms.

— An extensive green makeover of lower Manhattan would install an elaborate drainage system beneath the streets, build up the very tip by 6 feet, pile 30-foot earthen mounds along the eastern edge, and create perimeter wetlands and a phalanx of artificial barrier islets — all to absorb the brunt of a huge storm surge. Plantings along the streets would help soak up runoff that floods the city sewers during heavy rains. This concept was worked up by DLANDSTUDIO and Architecture Research Office, two city architectural firms, for a museum project.

What's missing is not viable ideas or proposals, but determination. Massive projects protecting other cities from the periodic ravages of stormy seas usually happened after catastrophes on a scale eclipsing even Sandy.

It took the collapse of dikes, drowning deaths of more than 1,800 people, and evacuation of another 100,000 in 1953 for the Dutch to say "Never again!" They have since constructed the world's sturdiest battery of dikes, dams and barriers. No disaster on that scale has happened since.

It took the breach of levees, a similar death toll, and flooding of 80 percent of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to marshal the momentum finally to build a two-mile barricade against the Gulf of Mexico.

A handful of seaside New England cities — Stamford, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; and New Bedford, Mass. — have built smaller barriers after their own disasters.

However, New York City, which mostly lies just several feet above sea level, has so far escaped the horrors visited elsewhere. Its leaders have been brushing off warnings of disaster for years.

Retired geologist Jim Mellet of New Fairfield, Conn., recalls hearing a story told to him by the late Bill A. O'Leary, a retired city engineer at the time: He and other engineers, concerned about battering floods, had approached power broker Robert Moses more than 80 years ago to ask him to consider constructing a gigantic barrier to hold back storm tides at the entrance to the city's Upper Bay.

Moses supposedly squashed the idea like an annoying bug. "According to Bill, he stood there uninterested, with his arms folded on his chest, and when they finished the presentation, he just said, 'No, it will destroy the view.'" Or perhaps he was already mulling other plans for the same site, where he would build the Verrazano Narrows Bridge years later.

Many city projects, like the Westway highway plan of the 1970s and 1980s, died partly because of the impact they would have on the cherished view of water from the congested cityscape. Imagine, then, the political viability of a project that might further block access to the harbor or the view of the Statue of Liberty from the tip of Manhattan.

"I can assure that many New Yorkers would have strong opinions about high seawalls," said an email from a retired New York commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bud Griffis, who was involved in the permitting process for the failed Westway.

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