Sandy: What a Coastal U.S. Can Learn from Other Threatened Cities

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Sara Winter

The Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier in the Netherlands, part of the country's vast sea wall

It was called the Watersnoodramp, which in Dutch means “flood disaster”—and it certainly was. The North Sea flood of 1953 was the result of a high spring tide that met a strong storm, resulting in a storm surge that inundated the countries around the sea. Lives were lost in England, Scotland and Belgium, but the worst of the surge was felt in the Netherlands. The dikes and other sea defense built around the coast of the Netherlands were unable to defend against the surge, and nearly 2,000 people died in the ensuring flood. (Just to put that in perspective, the equivalent loss of life in the U.S. today would be over 60,000 people.) In a below sea-level nation that had always warred with the tides, the 1953 flood proved one of the worst in the history of the Netherlands.

It was also a turning point for the country, leading to the creation of the vast Delta Works—a massive, multi-billion dollar system of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, levees and storm surge barriers that keep the Rhine-Muese-Scheldt delta area safe from an encroaching sea. It’s worked well so far, but the threat of climate change—and rising seas—convinced the Dutch government in recent years to bolster those defenses. At the cost of well over a $1 billion a year—money that will likely be spent for decades—the Dutch government is considering whether the Netherlands will need protection from the kind of catastrophic floods that because of climate change are likely to become increasingly common in the future.

(PHOTOSThe Toil After the Storm: Life in Sandy’s Wake)

Now New York City stands devastated by the force of Sandy’s record-breaking storm surges, with a flooded Manhattan just now getting back to normal and towns in the low-lying coastal areas of Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens still in ruins. New Yorkers aren’t accustomed to thinking that they live in a disaster-prone city, but does Sandy mean that the Big Apple needs the same kind of extensive—and expensive—flood barriers that protect European cities like Rotterdam or London?

(MORE: The Lessons from New York’s Flooded Subways)

What’s clear is that New York, like a lot of American coastal cities, hasn’t done enough to protect itself from major floods and storms. More than 370,000 New Yorkers live in what the city designated as hurricane evacuation zone A—apartments and houses that lay within a few feet of high tide. You don’t need a map to see where zone A is—nearly all of the more than 40 deaths in New York from Sandy occurred inside the zone, and those were the areas that lost power (and may still be out of electricity). While more than 80% of New York’s vast subway network is up and running—an impressive accomplishment given the extent of the destruction—areas like the washed out A line in the Far Rockaways neighborhood and the swamped South Ferry station on the 1 line will be out of commission for a long time.

These are also the areas that will be hit hard the next time a major storm passes near New York City. Certainly a few steps could have been taken to limit the damage, including moving sensitive infrastructure, like electrical transformers, well above the possible flood level. But here’s the hard reality—New York has more than 580 miles of coastline. Unless steps are taken to protect from floods the city the next time a Sandy-like superstorm makes landfall, we could be looking at an era of repeated, massive, expensive and bloody disasters hitting the biggest city in America—not to mention the nearly 4 million Americans nationwide who live within just a few feet of high tide.

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Does New York need a more elaborate system of coastal defenses—or for that matter, any defenses? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo seemed to suggested that he’d be open to the idea in a radio interview last week:

The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level. As soon as you breach the sides of Manhattan, you now have a whole infrastructure under the city that fills — the subway system, the foundations for buildings.

As Matt Yglesias wrote earlier this week in Slate, New Amsterdam could take a page from old Amsterdam when it comes to controlling rising floods:

A 2009 seminar hosted at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University considered several options for major infrastructure upgrades to combat storm surges—a barrier at the south end of the Arthur Kill that divides Staten Island from New Jersey, an East River barrier to prevent surges up that narrow waterway, a barrier perpendicular to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn, and most ambitiously a “Gateway Barrier System” stretching from Sandy Hook to the Rockaways. Engineers don’t believe it would be feasible for the Gateway system to entirely block storm surges, but it could weaken and deflect them—significantly reducing the flood risks to the entire New York Harbor.

Such a Dutch-style flood control system would have helped protect the real estate of lower Manhattan—some of the most valuable land in the world—along with the Manhattan-Brooklyn subway tunnels that flooded because of Sandy. LaGuardia and JFK airports would also be protected, as would eastern Staten Island and southern Brooklyn (where, as it happens, I live.) But it wouldn’t be cheap—at least $10 billion, perhaps $15 billion. More importantly, a Narrows seawall wouldn’t protect all of New York City—and those neighborhoods outside the barrier would actually experience higher floodwaters in the event of a storm. All that water, after all, has to go somewhere. Some of the very same neighborhoods that have been quite literally killed by Sandy—the Rockaways in Queens, parts of Long Island—might as well be written off.

The reality is that there’s no economically feasible way to protect all 580-plus miles of New York City coastline from truly catastrophic sea level rise and super-storms—let alone other American cities, like Miami or New Orleans, that are even more vulnerable to flooding. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn from what foreign cities have done and take major steps to defend our most valuable coastal real estate. But sea walls and barriers will only be one part of a multi-faceted response to a warmer, more crowded world. There’s no perfect defense from nature—especially a nature that’s been turbo-charged by human activity.

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