[Was surprised to note that NY City and Anne Arundel County have the same length of shoreline (~525 miles). This might be a useful article to circulate to policy makers and managers. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/10/nyregion/debate-over-cost-and-practicality-of-protecting-part-of-queens-coast.html> . Also encourage folks to review the comments on this article as a preview of debates in Annapolis in the not-so-distant future. ]
Where Streets Flood With the Tide, a Debate Over City Aid
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
Raising Broad Channel: In this section of Queens, which is built on a marsh jutting into Jamaica Bay, many residents say that despite the repeated flooding, they love their neighborhood and want to stay.
By KIA GREGORY
Published: July 9, 2013 73 Comments
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
Tidal flooding occurs about twice a month in the neighborhood, one of the lowest-lying areas in New York City.
The New York Times
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
Tidal flooding occurs about twice a month in Broad Channel, Queens, one of the lowest-lying areas in New York City.
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Residents bolted out of their front doors to move their cars, which are often damaged by tidal flooding that occurs here about twice a month. Some older residents were all but imprisoned in their homes until as much as three feet of water receded. Children splashed around, oblivious to the looming threat.
“We do not care about budgets; we are taxpaying people,” said John Heaphy, 69, a lifelong resident of the area, Broad Channel, Queens, which is built on a marsh that juts into the bay. “From the lowest politician to the governor’s office, we’ve been begging, please help us.”
Now, the city is doing just that, budgeting $22 million to try to save the neighborhood by installing bulkheads and by raising streets and sidewalks by three feet.
The Broad Channel project offers a preview of the infrastructure outlays that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is envisioning as part of a new $20 billion plan to protect the city’s 520 miles of coast over the next decade from rising sea levels.
But the project also raises fundamental questions about whether, in an era of extreme weather, the government should come to the aid of neighborhoods that are trying to fend off inevitably rising waters.
Broad Channel’s vulnerability was exposed in October during Hurricane Sandy, which toppled homes into the bay, some of which still lie in ruins along the beach. Yet the situation here is far worse than in some other neighborhoods damaged in the hurricane because Broad Channel suffers flooding from the tides and heavy rain, not just from storm surges.
Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said he was sympathetic to Broad Channel and understood why residents have been lobbying hard for aid.
“The problem is, they have picked a spectacularly beautiful but increasingly impractical and dangerous place to live,” Mr. Goldstein said.
“If sea levels rise and storm-level projections are accurate, this community may be surviving on borrowed time,” he said. He added that the city faced hard questions, one being: “How much sense does it make to keep reinvesting taxpayer dollars in a community that is directly in harm’s way?”
Mr. Goldstein said the city should also consider allocating money to those who wanted to relocate.
Other experts pointed out that these projects were not only costly but also difficult to carry out, and based on techniques that might not always work well over time. They must overcome a phalanx of obstacles before being approved, from reviews by government agencies to a lack of consensus among residents.
The one in Broad Channel has already been held up because officials have not yet been able to obtain consent from some residents, which is required because they technically own the sidewalks.
The Bloomberg administration also has expressed concern about the difficulties of protecting this part of the Queens coast.
When Mayor Bloomberg unveiled his $20 billion plan, he vowed that the city would not abandon the waterfront. But the plan notes that major flood protection along Jamaica Bay would be “extremely expensive, and disruptive, and in some cases nearly impossible.”
As a result, the city wants to ask the United States Army Corps of Engineers to develop a storm-surge barrier across the Rockaway Inlet to protect neighborhoods from Sheepshead Bay to Howard Beach, as well as Broad Channel.
As far as the street-raising, Caswell F. Holloway IV, the deputy mayor for operations, acknowledged that such projects were also challenging.
“It is literally a block-by-block issue, especially older neighborhoods, where the neighborhood grew up much faster than the infrastructure to support it,” Mr. Holloway said. “You’re basically going back, in some cases over the course of many years, to do modern drainage. It’s highly disruptive, it’s expensive, because it’s being laid out after the fact.”
Asked whether the Broad Channel project would only forestall the inevitable, he said, “We focused on a solution that was affordable and would alleviate the flooding situation for a while.”
Residents describe Broad Channel as an oasis with glorious water views. About 3,000 people live here, including many police officers and firefighters.
It is a place where residents cling to tide clocks and, some joke, every child gets wading boots for Christmas. Neighbors will honk a car horn in the middle of the night to warn others of an approaching tide, and some have made pencil markings on their homes to show water levels from storms past.
Proposals to safeguard Broad Channel have been debated for years, but gained momentum only after a major storm in 2010.
To address the flooding, Pete Mahon, 65, a retired prison warden, urged fellow residents to pack community meetings where officials were present.
“It was a river running outside,” Mr. Mahon said, referring to 2010.
The project will begin with workers installing bulkheads at 11th, 12th and 13th Roads. Then they will dig up 12th Road, putting in water mains, drains and sewers. The roads will be raised three feet, and paved into a so-called shared-streets design, meaning cars, bicyclists and pedestrians will share the roadway.
All three should be completed in three years, officials said. Then, they estimate, another six streets will be done.
Officials said the street-elevation plan would eliminate 85 percent of tidal flooding on blocks like 12th Road. They said they hoped to get the project started before Mayor Bloomberg leaves office at the end of the year.
Eight months after Hurricane Sandy, life has slowly returned to normal in Broad Channel. Most mom-and-pop stores have reopened. With insurance money in hand, residents are repairing the damage.
But at the heart of the destruction, on West 12th Road, only about half of the families have returned.
“I think you get used to it over time,” said Dashima Cortez, 40, referring to the tidal flooding. “But Sandy made everyone nervous. Some people don’t ever want to come back.”
As the water flowed in that Sunday, her husband, Scott Valentine, sweaty from hanging drywall in a home damaged by Hurricane Sandy, ran to move his car. In five years of living in Broad Channel, they have lost several brakes and a muffler system to flooding.
They moved back in April.
“This is why you stay,” Ms. Cortez said, pointing to the view off their deck.
Later, Mr. Valentine said: “I would love to never have to move, but it’s not going to get any better.”
Nearby, Frank O’Toole, 35, said he had concerns about the $22 million project. What will happen to his garage on a raised street? And what about the oil tanks that people keep in their crawl spaces? But in any case, he said, he supported the plan.
“They say they have it all worked out,” he said.
Mr. O’Toole said he had no plans to leave Broad Channel, though some of his friends called him crazy for it.
“At this point, we’re just desperate to get it done,” he said of the project, standing in water that reached to his shins.