TOPICS > Science

Protecting New York From Future Superstorms as Sea Levels Rise

November 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As thousands of residents continue to clean up from Hurricane Sandy, many are anticipating future disasters and considering how New York will cope with rising seas and potentially more devastating flooding. Hari Sreenivasan reports on options like barriers that could protect the region from future storm surges.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Now that New York and New Jersey have been hit by two destructive storms in less than two years, there’s new urgency to questions about steps to better protect the region.

Hari Sreenivasan is back with that story, part of our series on Coping With Climate Change.

RONALD FORSTER,Staten Island resident: How are we doing in here?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ronnie Forster has been working every day to put his Staten Island house back together again before Christmas. Forster’s home was elevated, but it wasn’t high enough to save it from Sandy.

RONALD FORSTER: Well, my house is six feet off the ground. And we have four feet of water on our living floor. So you figure at least 10 feet of water from where we stand now.

Imagine going into your house and everything in there has to be thrown out, everything.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Weeks after Hurricane Sandy ripped through the Northeast, thousands of homeowners like the Forsters are gutting out their houses and rebuilding.

Now that the immediate shock has worn off, many residents are starting to think about the future and what can be done to prevent storm damage like this.

RONALD FORSTER: If this happened again next year, we would probably pack it in. But we’re going to stay. We’re rebuilding and we’re doing it now. I mean, and hopefully we don’t have another hurricane for 40 years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But that hope is being dashed by warnings from many climate scientists who say storms with damage on this scale could occur more frequently.

BEN STRAUSS, Climate Central: I think one of the really powerful and alarming things about Sandy for me is that, if the upper end of sea level rise projections for New York City come to pass, by the late — by late this century, we should expect to see Sandy-level floods every 15 years or so.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ben Strauss of Climate Central studies how rising seas affect coastal areas around the United States. He and other scientists project seas to rise another two feet by 2100.

And while Sandy was staggering, sea level rise made it even worse.

BEN STRAUSS: We know today that the global sea level is eight inches higher from global warming than it was in the late 19th century. So, we know that the storm surge from Sandy started eight inches higher than it would have started without global warming.

HARI SREENIVASAN: New York decided to study the problem in 2008 when it created a task force to address climate change.

But Sandy has escalated the discussion about how New York can cope with rising water, from finding ways to live with flooding to holding back storm surge to retreating from coastal areas altogether.

Philip Orton is a physical oceanographer at the Stevens Institute of Technology. He says that the region needs to focus first on forestalling flooding.

PHILIP ORTON, Stevens Institute of Technology: The first options that are easiest to do without debate are to basically plug the holes in the city, find solutions for blocking up the subways and the electrical infrastructure and the highway tunnels, so that next time when a storm surge is coming, we can close all those up.

There’s also rebuilding the wetlands and the oyster beds that used to be in the harbor out at the entrance. And those things, we show with our storm surge model, can reduce the storm surge in the population areas of — inside Jamaica Bay of Brooklyn and Queens.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But those small-scale approaches only go so far. A bolder approach is barriers, like these massive seawalls in New Orleans that stop high waters from moving inland.

That may sound extreme. But barriers like these in the Netherlands have been tried and tested over time. They could be models for New York, says Malcolm Bowman an oceanographer who studies storm surge barriers at StonyBrookUniversity.

MALCOLM BOWMAN, StonyBrookUniversity: The barriers would only be closed for perhaps three or four hours at a time when a major storm hits the city and the tides are rising and the surge is sitting on top of a high tide. That’s the dangerous time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bowman called together several engineering firms in 2009 to develop seawall designs for various points around New York.

These are not yet official proposals, merely concepts, a $6.5 billion idea for a barrier just north of the Verrazano-NarrowsBridge with sliding doors that would be closed during a storm.

A $1.5 billion, 1,700-foot-long system of mechanical swing gates on the ArthurKillRiver.

And the most ambitious plan is also the one that could protect the most shoreline, a $6 billion gateway that would stretch five miles across the Outer New York/New Jersey Harbor, plus the billions necessary to reinforce nearly 10 miles of natural dunes on either side of the barrier.

While the cost of mitigating the impacts of a future storm could seem high, take a look at this pile. This is just a sliver of the debris that Sandy left behind on Staten Island. Not preparing could cost much more.

Here in the Far Rockaways, the surge crushed dozens of houses and hurricane winds fanned flames from a fire that incinerated 111 homes. The city of New York has decided to clear away what’s left here, along with demolishing 200 more structures damaged by the storms.

RICH RESNER,New York resident: It was my living room couches, but it flipped them over in the house. They were just pouring water out of them for days.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rich Resner has had a view of the Atlantic Ocean from his waterfront home for more than 20 years. Now he’s living in a motor home in the parking lot. But he wonders whether a sea barrier would be effective.

RICH RESNER: Is it worth it? I’m not so sure it’s worth it because I’m not so sure it’s going to work. I don’t know how you’re going to stop that kind of power putting a seawall out there.

If it would work, OK. Well, who is going to guarantee it, spending that kind of money for something that might not work?

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s a point that even the Netherlands concedes. The country has relied on levee systems for centuries. And they admit that even their strongest levees might not withstand the climate changed seas that are coming.

And there are also concerns of environmental impacts from these new structures.

PHILIP ORTON: You change an estuary and reduce the amount of water that comes in and out from the ocean, then you reduce the amount of cleansing of the water from pollution, which is already a problem in harbors.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And some New Yorkers like Ronnie Forster say they don’t want their view blocked by barriers.

RONALD FORSTER: I definitely don’t want to look out to the ocean and see a giant wall out there. I mean, I would imagine you would have to build a 20-foot seawall. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Malcolm Bowman says the ideas should at least be investigated.

MALCOLM BOWMAN: You have to make a choice. Do you want safety, security, or do you want a view that is not impeded?

What we need is now for Congress from the city of New York to request that the Army Corps of Engineers do a sophisticated analysis of the pros and cons of storm surge barriers.

This is a big, big responsibility, a big job. It would take several years to do that. But that is the next step. No one is suggesting that New York City start pouring concrete next week.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For residents like Yolanda Quintana of Coney Island, right now, the safest solution seems to be a very personal one, to move.

YOLANDA QUINTANA,Coney Island resident: My kids, you know, were born and raised here. So, it’s very hard to just pick up and leave, because we have our roots here. But I don’t want to go through this again.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even those who are ready to leave want the city to take action against future storm damage. But as the region still battles to recover from the storm, the debate over how to prevent the next disaster is just beginning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online later tonight, we have a closer look at the designs that might protect New York from another hurricane, and the problems engineers will grapple with in their construction.

In our next report, NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman examines how insurers assess the risk of climate change.