Hurricane Ida’s consequences: Massive flood control infrastructure projects debated at federal and local levels

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Image from the New York City Fire Department (FDNY)

The flooding, damage and deaths caused by Hurricane Ida have raised questions about the urgency of building billions of dollars of flood control infrastructure in the New York City area to prevent similar catastrophic results caused by climate change.

E&E News Greenwire reports that some local officials have blamed federal agencies for slow-walking critical flood control projects that could have halted a deadly surge that enveloped entire subways, neighborhoods and highways.

At least 46 people died in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania during the Sept. 1/2 storm that broke rainfall records and caused severe tornados and flooding. Three people died from the flooding in a NYC Queens borough basement apartment

Donovan Richards, president of the borough, said during an interview with CNN that the disaster unfolding is the result of climate change and blamed federal officials for moving too slowly to protect a part of the state that’s seeing more frequent and disastrous storms, Greenwire reported.

“The Army Corps of Engineers has continued to drag their foot on projects like the Rockaway Reformulation Plan, and we don’t have time to (twiddle) our thumbs here,” Richards said.

“We’re running up against the clock; the clock is already ticking,” he said. “If we don’t move aggressively to combat climate change, we’re going to continue to lose life, unfortunately,” and city, state and federal governments will continue to pay to address destruction as more frequent and extreme storms hit the city.

The issue of how to best protect the East Coast from more severe storms has been a brewing debate for years with the heat on the Army Corps, the published report says.

Flood control projects have have proven to be controversial and slow to take shape, triggering funding, environmental and political fights that can take years to resolve.

“The Rockaway Reformulation Project, for example, has a lengthy, decades long history that involves large infusions of federal dollars to replenish the 6.2-mile-long beach along New York’s sandy coast in Queens that was chewed away during Superstorm Sandy,” Newswire reported.

“The project going forward includes efforts to build back the beaches, the construction of new and rehabilitated “groins” or structures to prevent beach erosion, and other features aimed at protecting New York City and surrounding areas from extreme storms churning up through the Atlantic Ocean. According to the Army Corps’ website, the first of several construction contracts for the project was awarded last year for building stone groins on the shoreline.”

Karen Imas, vice-president for programs at the Waterfront Alliance, a regional advocacy group focused on coastal resilience, said the Corps has made significant progress on the Rockaway project, including placing about 3.7 million cubic yards of sand on the beach and building a sand retaining wall along parts of the beach boardwalk.

“This is really important for the Rockaway community,” she said. “The coordination is complex, and just getting them off the ground has just taken extraordinary amounts of time,” she said. “We’re seeing the challenge of that now. It’s going to be the ninth anniversary of Sandy soon, and we realize this is not where we need to be.”

Other Army Corps projects are mired in delays, including a storm surge project on Staten Island, jointly funded by New York City, the state and the Army Corps. There are concerns about legacy pollution. Imas said some Staten Islanders believe decontamination work must be completed before the wall is built.

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Image from FDNY Twitter feed

Meanwhile, a $119 billion storm surge barrier off New York and New Jersey’s coast is still in limbo, after former President Donald Trump stopped planning work on it last year. However, the Biden Administration has put the project back on the table, and in April it gave the Corps authority to reengage with the study and possible seawall structure.

The Army Corps-led New York & New Jersey Harbor & Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study (HATS) proposes five “alternatives” for addressing storm surge in the New York-New Jersey Harbor, Long Island Sound and the Hudson River Valley, including the construction of a 6-mile-long gated structure across the mouth of the New York Harbor.

NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer expressed opposition in 2019 to any sea wall to combat climate change, instead calling on the Army Corps to consider projects like flood walls, dunes and wetland restoration, living shorelines, reefs, and levees that could do more to protect against sea-level rise and non-storm flooding.

“Offshore storm barriers simply cannot protect all of our coastal communities from the myriad challenges posed by climate change and are incompatible with a healthy, thriving New York Harbor,” Stringer wrote.

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