The city announced last week that it will spend $100 million on flood-prevention infrastructure upgrades for the New Dorp Beach and South Beach areas of Staten Island. Those two neighborhoods — located on Staten Island’s East Shore — were at the epicenter of devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy over a year ago.
The island’s East Shore is directly exposed to the New York Bight, a coastline formation that can channel powerful storm waves and surges into areas within New York Harbor. But its vulnerability to flooding is directly tied to both a changing environment and lack of planning by the city over several decades.
It’s no surprise then that both the East and South shores of the island have now been designated by the city as areas at “major risk” from storm surge.
And the threat of wave action and coastal flooding is likely to grow: Preliminary work maps released by FEMA earlier this year indicate the number of structures on the East and South shores within the 100-year floodplain — the area that has a one-percent or greater chance of flooding in any given year — has expanded by 46 percent. The number of residential units has expanded by 50 percent.
All beaches along the East and South shore coastlines are now within a city-designated V-zone, which is a coastal area at risk of storm waves of three feet or more.
While the East Shore is one of the areas in New York City most vulnerable to extreme weather and rising sea levels, it has suffered from flooding for decades.
Originally a “vast swath” of marshes and swamps, development “far outpaced the construction of critical infrastructure like storm sewers,” said Carter Strickland, commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, in a written statement.
That’s where the new flood prevention infrastructure could make a big difference in the years to come.
The area’s local City Council representative, Republican James Oddo, who is also the borough president-elect, said that many homes were not built to withstand punishing coastal storms.
And despite their proximity to the shore, areas like New Dorp Beach and South Beach developed without a comprehensive plan. “Summer communities became year-round homes. The city allowed the construction to happen with an ‘I.O.U.’…’we’ll come in at some later point’…the city is still playing catch-up,” Oddo said.
The lack of proper stormwater infrastructure has created systemic problems for communities like New Dorp Beach and South Beach. “Any time there is an average rainfall, [it’s a] terrible situation,” Oddo said. “There’s no place for the water to go…[the infrastructure projects] will give these folks a little peace of mind,” he added.
The planned infrastructure work in South Beach, for instance, has been “20 years in the making,” noted Oddo. The city has already carried out two major infrastructure projects in South Beach, he said.
Infrastructure work in both communities was slowed by the city’s need to acquire the property on which it would build.
The projects in the New Dorp Beach and South Beach areas — a $100 million capital investment by the city — will “significantly” upgrade existing water, sanitary sewer, and roadway infrastructure. The city says that miles of new storm sewers, which did not exist when Hurricane Sandy flooded the neighborhoods, will “make both communities more resilient to future storms.”
The work, which is currently in the design phase, is to be funded by the DEP and the Department of Transportation. Oddo said it was still possible that federal recovery funds could help pay for the project.
In both the New Dorp Beach and South Beach areas, at least 3 miles of new storm sewers will be installed; 2.4 miles of sanitary sewers will be reconstructed; 2.3 miles of water mains will be replaced; and roadways will be reconstructed.
Work is to start in late 2016, said Oddo.
But “the linchpin” in protecting the East Shore, said the borough president-elect, is a seawall, which would exist in “various iterations” along the coast, and “break the wave that is destined to hit us again.”
Twenty-two of the twenty-three Sandy-related deaths on Staten Island occurred on its East and South shores. As described in the city’s report on rebuilding and resiliency after the storm, Sandy’s “waves rose up over the East Shore’s beaches, battering homes and sweeping some completely off their foundations.”
The seawall is now the subject of a final study by the Army Corps of Engineers. Oddo said that the long path to the seawall’s execution is a “story in and of itself.”
“Now, after 20-odd people have died, we’re on the cusp,” he said.
And the city plans to fight flooding on the East Shore with tools beyond hard infrastructure. The DEP is in the process of acquiring land for a “comprehensive Mid-Island Bluebelt,” which would drain a 5,000-acre area, encompassing the South Beach, New Creek (Midland Beach), and Oakwood Beach watersheds.
The city hopes that the Mid-Island Bluebelt will mirror the success of the Staten Island Bluebelt, which makes use of natural drainage corridors — such as streams, ponds, and other wetland areas — to “convey, store and filter” stormwater. Concrete pipes along the corridors move stormwater from conventional storm sewers into the Raritan Bay or the Arthur Kill.
The city describes the Staten Island Bluebelt as “one of the most ambitious stormwater management efforts in the northeastern United States.”
And for an East Shore community like Midland Beach, Oddo said, the Bluebelt system is their only chance at survival. The neighborhood is 4 to 5 feet below sea level, and a traditional sewer system could not be built there.
Other necessities for the East Shore include building up the resilience of the housing stock, and moving critical infrastructure for facilities like hospitals above flood lines.
Oddo said that the Bloomberg administration’s approach to climate change planning made sense. “The city’s plan is a layered plan, [it’s the] right approach.”
“There will be many hurricane seasons between now and when all this work is completed,” Oddo observed. “What you need is time and time leaves us vulnerable.”