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Protection frrom the Sea

Hurricane Sandy forces us to the ask if a seawall could protect New York City as it does in some other cities.

Now that the New York City transportation system is pretty much back to normal, some serious thought is going to have to be given to its future in the face of climate changes that are no longer deniable. 

It is astounding that the subways and trains were back and running regular schedules within days of Hurricane Sandy – a testament to proactive steps before the storm and creative approaches to repairing the post storm devastation plus an enormous influx of resources from all over the country as well as from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Now the question becomes whether being able to restore systems is the goal or whether preventing future devastating damage from storms is where efforts should be directed. Some other cities have already addressed this question and prepared  to protect themselves from the worst scenarios.  Where many Connecticut shoreline communities suffered severe damage from Hurricane Sandy, Stamford. Connecticut, was protected by a two-mile long, 17-foot high barrier constructed in 1969 which easily  handled the 11-foot storm surge. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that it prevented over $25 million in damage to the protected area including its downtown. London, England long ago built a series of 10 river gates on the Thames River to protect it from similar surges.

Now government planners are asking whether New York City can be similarly protected from surges in the harbor and on the East and Hudson Rivers. No doubt there is a technical solution, or perhaps more than one, that could be implemented to accomplish this.  But with the storm damage receding in people’s minds as time passes will there be the will to do it?

To begin with, the cost will be enormous and who would pay?  Would local industries and businesses be willing to put up with lengthy disruption of New York Harbor and the two Rivers during a prolonged construction period?  Some would no doubt identify concerns about such a structure marring the vistas.  Environmental factors such as disruption to habitats might be a concern to others.  How big to make it – can we predict the surge of future storms? 
Technical arguments over the best type of barrier would also be likely –
barriers that open and close like gates (London) or a barrier that comes up from
the bottom of the water (Stamford)?  

There would certainly be arguments made, probably correctly, that protecting one area may cause worse damage elsewhere.  After all if the barrier backs up water and prevents it from moving in one direction, the water is going to go someplace
else.  Finally, who could be in charge of something this large?  The Army Corp of Engineers would surely have jurisdiction in New York Harbor but that means Congress would have to authorize it.  Given their record, could a project such as this ever be approved or implemented?

Other approaches to this problem have to be studied because it seems unlikely that between Congress and local interests, agreement on building a sea wall to protect NYC won’t happen until several more storm disasters force their hands.

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Leo Wiegman November 13, 2012 at 03:09 AM
Ann: Very good points. Renovating or relocating infrastructure to avoid the impacts of increasing unpredictable climate is truly costly. But for urban areas with dense networks of high value facilities, climate adaptation such as sea walls or estuary restoration to lessen storm surge may be necessary. There are some photos here– http://www.eoearth.org/article/Climate_adaptation–of other climate adaptation methods. For example, Rotterdam is an even busier sea port than New York/Newark. Recently, the Dutch government has made a massive investment in movable barriers, known as the Maeslantkering gates, at the mouth of Rhine that protect Europoort from sea level rise and storm surges. Pictures at the bottom of the above article link, courtesy of Joshua Wolfe.

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