Post-Sandy, Residents Debate Rebuilding
By ROSS BARKAN
|Queens shorelines, like this one near Broad Channel, could be in danger in future natural disasters.
Photo by Ross Barkan
Don Riepe’s house, like so many along New York City’s suddenly vulnerable shoreline, drowned in saltwater the night Superstorm Sandy blitzed through the region.
Six feet of water frothed in his Broad Channel living room. The electricity, along with many of his possessions, was gone.
As thousands of people like Riepe hope to reorient their lives in the wake of such unprecedented devastation, an uncomfortable question is now emerging in the minds of scientific observers: should residents keep living near the shoreline?
“For us as a species, we really have to consider whether it’s a good idea to keep developing near the shoreline,” said Riepe, president of the northeast chapter of the American Littoral Society, an environmental group concerned with issues pertaining to coastlines. “Any shoreline that is open space should be left as open space. People living on bays, on the edge like I do, are going to have a problem.”
A 2010 New York Academy of Sciences report estimated that sea levels around New York City could rise two to five feet by the 2080s.
Scientists have predicted that sea levels will rise as many as six inches per decade, expanding flood zones and increasing the likelihood that areas like Broad Channel, Hamilton Beach and the Rockaway Peninsula will be submerged at a far more frequent rate. While resolute residents of beachfront neighborhoods vow to rebuild, these very expensive efforts will have to take into account more volatile weather patterns and destructive storm surges.
“In the next 25 years, you’ll see continued hurricanes as part of a normal pattern, but because of global warming, they will be more erratic, damaging and violent,” said Dr. James Cervino, a visiting scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and chairman of Community Board 7’s Environmental Committee.
Cervino explained that hurricanes themselves will not become more frequent because of climate change. However, heightened sea levels automatically make any storm surge more destructive. Warming waters from climate change, Cervino said, fuel hurricanes when that water evaporates. With the possibility of more severe hurricanes in New York City’s future — Sandy was a hybrid of a late-season hurricane and a winter storm — Cervino argued that the City needs to take action to prevent greater economic and environmental tolls when the next storm arrives.
Sea walls, boulders, bulkheads and concrete can be used as buffers against stronger storm surges, though construction on coastal landfills in neighborhoods like College Point Estates could mean waterfront communities will become more hazardous than luxurious. Arverne by the Sea, a beachfront development in the Rockaways green-lit last decade, is likely to be a casualty of future storms.
Though Mayor Mike Bloomberg has lambasted climate change deniers, his administration’s rewriting of the zoning code fueled a coastline building boom that could haunt future generations. Long Island City, now a glittering hospitality and technology hub, is just one of several growing neighborhoods that will continue to lie in the path of another storm surge.
There are no easy or inexpensive ways to protect Queens’ shorelines from future flooding. A storm surge barrier, costing billions to construct, placed in New York Harbor would mitigate flooding but do little for the Rockaways, which perilously faces the Atlantic Ocean. Dan Hendrick, a spokesman for the New York League of Conservation Voters, suggested that when the obliterated Rockaway Beach Boardwalk is rebuilt, it should serve as a tidal barrier. A “hardening” of waterfront structures, along with raising their height, will be necessary, he said, as well as reworking the zoning code to limit development in flood-prone areas.
Outgoing U.S. Rep. Bob Turner’s (R-Middle Village) Breezy Point home burned to the ground during the storm. Unlike Riepe, he plans to rebuild, as do most of the residents he spoke to.
“I think as we rebuild, we should have different specifications,” Turner said. “We may work on height requirements. Right now we’re four feet above grade and we may have to go up higher.”
For many residents, it will be extremely difficult to abandon the shorelines they love.
“This is the great American dream, to get a house by the beach and unfortunately houses by the beach are always going to be subject to storm damage,” Bloomberg told reporters Monday. “That’s been happening around the world since people built houses.”
Reach Reporter Ross Barkan at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 127 or email@example.com.