Storm Surge Barriers Are Not a Simple Flooding Fix, Environmentalists Say

By David Brand

For Queens coastal communities threatened rising sea levels and increasingly severe storms, a maritime barrier may seem like a simple solution to flooding. Indeed, storm surge barriers are a key measure to “manage future flood risk” proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

 Flooding in Breezy Point caused by Hurricane Sandy. Photo courtesy of FEMA.

Flooding in Breezy Point caused by Hurricane Sandy. Photo courtesy of FEMA.

But long barriers near from the Rockaway peninsula shoreline present problems of its own, say officials from the National Resource Defense Council.

“Offshore storm surge barriers, intended to shield thousands of miles of New York and New Jersey coastline and riverfront from storm damage, would seriously harm the communities and ecology of the Long Island Sound, Hudson River and New York-New Jersey Harbor,” said an NRDC Program Assistant in a blog post on the NRDC’s website. Vigrass helps run the New York Regional and Environmental Justice, Healthy People and Thriving Communities program.

After Hurricane Sandy battered the region and flooded communities in Southern Queens and elsewhere in New York City, the Army Corps introduced five proposals for confronting storm surges. The proposals include taking no action, building a long barrier that would seal New York Harbor in the event of a storm and building a series of flood walls around Jamaica Bay and local rivers.

In an interview with the Eagle, NRDC staff attorney Kimberly Ong, a Douglaston resident, said the barriers may “seem like magic silver barrier” but raise questions about which communities get to be protected behind the wall and which ones get left out.

She said coastal Northeast Queens neighborhoods like Douglaston, Bayside, Bay Terrace and Little Neck could potentially experience more flooding because the proposed barrier would not reach their area.

NRDC instead advocates for an “integrated system of discreet on-shore projects” that Ong said would be less expensive and less destructive to the communities and environment. The projects include building dunes, dykes, levies and improving natural conditions, like wetland restoration to handle storm surges and rising sea levels.

The barriers could lead to unintended environmental consequences, such as increased salinity and turbidity in waterways restricted by barriers.

Other leading environmental organizations have also not the environmental impact that flood walls could have on the local water system.

“Anyone who cares about the Hudson River needs to become informed and involved, now. Several of these plans — specifically, the ones including giant in-water barriers throughout New York Harbor — would threaten the very existence of the Hudson as a living river,” the organization RiverKeeper says on its website.

In an August letter to the Army Corps, Councilmember Costa Constantinides, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, said citizens should have more opportunities to discuss their concerns about the plan.

“This project is likely to be one of the most dramatic undertakings in the New York City metropolitan area for the last century, and will set a course for how the city adapts to the realities of climate change for centuries to come,” Constantinides said in the letter. “We owe it to future generations to ensure that we take the time to get this right.”

Constantinides said the proposals also fail to account for an expected one-foot sea level increase by 2050, contaminants being contained within the harbor or the impact on local wildlife.

“Rising sea levels pose an extreme, immediate danger for the 500,000 New Yorkers who live near our shores,” Constantinides said in a statement. “Frankly, it’s shocking the Corps is giving an incomplete answer to the question of how we make New York City more resilient. The public deserves to give its say on these proposals, which I strongly urge the Corps to reconsider altogether.”

The public comment period for the Army Corps proposals ends on Nov. 5. Scoping Comments can be submitted to the project email NYNJHarbor.TribStudy@usace.army.mil .