New York’s City Hall and some of its community boards show an at-times striking disconnect over ongoing preparations for the impacts of climate change, as revealed in board-by-board reporting conducted over the last two months by a team of reporters for Gotham Gazette and news partner AdaptNY, a digital news platform for the debate around climate resilience.
Five of the 18 most vulnerable community boards - the city’s front line of government – reported that they felt they were communicating effectively with City Hall about climate change preparations.
We reached eleven of the 18 boards hardest-hit by Sandy. Fully half of those that responded to an extensive survey or spoke with our reporters had serious concerns about their communications with the city. They expressed frustration and shared a sense that the city is not moving fast enough to rebuild or prepare in anticipation of more extreme weather to come.
In Part Two of our special report, we take a brief look at a half dozen of the boards that were most heavily affected by Sandy and how they view their interactions with the city on the questions of rebuilding and preparing for future storms.
Each board experienced the physical impact of Sandy in different ways and each has a complex set of challenges to face. What follows is a series of snapshots based on the perspectives of the community boards themselves.
Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY reached out to the mayor’s office for comment several times during the reporting of the series and again on Tuesday. The city had not responded to many of the specific complaints from boards by the time of publication.
However, the city has said that it is making a concerted effort to involve local communities, especially the boards, in long-term planning for climate change adaptation. The city said that it also established two task forces with representation from community board members and has ongoing conversations with them through the Community Affairs Unit.
Less than two months after Sandy, the city announced the creation of the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, and “charged it with producing a plan to provide additional protection for New York’s infrastructure, buildings, and communities from the impacts of climate change”. The city went on to release “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” the following June, extensively documenting the physical damage suffered throughout New York, and provided a “roadmap” for the city’s rebuilding efforts.
Most of the district represented by Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan was without power for up to five days, and some sections for weeks longer.
Businesses and residents in the area that includes Battery Park City, the Financial District and TriBeca, were without telecommunications for weeks because of damage to Verizon’s copper-wire system. The Financial District, especially South Street Seaport, and the western part of Tribeca also experienced substantial flooding, as did the subway systems.
But repairs by the city began immediately after Hurricane Sandy. CB1 Chair Catherine Hughes said the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center, a central intake for the police department set up after 9/11, “helped pull together city agencies and utilities … to facilitate quicker restoration.”
Hughes said CB1 had several meetings with city officials prior to the release of the mayor’s massive climate resilience plan last June. She said that some of the recommendations in the report that came out of the city’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency have already been implemented, such as raising electrical and heating systems in buildings.
Lower Manhattan is among five areas most affected by Sandy that are eligible for federal community development block grants through the city’s Economic Development Corp.
Despite this, Hughes still has concerns about how to prepare for future storms, including questions about flooding in the tunnels that link to the outer-boroughs. She also wonders whether mass transit can be better protected.
On the other hand, Manhattan’s Community Board 3, which covers the Lower East Side and the eastern section of Chinatown, has a strong bone of contention with the city: Seaport City, the new development proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, which the mayor said would serve as a protective barrier for the east side of Lower Manhattan, and create housing and commercial space.
CB3 Chair Gigi Li said, “Lots of attention [is] being paid to zoning text amendments and large scale changes, like Seaport City. More attention needs to be focused on community responses on the ground in case of another disaster, how to build safety nets, particularly for the vulnerable populations.” Li is also concerned about protecting all of the public housing in the area from storm surge-related flooding.
Li said that when Sandy swept through Lower Manhattan, older buildings in the neighborhood suffered infrastructure and foundation damage. Elderly residents and those with special needs were trapped in their homes throughout the emergency.
In response, Li said that stakeholders in the community have established a Long-Term Recovery Group, which is working to upgrade buildings, study waterfront protection measures and to train residents on emergency preparedness. The community also formed Project Hope to deal with mental health issues related to the aftermath of Sandy.
Li attended two SIRR meetings. She said that the city presented extensive amounts of information, but that the Seaport City proposal was not raised. She said that CB3 was briefed on Seaport City just one week before the SIRR report came out.
At a recent special meeting with CB3 on the topic of Seaport City, Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s Director of Resiliency, housed at the EDC, laid the proposal out: “We need to be bolder about solutions. How do we not run away from the water? How can we embrace the water to protect [Lower Manhattan]?”
David McWater, who co-chairs CB3’s land use, zoning, public and private housing committee remarked, “What this feels like you’re saying is all the little people that got hurt, all the small businesses that closed…the only way to deal with it is to build luxury housing… [It’s] hard to believe that building more houses into the water is going to protect us.”
Some board members argued that the city should have consulted with them more before taking further steps on the project.
Zarrilli told Gotham Gazette/AdaptNY that Seaport City would serve as a “coastal protection for a vulnerable set of neighborhoods along the East River, based on the risks of storm surge and sea level rise that were identified by the New York City Panel on Climate Change.” He added: “This [the city’s current proposal for Seaport City] is a feasibility study to determine how best to consider a multi-purpose levee in this location, with a clear understanding of the technical and regulatory challenges. We have to better understand this before we can have a meaningful conversation.”
“The community will be engaged along the way,” he said.
Further uptown and a little to the west, Bob Ely, head of the environment committee for Community Board 2, which covers Greenwich Village, Chinatown, SoHo and other lower Manhattan neighborhoods, said that he had been trying – so far unsuccessfully - to bring the mayor’s office in for discussions on how to prepare for the next Sandy.
Ely said that the city’s current resilience plan includes temporary bulkheads running along the west side of Manhattan that can be installed in case of a hurricane. He said that he did not know what – if anything - had been done in terms of erecting these barriers. Ely also had a larger question — whether sufficient funding exists for the city’s extensive plans to make the district more climate change resilient.
Ely said that private owners in residential buildings are being charged “significant money” in assessments to retrofit buildings that were damaged by the storm. In a perfect world, Ely said in an email, there would be money to erect soft and hard infrastructure barrier projects in New York Harbor to prevent storm surge, and at the same time, design holding tanks or other infrastructure locations where flood waters could be diverted and absorbed.
District Manager Chuck Reichenthal, of Community Board 13 in hard-hit Coney Island, said that the city has been very responsive.
The district, which also includes Brighton Beach and SeaGate, was inundated by water from all sides — the coast, Coney Island Creek and the bay. A total of 150 buildings were razed because they were so badly damaged. The community of SeaGate fared the worst. Even though tourist areas are back to normal, community institutions like Coney Island Hospital, the local library and NYCHA housing are still getting back into shape.
Reichenthal said that prior to Sandy, CB13 and the city, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, had been working on beach replenishment, and creating rigid structures that interrupts water flow called grions to protect the Coney Island/Brighton Beach area. Reichenthal said he is hopeful that work to strengthen the coastline will continue. And, after much petitioning, the city is looking at sand replenishment in the Seagate area, he added.
Reichenthal said he hopes that the next step to all of this will be the replacement of the area’s seawalls and seagates.
Reichenthal said that he believes the city’s responsiveness is largely due to the efforts of outgoing Councilman Domenic Recchia. Reichenthal could only speculate what kind of relationship a new administration would have with his district. He said he remains optimistic because candidate Bill DeBlasio has promised that Sandy recovery efforts would focus on more than just Manhattan.
Brooklyn’s Community Board 11, which includes Bensonhurst and Gravesend, also reported it felt strongly that their community and the city were on the right path. Marnee Elias-Pavia, the board’s district manager, said the area wasn’t particularly hard hit by Sandy, but that her board has been pressing the city to extend a seawall that would protect the Belt Parkway, which was submerged by Sandy’s storm surge.
In the mayor’s report, the city recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers come up with an implementation plan by 2015.
Along the Brooklyn waterfront, Community Boards 6 and 7 also reported that the city is listening to their concerns, but worried that the administration may not follow through on all the plans outlined in the SIRR report.
Craig Hammerman, district manager for CB6, which includes Red Hook and Gowanus, called the city’s plan “ambitious and far reaching.” But Hammerman said he felt that the city was not providing the support needed by small businesses as they recovered from the impacts of Sandy. “[It] seems like the government is eager to give low-interest loans,” he said. “People aren’t looking … for more debt … We don’t see government offering incentives to businesses to relocate their equipment to the rooftops, to keep them out of harm’s way.”
Hammerman recommended that government extend tax incentives to help owners reinvest in their buildings. And he also wondered about the continuity of the SIRR plan, saying it is “not something the city itself is committed to — it was produced by one administration and we’re going into a new one.”
Concluded Hammerman: “There’s not much we can do locally without there being a broader public policy agreement—the best thing we can do is encourage people to get involved with the SIRR.”
Jeremy Laufer, CB7’s district manager, agreed, saying, “Overall, the city is listening to our issues — and has even followed through. But that isn’t to say more doesn’t need to be done …. We would be better prepared to handle any future storms with better transportation options.”
CB7, which includes Sunset Park, “is vulnerable to heavy rains and the integrity of the streets gets affected,” Laufer said. He added that the city needed to investigate how better to manage water entering the area from New York Harbor.
Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY contacted all three of Staten Island’s most vulnerable community boards, but two of the boards declined to discuss planning for climate change.
The SIRR report notes that peak storm tides reached 16 feet in the area around Tottenville, in Community Board 3, and “along the Staten Island coastline, monitors indicated storm tide fluctuations of 5 to 6 feet every 30 seconds … large waves repeatedly slammed into the coast at the height of the storm.”
We did speak with Staten Island’s Community Board 1, which covers the island’s historic North Shore. The city projects that CB1will face increased risk of extreme weather events. The North Shore also suffered extensive damage because of Sandy.
Board 1 chair Leticia Remauro argues that the city has not focused enough attention on businesses that were destroyed during Sandy. Busines owners, she said, “have to make decisions about whether to stay and continue to employ local people, but they’re still waiting for help and the city was not quick to give them help.”
Remauro said that business leaders and others in the community have taken the lead on developing a remediation plan. She said they were working with the Dutch government to fund a pilot project to build natural barricades along the waterfront.
“What’s wonderful about this,” Remauro said, “is that it builds natural barricades using barges chained to the bedrock (similar to the Battery Park City ferry dock) and natural plantings… [which] would move with the water … they would be configured in such a way … that the current doesn’t bash the shoreline.”
Remauro explained that a local group applied to FEMA to fund the project and also approached the city. While EDC’s Seth Pinsky, who led the SIRR initiative, was receptive, Remauro said that she was told that the city had to prioritize climate adaptation planning for the eastern coast of the island, where residents were so heavily affected. The western coast, where the business community was impacted, would be addressed subsequently.
Remauro was generally positive about the proposals outlined in the SIRR report, but she asked how they would be funded. “A report doesn't mean it's going to happen. We have to take it to the next step,” she said. And she argued that her district’s resiliency needs had to be addressed. “Staten Island has a working waterfront [and we] have heavy equipment out there that can’t just be moved. You can’t move docks,” she said.
Community Board 14, which covers the Rockaway peninsula, was decimated by Sandy’s storm surge, not only from the ocean side, but also from the Jamaica Bay side.
Board Chair Doris Orr described the devastation in her survey response: “On the ocean side of the peninsula, west of Beach 86th street (where there are no rock jetties), [there is] complete devastation - all homes flooded anywhere from 4 ft to 12 ft. Wave force destroyed all ocean front homes [and the] … boardwalk.”
Orr added, “on [the] Bay side, all homes- [the] entire length of peninsula- major flooding. More than 150 homes burned to ground and 400 homes off their foundations or washed into Jamaica Bay.”
Orr also said in her response that CB14 did not feel the community’s voice was being heard by the city on the issue of climate resilience.
Nonetheless, CB14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska said he is cautiously optimistic that the shoreline (Rockaway Beach) will be protected in a series of steps taken by the city over the next several years. He said that the city replaced the seawall on the beachside, and questioned how it would weather another storm like Sandy.
However, Gaska’s bigger concern is that the city and the Army Corps of Engineers will ignore the bayside. He said there was extensive flooding from Jamaica Bay into the area during Sandy.
“You know when the mayor came out with that report, he spoke of putting up these temporary metal kind of water walls to protect from storm surge [on the shore side]. You know something like that needs to be looked at in large factions around the bay,” Gaska pointed out.
“So we're a little concerned — we're a lot concerned actually about the lack of concrete measures to protect our communities that face the bay,” he said.
Gaska said that on the bayside there are only sections of little seawalls (which they call baywalls) and they can easily collapse during a surge. Even though the mayor’s report does talk about raising and repairing bulkheads in some sections, primarily Belle Harbor, Gaska said that it is not enough.
Gaska said his community has done everything they can to alert the city of their needs.“Well, we've commented, we've testified. The community, different neighborhoods have done the same. We've done it through our elected officials. … So I think it's clear unless you've lived under a rock … you know what the issues are here and what the concerns are,” Gaska said.
He added that some homeowners in the area are not going to be able to afford the new flood insurance rates and have decided to leave, which could impact the district economically, an issue that he said has not been addressed by the city. Questions on flood insurance were raised by several boards, including Queens CB10 in Howard Beach and Brooklyn CB15 in Sheepshead Bay.
A spokesman for the city, Jake Goldman, said that while flood insurance has been managed by the federal government, the city was examining the issue closely because of the impact of redrawn flood maps and new federal legislation. “This [the cost] could decimate neighborhoods,” he said. The city would be releasing a study on the issue and suggestions on how to mitigate rising insurance costs, he said.
“Thirty thousand more people will be added to the floodplains,” Goldman said. “We will be working closely with communities once we have the facts.”
We’ll look more closely at the challenges of planning for climate change at the community-based level in Friday’s story.