Gotham Gazette

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At-Risk Residents Worry Over Climate Safety; City Leaders Eye Resiliency and Outreach


Willie Silva, a lifelong resident of Red Hook (photo: Emrys Eller)

Do New Yorkers believe, two years after Superstorm Sandy decimated the area's coastline, that they're safer from future storms and devastating floods?

The answer - according to 70 residents from around the city who spoke with our reporters and filled out our online survey - seems to be a resounding "no."

City officials we interviewed argue that preparations are underway to protect New York from future climate risk. Yet some local City Council members confirm that the public sentiment we gathered is not misguided, acknowledging that more needs to be done to let New Yorkers know about resiliency efforts.

These were the findings of a team of nearly three dozen journalists conducting an investigation that ran several weeks and focused on two of the city's worst storm-battered communities - Brooklyn's Red Hook and Manhattan's Lower East Side. The collaborative reporting project was conducted by Gotham Gazette with partners AdaptNY, a climate news site; the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism; and the independent NY Environment Report.

The "Are You Climate Safe?" project sent our reporters into the field earlier in October. There, we interviewed residents and business owners, and subsequently surveyed online dozens of others from these two high-risk neighborhoods and other parts of the city and metro area (see our neighborhood coverage and a reporting wrapup).

The overwhelming majority of those we contacted told us they thought they were no safer. Just a handful said they believed they were better off.

A significant number also said they were simply unsure what measures, if any, were being taken to protect their communities. That despite the fact the city appears to be working steadily through a massive and costly set of resiliency initiatives, even as it struggles to make progress in responding to disappointment over the slowness of its "Build It Back" housing recovery program.

The degree of public disengagement with city planning work on climate resiliency we uncovered echoes our previous investigative findings of a striking disconnect in communication between City Hall and some of the communities most affected by Sandy.

"I have not seen any evidence of preparation against climate risk in my community, except for the new NYC flood risk zones map," said one retired Red Hook resident. "I don't believe we are truly informed on what has been done," said another.

The collaborative also spoke with city leaders, including City Council Members and high-ranking members of the de Blasio administration. Other key findings from the investigation were:

--Many of the city's large-scale climate resiliency projects, still in the planning phase, are essentially invisible to residents we reached.

--As a result, some prominent local officials argue that there needs to be a "clear, concise, understandable" version of the city's resiliency plan, especially in these most vulnerable areas.

--But planning is clearly underway, such as with large-scale flood protection projects in Red Hook and the Lower East Side, both hard hit by Sandy-related flooding.

--Both communities are also about to see portions of $1.8 billion in FEMA funds for the permanent replacement of temporary boilers, installed after Sandy damage in the public housing complexes that many of their residents call home.

--Yet many residents, uncertain about broader resiliency measures being put into place by city officials, told us they are preparing personally for another catastrophic weather event. Some, especially in Red Hook, see themselves as more reliant on the efforts of fellow citizens in community groups and local community boards for protection from future climate extremes.

Resiliency Gap Between Residents, City
Flooding was the most frequent concern we heard from the residents we reached, with rising seas and storm surges creating a truly existential concern for some. Asked one woman: "Are coastal cities a thing of the past?"

Yet the city is emphatic that it will not abandon its coastline, and says it is preparing New York, especially its waterfront communities.

Daniel Zarrilli, director of the Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency, told us "substantial progress" has been made on the city's massive ten-year resiliency plan, which was launched by former Mayor Bloomberg in June, 2013.

Of the plan's 257 initiatives, Zarrilli said 29 have been completed and more than 200 are "underway" (see the city's latest official update). Included are major coastal protection systems being planned for both Red Hook and the Lower East Side.

Zarrilli said among the "great wins so far" are upgraded bulkheads, flood insurance reforms, and the replenishment of beaches. At a press conference in mid-October, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that 3.27 million cubic yards of sand have been placed on city beaches since Sandy hit, and 10,500 linear feet of bulkheads have been repaired all over the city.

But while some residents did make note of storm-related repairs made at their New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, developments and to neighborhood infrastructure, the overwhelming number of those we spoke with had little to no awareness of the more extensive resiliency projects.

"There have been no large-scale efforts on the part of the city/state/federal government to protect New York Harbor," a Red Hook resident wrote us in response to our online crowdsourcing survey. "Until this is addressed, low-lying areas will not be safer, no matter how many Go Bags are distributed."

"I know work is being done to prevent the complete mess that happened during Sandy," one Lower East Side resident said in a survey response. "And we are all more prepared now. However, I don't believe we are truly informed on what has been done."

Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the City Council's Committee on Recovery and Resiliency acknowledged in an interview that "residents are not wrong about feeling unclear" regarding the city's resiliency efforts.

Part of the problem, explained Treyger, is that many of those initiatives have most likely not yet moved beyond the study or design phase. And will the city be able to find funding for all of these initiatives? Said Treyger: "Everything is tied to the level of available resources. Do we have the resources to move beyond the study phase?"

Regardless, Treyger argued, "There needs to be a greater effort to make clear to all stakeholders - local elected officials and residents - what is the [resiliency] plan."

Community-based Sandy task forces nixed
Zarrilli maintained that the City is working with local elected officials and communities throughout the five boroughs to plan for climate change. He said that outreach effort includes the Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which he directs, as well as the Department of City Planning, which is examining how nine particularly vulnerable communities - including the Lower East Side - can become more climate resilient.

On the other hand, the City has also reversed itself and will not re-convene two community advisory task forces, established after Sandy, that directly engaged the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods in planning.

One task force, made up of elected officials and community board chairs from the areas of the city most impacted by Sandy, had met monthly in the five months leading up to the release of the mayor's 2013 resiliency plan.

A second task force was "composed of community organizations from the impacted areas, which the community boards were also heavily involved in," Zarrilli said.

Zarrilli had told us last year, in the wake of criticism about community involvement in City Hall's climate change planning process, that the City planned to re-active the task forces as part of "broad-based outreach" to the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods.

But when we spoke with him earlier this month, he said the City had decided against reviving the bodies. The task forces, Zarrilli argued, "may not be the right model for how we engage in hyper-local issues."

Not everyone agrees. City Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents the Rockaways and chairs the Council's Environmental Protection Committee, said he believed there was an ongoing role for the task forces.

"We should make sure that there are community boards, there are local leaders [involved]. Communication is key here. We have to make sure everyone's on the same page," he argued. "It benefits the administration to move in that direction to recreate the task forces. No one can say you're not doing anything if you're updating them."

When asked about the citywide task forces, Treyger said, "I am open to anything. Nothing should be taken off the table."

Richards did stress that the de Blasio administration has been responsive to his requests for information and engagement when it comes to planning for climate change in the Rockaways.

"It's critical to hear all sides," he added. "There's no one who can tell you better what's going on than the people on the ground. If we're going to get this [recovery] right, it has to be a bottom-up approach. It can't just be a top-down approach."

One step the city is taking toward broadening its outreach is by conducting a Department of City Planning study on how communities can become more climate resilient.

The Lower East Side, and nine other neighborhoods, are part of "phase 1" of the department's study. Red Hook is a "phase 2" candidate, per available funding. The DCP study is examining issues such as zoning, the city's building codes and the new national flood insurance maps.

Zarrilli added that through this process, the City is working with community boards and local organizations. The idea is to "advance in a much more granular way," he explained.

Sandy's legacy lives on in Lower East Side, Red Hook
Meanwhile, the memory of Sandy's damage remains strong in Red Hook and the Lower East Side. Both communities have been identified by the City not only as two of the hardest hit by Sandy, but also among the most vulnerable in terms of future climate impacts.

One of the most densely populated areas in southern Manhattan, the Lower East Side and Chinatown have a high concentration of public housing residents, with over 13,000 units of NYCHA housing.

During Sandy, thousands in the area, while protected from high waves by New York Harbor, felt the brunt of flooding from Sandy's storm surge.

Floodwaters overtook bulkheads and the surge traveled 2,000 feet inland, crossing the FDR Drive and producing water as deep as two feet near Avenue C. Con Edison's electric substations on the Lower East Side were crippled by the flooding, cutting off power from the World Trade Center to 34th Street.

Life also changed drastically for Red Hook residents when Sandy hit.

Much of the neighborhood lay in darkness because of power outages. Even without power, and in temperatures that eventually dipped below freezing, businesses and residents immediately began the long process of clearing out muck and debris left behind by the devastating storm surge that struck the area.

According to the City, much of Red Hook experienced three to six feet of flooding during Sandy. The neighborhood, low-lying and bounded by water on three sides, sits below the base flood elevations currently identified by FEMA. There is virtually no "high ground".

Sections of the Red Hook Houses, which is the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn and quarters the majority of the neighborhood's 14,000 residents, were without heat, hot water and electricity for days, and in some cases, weeks. Hundreds of volunteers banded together to assist elderly and other vulnerable residents trapped on upper floors.

Numerous people told stories of combating more than five feet of water on their ground floor and dealing with the loss of most of their possessions.

"We were flooded to 54 inches in a matter of minutes," Eric Immerman of the Red Hook Lobster Pound restaurant recalled.

Eric Sneddon, manager of the Red Hook Fairway Market, described the damage the storm left by raising his hand to show the watermarks that remain and the objects that rose.

"The refrigerators were floating across the store," he said.

Red Hook hopes to end reliance on temporary generators soon
Many in Red Hook have been able to return to the status quo with the help of friends, neighbors and family. Businesses and homes have been rebuilt, and the real estate market in the neighborhood is once again booming.

Residents of the Red Hook Houses, however, continue to rely on temporary generators. The mechanical systems for the buildings were located below ground and were flooded out during Sandy.

Council Member Richards noted that NYCHA's temporary generators did not perform well last winter, leaving residents without heat and hot water numerous times.

"My entire building is still having electricity through the generators," said Mitchel'le Thomas. "It makes a lot of noise and ... sometimes the water gets cold for no reason. So seeing that nothing has been done to improve the way we live after Sandy, I doubt that anything has been done to prevent or to better prepare us in case of another storm."

There may be good news on the way for NYCHA residents.

Council Member Treyger told us that, "according to feedback from the administration," FEMA is about to release $1.8 billion in funds for the permanent replacement of NYCHA boilers across the city, particularly in Red Hook, Coney Island and the Rockaways.

Part of the delay, Treyger said, was because the City needed to provide a plan to FEMA explaining how the boilers would be elevated in order to protect them from future storms.

Zarrilli added that the City is "working closely" with the Housing Authority. "[There is] definitely going to be investment in NYCHA complexes," he said.

Still, two years after Sandy, many residents we spoke with feel vulnerable. "[The] city won't be prepared in time for the next storm," one elderly man told us.

"I don't think NYCHA is ready if another storm was to hit the Red Hook Community," said a woman who had lived in the neighborhood for over ten years. "[There is] very little communication from NYCHA to the residents."

Some residents take preparations into their own hands
A number of residents from both the Lower East Side and Red Hook told us that they are taking steps on their own to prepare for the next catastrophic weather event.

"I believe the city is more prepared," a Lower East Side resident told us by survey, but added: "I personally learned the importance of keeping an old fashioned land line plugged into the wall...Also, keeping well stocked with candles, and matches and up to date batteries for flashlights, all are now very much in place."

Several repeated the sentiment that they felt more personally prepared to handle another storm like Sandy. Yet, at the same time, a significant number seemed unaware of what was being planned for their communities on a larger scale relative to climate change.

"I haven't seen any measures taken to prevent a repeat of the flooding/power outage experienced during Sandy," said one resident. "And I suspect this is the way it will be until the neighborhood is either condemned or is fully gentrified."

"Some steps have been taken to protect large institutional buildings, such as the Con Ed power station, from flooding," said another. "But no real plans are in the works yet to protect the entire area."

In Red Hook, we talked to residents who have been stockpiling food, building water partitions, rigging external generators, and even redesigning their residences in order to raise them off the ground.

Alfredo Otero told reporters that he has "cached food, water, and flashlights."

Adam Turner of Pioneer Works maintained that Sandy was a wake-up call for many Red Hook residents. "Physically I don't feel safer, but I think people are more educated about what to do if another major storm hits," he said.

"This neighborhood is powerful," argued resident Elsie Felder.

But planning for a once-in-a lifetime storm, however, is a different matter from preparing for rising seas and ongoing flooding. City scientists predict area sea levels could increase as much as 11 inches by the 2020's, and 31 inches by the 2050's.

Some residents are keenly aware of that broader risk. Robert O'Neil, of FDNY Engine 202, for instance, recalled how he and other firefighters were forced to relocate to another firehouse during Sandy. "We're [Red Hook] going to get flooded whether there's a storm or not," he observed. 

'Big U' and other flood preparations underway
On the Lower East Side, while residents are still in the process of rebuilding, they're not stopping there.

For instance, some apartment complexes are constructing storm walls to stop future flooding. And the city's resiliency measures include hardening pumping stations, launching neighborhood retail recovery programs and modifying shoreline parks to protect adjacent communities.

But the biggest measure is a massive construction project called the "Big U." It will reinforce low-lying areas on the Lower East Side by constructing park-like, impermeable barriers, called "berms," near the Manhattan Bridge. Deployable walls will also be built under the FDR Drive, ready to flip down in preparation of a storm.

The "Big U" was one of the winning proposals selected by President Obama's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force Rebuild by Design competition. The project has been awarded $335 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the competition.

In its entirety, the Big U will eventually stretch from West 57th Street south to the Battery, and up to East 42nd Street. According to HUD, the Big U will protect 29,000 public housing apartments, 150,000 residents and the Con Ed substation from future storms.

Zarrilli said that the City has begun surveying work for the Lower East Side's "Bridging Berms" project, and that the community has been engaged in the design process. He said he met with local Community Board 3 this summer. The City expects the project to be "fully implemented within the next few years," added Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget.

Red Hook is also a focus of government planning efforts. This January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Vice President Joe Biden announced that the City and State would jointly allocate $200 million toward an "integrated flood protection system" for Red Hook.

The project, which the State said will be "the first of its kind in the nation," is supposed to reduce the risk of major flooding for the majority of the community. It is part of New York State's $17 billion climate resilience strategy, "Reimagining New York for a New Reality." It is also one of the 257 initiatives in the city's resilience plan.

Details remain to be determined, but according to the State's plan, the flood protection system will "potentially encompass 370 acres of land and may feature a combination of elements, including a natural greenway, deployable flood walls, elevated streets, and drainage pumps."

The project will most likely connect with the Brooklyn Greenway, a landscaped route along the waterfront, which will eventually stretch 14 miles, from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge.

A design competition for the project was supposed to be held this year, with a project completion date scheduled for 2016, according to the City's resiliency plan. That timetable has been delayed because of funding issues, said Spitalnick.

The city is waiting for final approval from FEMA to complete the initial feasibility study for the project, she explained. "Once that happens, design and construction will follow."

A longer-term project, says Zarrilli, is to build a storm-surge barrier in the nearby Gowanus Canal. That barrier will protect a larger area, including Red Hook and Gowanus.

Depth of community engagement in planning process remains unclear
The flood protection system proposed for Red Hook is part of a larger neighborhood resiliency plan created with state support and prepared by a group of outside consulting firms, with what was said to be the leadership of a "broad swath" of the community.

The resulting plan discusses strategies ranging from support for small businesses to emergency back-up solar power for the Red Hook houses to an examination of the neighborhood's drainage issues.

Yet, the extent of the state and city resiliency plans for the area did not seem to have left much of an impression on the residents we spoke with. Some expressed concern about time passing.

"The State and City need to get going on the Integrated Flood Protection system that was announced in January," one resident told us. "Red Hook has done well preparing for future flooding events, but we need to know that there is a process in place to protect us from that flooding in the first place."

In fact, what seemed to matter more than the official planning were the efforts of fellow citizens, such as community groups and the local community board, a point made repeatedly by residents. For instance, many mentioned the Red Hook Initiative, which played a leading role in coordinating relief efforts after Sandy.

"The only people helping me are the neighbors," said Carmen Sanchez of Pioneer St Supermarket. Added Sabrina Holmes, another resident, "The City mentions preventive measures now and then, but progress is slow. Not much has happened."

"I feel at times I have a way to voice my concerns thru [the] Red Hook Initiative and through my boss, Assemblyman Felix W. Ortiz," said Karen Broughton, a long-term resident.

For Broughton, hundreds of work-related conversations with constituents of Ortiz have made it apparent to her that some "have lost their faith in organizations and governmental agencies; when it comes to getting proper information or getting anything they need done."

Gaps in communication between residents and government planners mean that residents may not know that concrete plans are actually being made. Even worse, people may give up on a neighborhood.

"If there is another storm like Sandy, I'll leave the neighborhood. I don't want to take the risk," added Shaniqua Smith, another Red Hook resident.

"The Public Has a Right to Know"
Council Members Richards and Treyger both said they found the City to be genuinely responsive on resiliency questions. In fact, Zarrilli also told us that he, and other city officials, will be at an October 27 Town Hall meeting in the Rockaways to discuss resiliency planning with New York City residents, organized by Richards.

But both Richards and Treyger stressed that a lot more needs to be done.

In Treyger's district, in Coney Island, for instance, the council member observed that sand replenishment has brought the beaches back to their previous state. But this isn't enough, he says. Treyger recollected that the ocean crossed the beach during Sandy, reaching the Coney Island boardwalk. He said he does not yet "see added protective measures" for the area.

Similarly, Richards talked about the community of Arverne in the Rockaways. "There's no protection for these particular homeowners if another storm comes. The only thing that separates them...from the [Jamaica] Bay is bulkheads, and the bulkheads are totally deteriorated."

Richards is calling on the City to rebuild the bulkheads, and noted that Arverne's homeowners are still rebuilding from Sandy. "We're in hurricane season so god forbid something happens again, they're back in the same place again, if not worse."

Treyger argued that at times the administration does seem to have to be pushed forward by the City Council and residents. A City Council hearing on conditions for NYCHA residents, held in Coney Island earlier this year, helped to spur the City's development of plans needed for the release of FEMA funding for upgrades, he noted.

"[We] had to push the needle," Treyger said.

The key issue, he said, is to maximize community participation in discussions about climate change: "We need an educational effort...starting with local community boards, to educate and inform people where we are at. There needs to be a clear, concise, understandable plan, especially in the vulnerable areas."

Concluded Treyger: "The public has a right to know what the City is doing to protect them."

by Sarah Crean
Contributing to this investigative report were Chauncey Alcorn, Gabriela Alonso, Jessica Bal, Andrew Caringi, Rahim Chagani, Erica Davies, Pilar Desha, Jack D'isidoro, Reed Dunlea, Emrys Eller, William Engel, Allison Fox, Sophie Gauthier, David Gershgorn, Lillian Knoepp, Eric Levitz, Kathryn Long, Ayana Mason, Monica Melton, Andrew Menezes, Carlotta Mohamed, Elise Murrell, Cari Party, Catherine Roberts, Cole Rosengren, Maria Sanchez Diez, Derek Scancarelli, Karen Shakerdge, Bianca Silva, John Spina, and Marguerite Ward.
Editors: Adam Glenn and Ben Max

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