Ida’s deluge renews calls for massive N.Y. sea walls

By Hannah Northey, Daniel Cusick | 09/02/2021 12:56 PM EST

Members of the New York City Fire Department helped people across Queens Boulevard through flash floods yesterday after remnants of Hurricane Ida brought 3 inches of rain per hour across the city. Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images

As remnants of Hurricane Ida pummeled large swaths of the Northeast, some local officials cast blame on federal agencies for slow-walking critical flood control projects that could have halted a deadly surge that enveloped entire subways, neighborhoods and highways.

The storm broke records and spawned tornadoes and flooding that killed at least 14 people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including three people who died in a basement apartment in the borough of Queens in New York City.

Donovan Richards, president of the borough, said during an interview with CNN this morning that the disaster unfolding is the result of climate change and blamed federal officials for moving too slowly to protect a part of the state that’s seeing more frequent and disastrous storms.

“The Army Corps of Engineers has continued to drag their foot on projects like the Rockaway Reformulation Plan, and we don’t have time to [twiddle] our thumbs here,” Richards said.

“We’re running up against the clock; the clock is already ticking,” he continued. “If we don’t move aggressively to combat climate change, we’re going to continue to lose life, unfortunately,” and city, state and federal governments will continue to pay to address destruction as more frequent and extreme storms hit the city.

The Army Corps didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment when asked about Richards’ statement.

The issue of how to best protect the East Coast from more severe storms has been a brewing debate for years with the heat on the Army Corps, the military’s engineering arm that oversees some of the largest restoration and flood protection projects in the world.

After blasting the Gulf Coast and leaving New Orleans without power as temperatures spiked, the storm churned north. The National Weather Service recorded 3.15 inches of rain in New York’s Central Park in one hour last night, surpassing the previous record of 1.94 inches that fell in one hour during Hurricane Henri in August. Scientists have warned that such weather extremes will be more common with human-caused global warming.

But massive flood control projects have also proved to be controversial and slow to take shape, triggering funding, environmental and political fights that can span years.

The Rockaway Reformulation Project, for example, has a lengthy, decadeslong history that involves large infusions of federal dollars to replenish the 6.2-mile-long beach along New York’s sandy coast in Queens that was chewed away during Superstorm Sandy.

The project going forward includes efforts to build back the beaches, the construction of new and rehabilitated “groins” or structures to prevent beach erosion, and other features aimed at protecting New York City and surrounding areas from extreme storms churning up through the Atlantic Ocean. According to the Army Corps’ website, the first of several construction contracts for the project was awarded last year for building stone groins on the shoreline.

Karen Imas, vice president for programs at the Waterfront Alliance, a regional advocacy group focused on coastal resilience, said the Corps has made significant progress on the Rockaway project, including placing about 3.7 million cubic yards of sand on the beach and building a sand retaining wall along parts of the beach boardwalk.

“This is really important for the Rockaway community,” she said.

But she added that the risks are rising quickly.

“The coordination is complex, and just getting them off the ground has just taken extraordinary amounts of time," she said. "We’re seeing the challenge of that now. It’s going to be the ninth anniversary of Sandy soon, and we realize this is not where we need to be."

Other projects

But the bustling, tourist-attracting Rockaway Beach is far from the only Army Corps project facing a long and tenuous future.

Another storm surge project on Staten Island — jointly funded by the Corps, the state of New York and New York City — has also dragged over concerns about legacy pollution in areas where the wall is to be built. Some Staten Islanders insist decontamination work be completed in those areas before the wall is built, Imas said.

Also still in limbo is a costlier, $119 billion storm surge barrier off the coast of New York and New Jersey that the Trump administration effectively killed last year.

The Army Corps-led project — dubbed the New York & New Jersey Harbor & Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study, or HATS — proposes five “alternatives” for addressing storm surge in the New York-New Jersey Harbor, Long Island Sound and the Hudson River Valley, including the construction of a 6-mile-long gated structure across the mouth of the New York Harbor (Climatewire, Nov. 16, 2020).

Last year, then-President Trump slammed the project in a tweet, deriding the idea as a "costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly" way to protect New York City from "rare storms." He said the project would "also look terrible," adding that New Yorkers "will just have to get your mops & buckets ready" (Greenwire, Jan. 21, 2020).

But the Biden administration, according to the Army Corps’ website, is looking to reengage the public regarding the study and the potential construction of a sea wall. In April, the Corps was approved to take more time to study the various alternatives, and the agency said it’s pursuing various avenues for federal funding in addition to the project being included in the Biden administration’s fiscal 2022 budget request.

That project hasn’t gone without detractors.

In 2019, for example, City Comptroller Scott Stringer voiced opposition to any sea wall to combat climate change, instead calling on the Army Corps to consider projects like flood walls, dunes and wetland restoration, living shorelines, reefs, and levees that could do more to protect against sea-level rise and non-storm flooding.

“Offshore storm barriers simply cannot protect all of our coastal communities from the myriad challenges posed by climate change and are incompatible with a healthy, thriving New York Harbor,” Stringer wrote.

But Imas, who confirmed the Army Corps requested funding to revive the HATS initiative under the Biden administration’s latest budget proposal, said the study, if successful, could broaden its scope beyond a massive sea wall for New York Harbor to include other strategies for mitigating storm surge risk.

Imas said it’s not just waterfront communities that are getting hit, but also inland infrastructure.

"Basements left and right are flooded, and our sewer infrastructure can’t handle these major storm events,” Imas added. “We’re talking about sea walls, and that’s critical, but clearly there’s a bigger infrastructure problem that needs to be addressed.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.