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$52 billion plan to save New York’s low-lying areas from sea flooding

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Roger Gendron is one of tens of thousands of residents who live on the far outskirts of Queens in neighborhoods prone to flooding and worsening coastal storms.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

QUEENS, N.Y. — Roger Gendron recalled when nearly eight feet of floodwaters inundated his home and tore down the first floor ceiling while he and his family huddled upstairs during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Gendron’s home has since been rebuilt. But his community of Hamilton Beach, which sits on the Jamaica Bay, is plagued by up to a foot of tidal flooding almost every month. And residents here fear when the next major storm will pass through.

Gendron is one of tens of thousands of people who live on the far outskirts of Queens in low-lying neighborhoods like Howard Beach and Broad Channel, where climate change has triggered rising sea levels and worsening coastal storms.

The region is now at the center of a historic federal plan that would funnel billions of dollars into constructing storm surge gates and seawalls to protect the Jamaica Bay area and all of New York. Still, it’s unclear how these vulnerable coastal communities — and others across the country — will ultimately fare.

“When I tell someone in say, Brooklyn, that we have to move our cars three to four times a month just to avoid floods, or that the main entry road into our community gets flooded and traps us in — they’re completely shocked,” Gendron said.

Hamilton Beach, located just west of John F. Kennedy airport, is just a one-hour train ride to Midtown Manhattan. But it feels more like a quaint coastal town than a neighborhood on the outskirts of a bustling metropolis.

The middle-class neighborhood of roughly 27,000 people overlooks the bay and contains mostly detached two-story homes, many of which were entirely rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy. The streets are calm and quiet, except for the frequent hum of airplane engines from JFK. It’s also a close- knit community. Residents greet each other during walks and feed the chickens and rabbits that wander around the neighborhood.

Gendron, a former truck driver and the president of the New Hamilton Beach Civic Association, is a life-long resident and is popular in the community for his advocacy work on storm and flood protection. Many of the families in Hamilton Beach have lived here for several generations and don’t have plans to leave.

Hamilton Beach in Queens is one of the neighborhoods at the center of a historic federal plan that would build a system of storm surge gates and seawalls to protect against flooding.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

They eventually might not have a choice. Sea levels are projected to rise an alarming six feet or more along U.S. coastlines by the end of the century. In this scenario, most of the communities surrounding Jamaica Bay would be inundated every day by high tides.

The situation is already urgent. Nearly 2.5 million New Yorkers live in the 100-year floodplain, which means they have a 1% chance of experiencing a major disaster every year. The city has also lost a majority of its sand dunes and coastal marshlands, which historically provided natural buffers to rising sea levels and storms and protected residents in low-lying neighborhoods.

Property values located in the city’s floodplain have reached more than $176 billion, about a 44% increase since Sandy, according to a recent report by the city’s comptroller. Rising tides and more frequent storms will put up to $242 billion at risk of coastal flooding by the 2050s, a 38% increase from today’s market value. In Queens, property values in the floodplain have hit more than $60 billion, about a 43% increase since Sandy. And up to $72 billion in property value will be at risk of coastal flooding by the 2050s.

Nearly every month during the highest tides, the streets of communities like Hamilton Beach, Howard Beach and Broad Channel are flooded by the waters of Jamaica Bay. Residents have grown accustomed to it. They plan community events and their parking schedules around the tidal charts, and some have moved their living spaces to the second floors in anticipation of floods.

“Communities like mine won’t survive if nothing’s done,” said Gendron, who turned 60 this year and eventually plans to leave the neighborhood to find a single-story home for he and his wife.

“Little by little, the government is learning this,” Gendron added. “In the meantime, all we can do is try to prepare our communities for what could be.”

A historic proposal to save New York’s coasts

Federal officials are working on a complex and costly plan to try and protect the region from storm surges and floods. One decade after Sandy caused nearly $70 billion in damage in New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in September unveiled a major plan to build sea gates across the mouths of major bays and inlets along New York Harbor, including Jamaica Bay.

The $52 billion proposal would be the largest project yet to combat storm surge and sea level rise in the region and the only course of action ever taken to protect the entire New York Harbor region. The proposal includes building movable sea gates that would close during big storms and block waterways in Queens, Staten Island and New Jersey, as well as constructing more than 30 miles of land-based levees, raised shorelines and sea walls.

The plan also calls for integrating natural solutions like wetland restoration and living shorelines built out of sand, oyster shells and plants in order to blunt the force of waves. These types of natural projects, some of which are already underway at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, would be balanced with the Army Corp’s man-made engineered solutions.

For Jamaica Bay communities, the plan involves smaller-scale projects, including tide gates, floodwalls and berms that would provide coastal storm risk management to Hamilton Beach, Howard Beach, Ramblersville, Rockwood Park and Lindenwood. Additionally, the proposed Jamaica Bay Storm Surge Barrier, located to the east of the Marine Parkway Bridge, would close during major storms.

Bryce Wisemiller, a project manager with the Army Corps, said the agency is working as quickly as possible to move forward on construction at Jamaica Bay and that it would know more about a timeline for smaller-scale projects within the proposal when its New York and New Jersey Harbors and Tributaries Study is completed.

“We would look to advance various features into construction as quickly as possible,” Wisemiller said. “This is all subject to construction authorization, non-federal sponsor support and funding from Congress.”

The price tag of the Army Corps proposal is high, but estimates of damages from storm surge and sea level rise are much higher without the plan. Without the proposal to build storm surge and flood protections, officials project that average annual damages to the region will amount to $5.1 billion in 2030 and $13.7 billion by the end of the century. The Army Corp estimates its projects would generate a net benefit of $3.7 billion each year over the next 50 years.

Shoreline restoration is underway at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

The federal government would fund 65% of the projects if Congress approves the plan, and the rest of the cost would be covered by state and local governments. Construction would begin in 2030 and finish within 14 years.

The plan chosen by the Army Corps was one of five proposed options, which ranged from doing nothing to spending more than twice as much at $112 billion. The more extensive option had more flood control projects across New York and New Jersey, including more than 7 miles of flood barriers along shorelines on New York Harbor, which would be the longest storm barrier in the world.

This option was not chosen due to the major cost and lengthy timeline, according to the Army Corps, which conducts a cost-benefit analysis to assess the extent of damage that could be avoided by a project compared with how much it would cost to construct it.

“It’s a homerun for us,” said Gendron, who recently met with government officials to urge them to implement the smaller projects more quickly for his community. “It’s a 14-year construction cycle for them, but that doesn’t mean those smaller projects couldn’t get done sooner.”

A possible last generation in low-lying coastal areas

The Army Corps proposal will buy the region time but is not an ultimate fix, as encroaching seas would eventually overcome costly infrastructure like sea walls, climate adaptation experts warn. Ultimately, the government will likely need to buy out and relocate residents in New York’s low-lying regions.

“There are some communities that will eventually need to leave — it’s just a matter of time,” said Paul Gallay, the director of the Columbia Center for Sustainable Urban Development’s Resilient Coastal Communities Program. “But these communities will need to know that there’s no better option before they consider relocation.”

Gallay said that while this year’s Army Corps proposal is a good start, officials require a tremendous amount of additional information before they can properly protect low-lying communities. He also urged that officials bring together community members and environmental organizations to have transparent conversations about the the benefits, drawbacks and uncertainties of the engineered projects.

Critics of the proposal have argued that the plans would only temporarily protect against storm surge and not against the more major and long-term threat of sea level rise. Some have raised concerns over the extent of damage the new infrastructure would pose to the environment.

“This is a wicked problem. It’s not easily solvable,” Gallay said, noting that the plan must address the three main challenges of storm surge, downpours and sea level rise, all of which are growing worse with human-caused climate change.

Given the grim sea level rise projections, officials, scientists and planners have increasingly supported relocation, also called managed retreat, as a national flood and climate change strategy.

In 2016, for instance, the government for the first time ever allocated $48 billion in federal tax dollars to move an entire community in coastal Louisiana. More recently, the Biden administration in November granted $75 billion to five Native American tribes to help them relocate away from coastal areas at risk of destruction, a move that will likely be a litmus test for other communities across the U.S.

Roger Gendron sits on his porch in Hamilton Beach, Queens. Gendron is one of tens of thousands of residents who live on the far outskirts of Queens in neighborhoods prone to flooding and worsening coastal storms.

Emma Newburger | CNBC

Robert Freudenberg, vice president of energy & environment of the Regional Plan Association, a non-profit that promotes sustainable development, said that climate adaptation is finally on the radar of government spending and there’s an increasing acknowledgment that some places are becoming too complicated or too expensive to sustain.

“There are just going to be places that we can’t keep trying to protect at some point,” Freudenberg said. “Billion dollars of could be spent in places where these plans won’t be effective beyond a certain time, and so we have to figure out if we’re okay with spending tax dollars that way.”

Some climate adaptation experts pointed out that rebuilding over and over after repeated floods or Sandy-like storms in New York might not make financial sense in the long run. The government has historically paid to purchase and demolish homes damaged by floods. Under a managed retreat strategy, officials would conduct broader buyouts and resettle residents or entire communities.

Hurricanes, floods and other disasters made worse by climate change could cost the U.S. federal budget about $2 trillion each year by the end of the century, the White House said earlier this year. The government is also projected to spend between $25 billion to $128 billion each year in areas like coastal disaster relief and flood insurance.

“If we want to protect these low lying communities in New York — or in any part of the country for that matter — we’ve got to understand that the viability of these communities in the future is tied directly to how effectively we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Gallay said.

For Gendron, officials are simply moving too slowly to protect New York’s low-lying regions. Congress, he added, must act urgently and approve the Army Corps proposal before it’s too late for Hamilton Beach. But Gendron is optimistic that his community can and will be saved.

“We don’t want to be a victim of our destiny — we want to control our destiny,” Gendron said. “We just want to keep our neighborhood.”

A house sits on the water in Broad Channel, Queens.

Emma Newburger | CNBC


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