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The Forgotten Victims of Sea Level Rise

By Laurine Lassalle

April 17, 2019

“We’re going to protect Lower Manhattan, which includes the Financial District, home to a half-million jobs, 90,000 residents, and the nexus of almost all our subway lines,” NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in New York Magazine on March 13, 2019. “It will be one of the most complex environmental and engineering challenges our city has ever undertaken and it will, literally, alter the shape of the island of Manhattan,” he wrote.


This $10-billion project intends to build a seawall along the Lower Manhattan coast and add offshore land to protect the island from sea level rise and flooding.

Manhattan is not the only borough in danger; the entire coastline of New York City is threatened by sea level rise. Beyond this $10-billion plan, other less costly initiatives have been launched throughout the city since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Lower Manhattan is the financial heart of the city; the subway system and the population are more concentrated in this area than any other neighborhoods, as well as the average income is higher.


But a little further south, the Rockaways encompass a more middle-class neighborhood, and they were among the areas the most affected by flooding when Hurricane Sandy hit.



Jeremy Jones, the vice president of the Rockaway Beach Civic Association, recalled how Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for the local residents. “I don’t know anybody in the peninsula that wasn’t directly affected by that to some degree,” he said. “I don’t want to say we didn’t get our share, but there are much more people in Manhattan than in the Rockaways. So I guess somebody worked out the numbers at some point and they decided this is where they’re going to put the money.” But Jones showed some sort of resignation, “Here in the Rockaways, we're a little off the map, so we have come not to expect a lot.”


The “share” he mentioned is the $130-million Long Beach Coastal Storm Risk Reduction Project (roughly 1/100 of the Lower Manhattan’s plan) started in 2016 and recently announced as completed by the United States Army Corps Engineers. The project added hundreds of thousands of tons of rock, millions of cubic yards of sands, and has expanded the beach about 150 feet from Long Beach to Point Lookout. In addition, the USACE New York District is currently waiting for final approval to start reinforcing the dunes and adding groins to reduce coastal storms’ risks mentioned in the East Rockaway Inlet to Rockaway Inlet & Jamaica Bay General Revaluation Report in late 2019-early 2020.

Coney Island - Photo by Laurine Lassalle

A few miles away to the west, Coney Island’s amusement park and residential neighborhoods where low-income households live will be one of the first areas to be submerged when the water rises.


The Alliance for Coney Island’s executive director Alexandra Silversmith mentioned that the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy did not generate much support from the city because the flooding from the storm came from the creeks rather than the beach as in the Rockaways. Coney Island’s boardwalk was not damaged as much as the Rockaways' one either, but Alexandra Silversmith regretted that no measures had been taken in Coney Island despite its location.


“It would make sense that we would get some of those dunes and other resiliency measures to help protect from a future storm because even though for Hurricane Sandy the majority of the water did not come from that direction, you don't know what will happen in the future,” Silversmith said.


“A lot of the people who have lived [in Coney Island] or who have had a business [there] for a long time are used to getting the short end of the stick,” Silversmith explained. “There's definitely been a strange omission of Coney Island.”  


“We need to have a real conversation about a fair way to invest our resources in different areas,” Kate Boicourt, who has been in charge of the resilience department at the Waterfront Alliance for more than two years, said.


Boicourt mentioned that the Financial District would be underwater by 2080 only from daily high tide without a plan. “The infrastructure cost-benefit analysis is something that plays into that as well as density,” she added, “and that's kind of part of the point of the city that they are investing a few billion dollars on.”  


Coney Island also has some density, especially where NYCHA buildings are, but Boicourt affirmed that the highest tidal flooding happened and would happen in lower density neighborhoods of Coney Island.


Surprisingly, in the often forgotten borough, Staten Island, a $615 million plan, roughly 1/16 of the Lower Manhattan’s cost, is expected to start in 2020 and to be completed in 2023. It will add levees and seawalls with a promenade on top on its east coast.


According to the National Director for Flood Risk and Resiliency for North America at Arcadis Edgar Westerhof, “The city is not making a distinction between any of the boroughs and any other places and is studying everything, not just the financial districts.”


Arcadis is a Dutch engineering firm present worldwide and works on water management closely with the city of New York. The company is involved in the Lower Manhattan project.


“The people are the city. New York has about 520 miles of coastline, and you cannot say that, for example, the Bronx is less or more important than any other places in the city.  At the end of the day, it's about looking at your entire city and without making a distinction, but you can't do everything at the same time. So you have to move from one project to the other,” Westerhof said.


Sea level rise may seem intangible making it difficult for people to consider, but the effects may soon be a daily-basis concern. “For example, you may want to try to buy a house. Would you be able to get a 30-year mortgage if you consider buying in Coney Island or the Rockaways?” Westerhof said. “In Miami, there are certain streets that get so much flooding that you can’t park your car every full moon when it is high tide.” These consequences are even more disastrous for low-income communities.

Coney Island - Photo by Laurine Lassalle

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