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Dr. Nancy Kete Headshot

Jamaica Bay Can Point the Way Toward a More Resilient Post-Sandy New York

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Flickr: USACEpublicaffairs
Flickr: USACEpublicaffairs

Superstorm Sandy showed the absolute havoc that storm surges from the East River and the Hudson can wreak on New York City. But less noticed was another body of water where flooding did extraordinary damage to communities like Breezy Point, Far Rockaway and Howard Beach: Jamaica Bay.

Having served as the city's dumping ground for the past two centuries, Jamaica Bay is a badly damaged and degraded ecosystem. Four waste-water treatment plants ring this relatively small body of water. Two large landfills, now closed, provide the only elevation. Kennedy Airport borrowed heavily from the bottom of the bay to fill its runways, permanently altering the currents and water flows and leaving behind deep pits of contaminated water that still pollutes the fish found there, as well as the surrounding area.

The bay is formed by the Rockaway peninsula, a barrier island that, under normal circumstances, protects it -- and the 880,000 people who live on its shores -- from the open Atlantic. But there was nothing "normal" about Sandy -- or at least not the old normal. In the past 14 months the new normal has brought New York two storms severe enough to warrant mandatory evacuation, and three of the 10 highest flood events of the past century in the last three years.

As residents of Jamaica Bay, the city at large and authorities of both the city and the National Parks Service seek to rebuild in the wake of Sandy, we are presented with an unprecedented opportunity to think and act in ways that recognize the reality of this new normal.

Some will likely call for a return to the wild, opposing the reconstruction of homes on the Rockaways barrier island. Others may make the case to harden the coast with levees and sea walls. But for residents on Breezy Point and elsewhere on the Rockaways, it is hard to imagine an engineered structure that can hold back the sea while preserving the vistas and ocean recreation that is a key attraction to the area.

So how should we approach the reconstruction and restoration? We must first answer the question of how we can help both the people and the bay they live on prepare for, withstand and emerge stronger from an acute crisis like Sandy. That is to say, how can we make them more resilient? Five key steps could help to accomplish this goal:

First, broaden and deepen the community's understanding of the threats they face and the assets they have to reduce their risks. Storms like Sandy might be the most obvious threat today, but many who live along Jamaica Bay face other chronic stresses like unemployment and economic isolation that pose equally grave threats to their well-being. Building resilient coastal communities means dealing with these realities, too.

Second, to reduce the very significant risks of storm surges, shorelines should be softened and sea floors roughened to slow down and reduce the height of waves and the reach of the water. The hard infrastructure techniques of the 19th century, like levies and seawalls, have proven ineffective, counterproductive and costly. Sea walls increase wave velocity, causing waves to come back at the waterfront even harder and smoothing out the sea floor in the process, which, in turn, increases wave velocity and the risk of flooding even more.

Third, electric substations, generators and transformers could be located out of reach of water heights expected under the new normal. And on a very practical level, storm preparedness training and warnings should remind people to turn off the electric current to their homes and buildings when they evacuate.

Fourth, transportation systems should be made more resilient by repairing and restoring them in ways that allow for strategic retreat from storms in the future and easier recovery from them once they have passed. The need to fix the transportation infrastructure offers the perfect opportunity to provide fast and convenient transit access to and from the Rockaways, finally integrating it with the rest of the city.

And finally, we should enhance community resilience by making the restoration of the bay a means through which to engage the bay's neighbors, and in particular its local youth, in order to educate them about the pleasures and risks associated with living in a coastal area. Unfortunately, awareness of the pleasures of water sports and recreation and the realities of coastal ecology are not shared equally across the city, with many who live directly on the ocean and bay lacking the knowledge to appreciate their gifts when it is safe, nor to respect its power when it is not.

We are already getting started. In July Mayor Bloomberg and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced their intention to manage the 10,000 acres of parkland in and around the bay as a single, unified Great Urban Park, and to create alongside that park a first-ever Center for Science and Resilience, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Sandy and storms like her can no longer be treated like rare and isolated events. And in that context New York, the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn and the National Park Service should proceed with rebuilding and restoring Jamaica Bay and its surrounding parkland, ecosystems and neighborhoods in a way that increases their physical and social resilience.

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