Friday, January 06, 2006

Protecting New York City From Coastal Hazards

The following Op-Ed was submitted by the CMRC to the New York Times in Fall 2005. The theme, coastal hazards and resource management, has been a topic of many news articles and television specials in the past year, yet the question still remains - Are we ready? JB

A hurricane packing winds of one hundred and fifty miles per hour quickly approaches the Northeast coast. The horizon rapidly darkens as torrential rains soak the soil and creek beds overflow their banks. Waves of over twenty feet crash on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean with great force, ravenously consuming sand from the region’s outermost islands. As high tide peaks, the barrier beaches are overwhelmed by a rushing surge of water almost twenty feet tall.

The Hurricane of 1938 left hundreds dead and thousands injured. This great storm damaged over 75,000 buildings and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses. However, although the storm was one of the worst on record, it missed the heavily populated metropolitan region directly to its west: another fifty miles, and Manhattan would have caught its eye.

Coastal disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis are uncontrollable acts of nature. While we cannot stop these storms from hitting land, there are two major categories of response to coastal hazard risk. First, disaster relief plans can help to prepare and protect people and property, both before, and after, a storm. Equally important, but significantly less discussed, is the role of coastal management policy making. Decisions based upon good science and implemented with strong inter-agency coordination can effectively reduce coastal flood, wind and surge impacts.

New York City and New Orleans have a lot in common. New Orleans’ importance as a commercial port and center for energy production closely parallels that of the Port of NY as a major economic driver for the region. Millions of people live within an hour drive of both cities, and housing, roadways and other forms of development dominate their respective landscapes. Natural resources abound in both cities, as anybody who swims, kayaks, surfs, fishes, or just relaxes on their shores can attest. Both cities are home to numerous aquatic and terrestrial species that thrive in the bays, rivers and uplands of their respective waterways.

Unfortunately, great cities tend to have great impacts on ecosystems and natural resources. In New York, much like New Orleans, bulkheads and seawalls have replaced gently sloping shorelines, while thousands of acres of wetlands have been filled for residential and commercial development. Shorelines have been altered so much that they no longer retain their natural ability to absorb the impacts of tidal fluctuations. As in New Orleans, New York City is now bounded by poorly engineered shorelines that are incapable of protecting citizens from large-scale flood events.

Another similarity between New York City and New Orleans is the way in which the city’s coastal resources are managed – efforts tend to be uncoordinated, characterized by short-sighted goals that too often dictated by political agendas. A lack of foresight by federal, state, and local agencies has led to the overdevelopment at the shoreline, potentially endangering thousands of residents. If anything can be learned in Katrina’s horrific wake, it is that coastal management planning frameworks need to be revised and updated to include policies that address the long-term hazards (such as a 100 year storm) facing the coastal zone. Some key priorities to protect people in urban coastal areas include the following:

Create policies that protect and enhance barrier beaches and dune ecosystems. These areas are often the first line of defense against the waves, wind and surge associated with coastal storms. Increasing the natural capacity of barrier beaches to deflect a storm’s energy will directly lead to a lower risk for residents. In places like the Rockaways and Coney Island, dunes have largely disappeared or have been destroyed by coastal development. Creating programs that restore these natural sea walls can be accomplished, most notably by using discarded Christmas trees to hold sand in place.

Marshes and wetlands found in estuaries, bays and rivers also offer great protection from coastal waves, winds, and flooding. Their ability to absorb the excess waters associated with storms is unparalleled. As a first step, remaining wetlands need to be protected from development. Next, an aggressive, region-wide plan needs to be implemented that restores damaged marshes and creates new acreage wherever possible. In New York City and surrounding environs, over 300,000 acres, or about 80 percent of natural wetlands, have been either dredged, filled or destroyed for development purposes. Further loss is simply unacceptable.

Planners and policy-makers focusing on residential and commercial development should implement more stringent guidelines for new construction, especially when it takes place in coastal flood zone areas. Policy-makers should also design incentives to create buffers between existing shorelines and new construction. This would directly reduce the flood-related risk to human lives and property. In coastal areas where revitalization is taking place, as in Greenpoint and Red Hook, storm-related hazards must be a focus of redevelopment planning guidelines.

Most importantly, Federal, state, and local agencies need to coordinate their coastal management policies. The current structure of planning and decision-making is ineffectual, with institutional overlap in responsibility, and a focus on short-term objectives for political expediency rather instead of a well-coordinated, long term strategy to manage coastal natural resources and anticipate and manage risk. Federal agencies with very similar missions often duplicate efforts and create counterproductive initiatives. At the state and local levels, standards and regulations can vary across political boundaries, without respect for the physical and ecological systems.

Furthermore, the incentive for these different levels of decision-makers to coordinate is missing. While there are many organizations and commissions at all levels – including government, non-government, and private sector stakeholders - dedicated to managing coastal resources, there is also very limited interaction and communication amongst these efforts. As a result, good science gets lost in policy decisions, which increases the risk of human failure should catastrophe strike.

The challenges of managing coastal resources and natural hazards are pertinent and very real for many cities, as we’ve seen in New Orleans – but also in New York. In Katrina’s wake, it is imperative that we examine our own preparedness for coastal hazards, both in terms of disaster readiness, and longer-term policy implications. Although New York City has not been hit severely by a storm of recent record, the Hurricane of 1938 illustrates that an event of this magnitude is not entirely out of the question. If the catastrophe in New Orleans can offer any lessons for other waterfront cities, it is that there’s no room for error in planning for coastal hazards.

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