A serious conversation about Sandy

By Steve Spinello | FBW | February 28, 2013

When superstorm Sandy struck the New York-New Jersey area, one of the worst hit areas was Staten Island. Of the 43 deaths claimed by the storm in New York City, 23 were on Staten Island. Due to its location, Staten Island is uniquely positioned to sustain the brunt of approaching hurricanes from the Atlantic. The storm surge from Sandy was no exception as neighborhoods along the borough’s coastline experienced devastating flooding.

Staten Island’s experience during Sandy was recently profiled in an article by Ian Frazier in the February issue of The New Yorker. In his article, Frazier interviewed Dr. William Fritz, president of and geology professor at the College of Staten Island, about Sandy’s impact on Staten Island:

In places like the Bay of Fundy, a tidal surge is focussed by the geography and its height is increased. The same is true here — so the incoming water had no place to go. It was funneled through the stretch between Sandy Hook, in New Jersey, and the Rockaways, in New York, and then there’s this very short ramp of shallower water before the surge gets to shore. In the protected water of New York Harbor above the Narrows, you had a rapid rise without the violent waves. But at the Staten Island shoreline nothing much had interfered with the storm’s energy before the surge (or surges) hit, so the land had to absorb it. The Staten Island shoreline functioned as a crumple zone, like a bumper on a car. The full force of Sandy hit there.

Dr. Fritz will be leading a discussion panel about Sandy on March 8 at the College of Staten Island’s Center for the Arts. The panel, billed as the “Superstorm Sandy Forum: A Serious Conversation about the Future of Staten Island”, will cover the New York metropolitan area’s vulnerability to future hurricanes, storm protection measures, land use policy, and rebuilding strategies from other coastal communities.  At a recent event at the Museum of the City of New York, Fritz was quote as saying, “Irene was a wake-up call last year. Sandy is even more of a wake-up call this year for the New York metropolitan area.”

Next time, it could be much worse than Sandy. Sandy was a relatively minor storm. It’s very easy for us to model 20-foot surges. The probability goes down, but it doesn’t go down to zero.

Fritz is clear about one thing, Hurricane Sandy was no anomaly and people living in the New York-New Jersey area should expect future storms. “I want to make sure that everyone realizes that this wasn’t just a one-time event. We are going to be hit again” Fritz says. Although affected communities are still recovering from Sandy’s toll, Fritz suggests that an even larger, more powerful storm could have exacted a worse outcome. “Next time, it could be much worse than Sandy. Sandy was a relatively minor storm. It’s very easy for us to model 20-foot surges. The probability goes down, but it doesn’t go down to zero.”

While he does not suggest a direct link between climate change and superstorm Sandy, Fritz points out that rising global emissions have contributed to rapid sea level rise. That rise has in turn contributed to increased flood risk along the coastline. “Sea level has been rising by about a foot per century for the past five-thousand years. When Manhattan was established in the early 1600s, sea level was four feet lower than it is today. Fritz suggests that climate change, stoked by increasing emission levels, could adversely affect areas like the tri-state region. “Depending on where you are, the impacts of global warming could increase sea level rise by 2-5 feet over the next century. The whole New York area probably is probably one the most vulnerable areas along the whole eastern seaboard.”

Moving forward, Dr. Fritz believes that there needs to be a reasoned debate about best practices for mitigating future storms. In areas like Staten Island –where marshes and wetlands have been built on top of– the professor suggests restoring the land to its natural state. For other areas where that option is not feasible, protective measures might include re-zoning, re-thinking land use policy, or identifying engineering solutions. “We have to have a serious conversation about how do we live with rising sea level” Fritz says. With regards to building seawalls or floodgates, the professor cautions placing too much emphasis on fix-all solutions. “As a geologist, I have to offer the counsel that engineering solutions almost always protect one area at the expense of another.”

Related links

Dutch Dialogues: A model for Hoboken
Flood insurance rates will skyrocket
Monarch Towers now in FEMA’s Coastal High Hazard Flood Zone
79% of Hoboken falls into FEMA’s flood zone
Post Sandy: After repairing the damage, then what?
12-Point Plan in preparation for the next Sandy
The morning after Sandy: Hoboken’s waterfront parks
Sandy, the day after – Hoboken waterfront pics
The Long Slip Canal and protecting Hoboken from the next surge

Post-Sandy Resources

The Big Uneasy
Maps
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