Superstorm Sandy unleashed a powerful assault on Staten Island in late October. The island’s position in New York Harbor at the Narrows — where waters from the large Lower Bay funnel into the small Upper Bay — along with the storm’s westward shift at landfall focused Sandy’s energy on its southeastern shore. Communities such as New Dorp, Midland Beach and Oakwood Beach were battered by the storm surge, which also coincided with high tide. Oakwood Beach, for example, had more than 700 affected structures, of which some 300 suffered extensive structural damage and around 60 were destroyed or washed away. Even more significantly, over half the loss of life in New York City directly attributable to Sandy took place on Staten Island, where 23 people died.
Sandy’s impact on local residents prompted the College of Staten Island (CSI), a branch of the City University of New York, to sponsor a conference that would provide experts, residents and students with an opportunity to participate in what the organizers called a serious conversation about the borough’s future. Speakers at the March 8 forum addressed two basic questions: Why was Staten Island hit so hard and what measures could enhance its resilience to future storms?
The Importance of Emergency Planning
In answering the two core questions, participants distinguished between the ‘natural’ and ‘manmade’ components of the disaster. The natural components resulted from a unique combination of climatological and geophysical elements that turned a downgraded hurricane into highly destructive superstorm. The manmade elements resulted from omissions and miscalculations in planning, both short-term and long-term, that speakers at the forum addressed.
Before Sandy arrived, many residents lacked a clear understanding of the nature of a storm surge, and did not evacuate, based on what had happened the previous year during Tropical Storm Irene, which produced slower flooding from heavy rainfall but no surge, several panelists said. Residents who stayed put during Irene not only survived, but also were protected from the robberies that took place at some evacuated homes, one speaker noted. Better information about the differences between Sandy and Irene might have induced people to make wiser choices, speakers said.
As one of his five points to protect Staten Island, CSI’s interim president, Dr. William Fritz, stressed the need to educate residents about options for evacuating to safety, especially since there is ample high ground on the island for escaping storm surges and flooding. Simple measures like posting signage to indicate routes to safety could save lives, he said. He also suggested that clearly designated parking areas for use during severe storms might have prevented the loss of cars, which compounded the difficulties faced by many residents after Sandy by leaving them without transportation and creating hazardous debris.
Along with two of his CSI colleagues, Drs. Alan Benimoff and Michael Kress, Fritz, a geologist, had completed a study just weeks earlier that provided detailed modeling of the flooding that would occur if the brunt of a severe storm hit Staten Island’s low-lying neighborhoods, and Sandy demonstrated the accuracy of their model with deadly precision. Dissemination of such knowledge could help people to understand the importance of heeding evacuation orders and to think about long-range planning for the island, Fritz said.
Mary Beth Melendez, a CSI graduate student, made Sandy’s impact vivid by recounting her own experiences, both as a volunteer organizer at a storm shelter and as a visually disabled person. Her story formed part of a group of presentations on the human dimensions of the storm that further underscored the lacunae in preparations.
Two days before Sandy, Melendez had tried to schedule a trip with New York City’s Access-a-Ride and discovered that the service had already shut down, without notifying the elderly and disabled people who rely on it. While she had other resources to draw on, Melendez wondered whether early termination of the service contributed to the loss of life, since most Sandy-related deaths on Staten Island occurred among older residents.
Melendez also spoke of her work at one of the evacuation centers on the island. Power was lost soon after the storm hit, but the shelter had not been provided with back-up generators, leaving evacuees without lights, heat or refrigeration for preserving temperature-sensitive medications, she said. In addition, supplies of food and water ran out days before people could return home or be transferred elsewhere, said Melendez.
Government officials also spoke about the lessons learned from Sandy, noting areas of success in the provision of services but also acknowledging failures that contributed to the manmade aspects of the disaster.
State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis and City Council Member James Oddo both represent districts that encompass some of the most devastated Staten Island neighborhoods. They described their experiences after Sandy struck, when the city’s 911 and 311 systems became so overloaded that calls were not being answered. In an effort to find some means of communicating their pleas for help, constituents turned to the Facebook pages of the two officials, and Malliotakis and Oddo described how they spent the night conveying those requests to emergency service providers.
“I was afraid to go to sleep for fear that someone could have died if I didn’t get them help,” said Malliotakis.
The Impact of Urbanization on Staten Island Flooding
Much longer-term miscalculations also contributed to Sandy’s impact. Over the course of the twentieth century, the borough permitted extensive urbanization along the shoreline, impairing the natural capacity of the landscape to manage flooding. CSI geologist Alan Benimoff illustrated this point with slides of nineteenth-century maps that showed how the island’s entire southeastern coast was made up of wetlands and tidal channels that could buffer assaults from storms.
But during the twentieth century, people began building — first, small summer cabins at the waterfront and then, increasingly dense neighborhoods with year-round housing — despite the fact that serious flooding occurred when tropical storms hit during the 1920s and 1930s. By the time Sandy arrived in 2012, the storm surge pummeled an urbanized coast, whose hard pavement and numerous buildings hindered the natural environment’s ability to absorb flood waters and reduce the impact of tidal surges, he said.
Malliotakis described a constituent’s home, located in a marsh and surrounded by phragmites, that flooded every time there were heavy rains, let alone a major storm.
“No one should have been allowed to build there in the first place,” she said.
Councilor Member Oddo emphasized that elected officials weren’t saying we should give up on the coastal areas, but he and Malliotakis agreed that certain places on Staten Island shouldn’t be rebuilt.
In fact, the majority of residents in some neighborhoods such as Oakwood Beach are asking to be bought out by federal or state programs, as reported by several city publications. Many other residents and business owners are uncertain about whether to stay in their pre-storm locations or move elsewhere, but it has been difficult for them to make plans so far, speakers said.
“People need all the information at once to make intelligent decisions – how much federal or state money will be available for buyouts versus rebuilding, what FEMA’s updated flood maps will say about the risks associated with particular building sites – but those pieces aren’t all in place yet, close to five months after the storm, said Malliotakis.
Some of the slow pace is endemic to the layers of government involved in funding and approving applications for storm recovery projects, panelists said. But other things, such as an Army Corps of Engineers study about a comprehensive levee solution to prevent flooding on Staten Island’s south shore, have dragged on for years without reaching completion, said Dr. Jonathan Peters, a professor of finance at CSI.
The day’s presentations clearly illustrated many of the manmade contributions to the disaster. And participants agreed that Sandy’s lessons must be translated into concrete steps to safeguard the island’s future, as sea levels rise and increasingly severe weather tests its coastlines. Better emergency planning can be developed in the short-term through an analysis of the system’s failures during Sandy, but it will take time to determine the best approaches to designing flood mitigation strategies that can be incorporated into the rebuilding of Staten Island’s neighborhoods and infrastructure, they said
Lessons from the Netherlands and New Orleans
A group of panelists with expertise in city planning and architecture addressed the question of sustainable land use and reconstruction. Arjan Braamskamp, senior economic officer for water and energy at the Netherlands Consulate in New York, spoke about lessons learned by his country over centuries of struggling with incursions from the sea. While stressing that he was presenting a toolbox of options, not specific recommendations, Braamskamp described a shift in thinking from a historical focus on dikes and barriers in the Netherlands to keep out water to a present-day recognition that water must be let in, especially given the realities of climate change. A combination of designed and natural processes can guide where and how the water interacts with the built environment, Braamskamp said. This newer integrated approach also aims to leverage economic and social benefits from flood-mitigation projects so as to make them more financially viable, he said.
Recent Dutch examples include constructing underground garages for malls or multi-story buildings that can be used for emergency water storage, or creating urban walkways and parks that can also function as flood plains, said Braamskamp. In addition, he described approaches being developed in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where one tactic involves converting acreage in depressed areas for water retention so as to allow development in other places. Thus, for instance, engineers calculated that if 25 acres of land on the site of an old New Orleans monastery were set aside for stormwater capture, enough storage would be provided to make an additional 4,000 acres safe for building, he said.
A project based on similar principles is currently underway for Staten Island, led by Professor Ellen Neises, a landscape architect from the University of Pennsylvania. She and her graduate students are working with geophysical and climatological data to identify which sites are and are not defensible, now and into the future.
In areas where residents want to be bought out, the newly available land can be integrated into an ongoing Staten Island Bluebelt project for preserving and restoring natural drainage corridors for stormwater, Neises said. The restored land can be turned into recreational areas for residents and visitors to enjoy. In areas where people want to rebuild, it becomes the job of design and engineering professionals to determine how that can happen in a way that offers adequate flood protection, she said.
For approaches such as these to succeed, extended discussion and active community involvement are critical ingredients, panel members said. In addition to CSI, local partners such as the Staten Island Museum, Staten Island Foundation and Staten Island Board of Realtors, and outside groups such as Pratt Institute and the New York State Business Development Center, have indicated their commitment to providing opportunities for Staten Island to continue the process.
— By Eleanor Saunders