A $52 Billion Proposal Aims to Protect New York Harbor From Storm Surges

Almost 10 years after Hurricane Sandy’s floods devastated coastal New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has unveiled its latest vision of how to protect the region from future storms: a $52 billion proposal to build 12 movable sea barriers across the mouths of major bays and inlets along New York Harbor.

The plan would be by far the region’s largest project to address storms that are growing more frequent and intense as the planet warms from the burning of fossil fuels and the only one attempting to defend the whole New York Harbor region. If Congress approved the proposal, the federal government would pay 65 percent of the cost.

It will also undoubtedly reignite a debate over the right approach to a complex problem — managing flood risks related to climate change, which is expected to raise sea levels one to six feet by the end of the century.

The new proposal, unveiled Saturday, would build sea gates across locations including Jamaica Bay in Queens and the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. It comes two and a half years after the Army Corps shelved a previous version that centered on a single, much larger gate across outer New York Harbor, from the Rockaway peninsula in Queens to Sandy Hook in New Jersey.

It was scuttled after President Donald J. Trump criticized the plan, which at one point carried a cost estimate of $119 billion and which some experts said could harm the environment and might not even work.

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Since then, the fiscal impact of the coronavirus pandemic has only toughened the political and financial challenges of devising solutions to the interrelated risks of storm surges, flash flooding and rising sea levels that threaten the New York region and waterfront cities around the world.

The new Army Corps proposal would include a series of sea gates — movable walls to be closed only for major storms — that would block waterways around Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and New Jersey, along with 31 miles of land-based levees, elevated shorelines and sea walls. It would require approval from the state and local governments that would foot the rest of the bill.

The proposal — like its predecessor — lands squarely in a broader resiliency debate, over how much to rely on each of two approaches that most experts think will have to be combined. One relies on engineered solutions, like building sea barriers that try to control water flows, along with walls and levees that defend coastlines. The other approach focuses on remaking waterfront areas so that they are more compatible with rising seas and intensifying weather: restoring marshlands, relocating some communities and redesigning others.

The Army Corps proposal would do some of each approach and has been revised to take into account public concerns, but its focus remains on sea barriers and walls. The Corps estimates it would be finished by 2044 and would save an average of $6.2 billion in flood damage a year for the next five decades.

Those who were skeptical of the previous proposal called the new one a major improvement, but want the Corps to further reduce reliance on built structures that may not keep up with the forces of nature and that pose risks to coastal ecosystems.

Some experts have warned the new structures might even worsen floods by deflecting surges elsewhere, slowing storm water drainage or trapping toxins and sewage in waterways known for pollution, such as Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal, both Superfund cleanup sites.

“It’s not to say that there can be no sea barriers,” said Tyler Taba, senior manager for climate policy at the Waterfront Alliance, a consortium of organizations in the region. “But it’s critical that green and natural infrastructure should be the primary consideration.”

In a statement, the Alliance called for more consideration of buying out flood-prone homes, elevating or relocating infrastructure and working on natural and societal solutions. Mr. Taba added that the Corps should do more to engage those most affected than it did last time, when 705 people showed up for public meetings on a project affecting 16 million residents.

Rob Freudenberg, vice president for energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, said the Army Corps had already become more responsive to public concerns and that the new proposal’s public comment period, through Jan. 6, 2023, offered a chance for a more informed public debate.

“This is a good opportunity now to take more time to learn about what all this includes and let each community that’s on the map weigh in,” Freudenberg said.

Those communities include New York’s five boroughs and nearby towns in New Jersey and Long Island.

Sea gates are proposed for Flushing and Newtown Creeks, the mouth of Jamaica Bay and two waterways near Howard Beach in Queens; the Gowanus Canal, Sheepshead Bay, Gerritsen and Coney Island Creek in Brooklyn; the Arthur Kill and Kill Van Kull between Staten Island and New Jersey, and the Hackensack River in New Jersey.

Land-based barriers, elevated promenades or sea walls would be built from Bath Beach in Brooklyn to Far Rockaway in Queens, and along stretches of Lower Manhattan, East Harlem and Jersey City.

A final design is expected in 2025, and construction would start in 2030.

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