Flood Barriers Go Up in Red Hook—But They’re Not a Permanent Fix

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The temporary wall would slow but not stop a major storm. The city is waiting for FEMA to approve a long-term infrastructure solution.

In the midst of a worse-than-usual hurricane season, and just two months shy of the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, flood barriers popped up near the waterfront in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook at the end of August.

But the four-foot-tall HESCO barricades—one stretch on Beard Street and another shorter one on Reed Street—are a temporary measure, and not designed to protect the community from a storm like Sandy. When permanent flood protection measures will get built remains unclear.

“We are not designing to Sandy-level surge,” said Heather Roiter, director of hazard mitigation for the New York City Emergency Management Department. “The goal of this program is to reduce flood risk, not eliminate it.” The barricades are part of what is being called the Emergency Management’s Interim Flood Protection Measures Program, which is being overseen by Roiter. Long-term, permanent measures are being handled by the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

In June, that office released a study—co-authored by the New York City Economic Development Corporation—detailing flood risks in Red Hook and proposing flood reduction measures compliant with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Roiter referred to those measures as a “sister initiative” to the temporary ones she is overseeing. “We need to have a continuous line of protection when a storm arrives,” Roiter said.

When that will come to fruition, though, remains ambiguous. The proposed permanent project, which is still waiting for FEMA approval, includes building a floodwall below part of Beard Street—the same location where the temporary HESCO barriers sit. A second floodwall is proposed near the nearby Atlantic Basin, and both will be built “by raising and regrading the street.”

The sites were chosen because they are “low points that are most vulnerable to coastal storm surge and sea level rise,” according to the study. According to Rachel Finkelstein, a policy advisor for community affairs and strategic outreach at the Mayor’s Office, the city does not have a timeline for when it expects to hear back from FEMA. When it does gain approval from the federal agency, the city can then begin the design process.

The temporary wall on Beard Street is made up of 198 HESCO flood barriers and backs up to a chain-link fence that separates the barricades from the waterfront. On Reed Street, backing up to a metal fence that encloses the Fairway parking lot, a shorter span of 30 barriers has been deployed—for a total of 700 feet of coverage, according to Roiter. The sand-filled, interlocking blocks are separated by gaps of about 30 to 40 feet at three different spots. The openings, which were necessary to avoid block driveways and access to nearby businesses, can be closed in times of emergency, using what are called Tiger Dams. According to Roiter, the city has a contractor who is on-call to perform this action in times of emergency.

Though the stretches of HESCO barriers would not be enough to block flooding during a Sandy-level storm, Richard Gilbert, a longtime flood engineer,  said they are capable of reducing the velocity of storm floodwaters and would force waves to break before reaching any buildings. Gilbert owns BlueShore Engineering—which specializes in flood, coastal, and structural engineering—and said that by his own analysis, there is a 0.4 percent chance of the area experiencing a Sandy-level storm each year.

That chance is likely increasing due to rising sea levels. Still, he said that the 2012 superstorm is not necessarily the baseline. “Flood regulations aren’t designed around Sandy,” he said.

Gilbert’s firm has been contracted by the city to complete projects across the boroughs, including renovations of coast guard facilities on Staten Island, Jones Beach, and Fire Island. While he did not work on this specific project, he said that ones like it often come down to balancing various public interests, including public structures, health and safety of residents, physical and visual coastal access, and cost. “They have to consider a lot more than just providing protection,” he said.

Roiter said her office looked at “a suite of measures” in addition to consulting contractors and engineers, before deciding on the cost-effective HESCO barriers. She said that the Red Hook project “costs about $1 million to install, maintain, and de-install.” During the planning process, Roiter said her office presented the plans at community meetings, including one held by Resilient Red Hook—a group that advocates climate change resilience in the neighborhood—in addition to meeting with nearby businesses. She said that so far the feedback has been positive.

But not everyone is convinced. A city employee who works in the area called the project “a waste of taxpayer money,” saying that the barriers would not be sufficient to guard against the kind of flooding Red Hook has been know to have during storm season. He said that if water levels rise, like they did when Sandy devastated the community in late October 2012, the new barricades “won’t do anything.”

According the a 2014 report by the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation, Hurricane Sandy was nearly 1,000 miles wide and devastated 51 square miles of the city’s coastline. Nearly 2 million people lost power. In Red Hook, many properties, “both in terms of structural resiliency and insurance coverage,” were not prepared the withstand the vicious storm and ensuing flooding. Water engulfed the community from all three coastlines: the Buttermilk Channel, the Upper New York Bay, and the Gowanus Bay and Canal. The report cites a U.S. Geological survey which recorded flood levels along the waterfront—at more than 11 feet.

Gita Nandan, a community leader for Resilient Red Hook, as well as an architect and urban planner, said that after the June study was released, she and other members of the group “asked candidly” for temporary measures, out of concern that nothing would be put on the ground for at least two to three years. “We were sort of the levers that were pushing the buttons,” she said. Though they advocated for the barriers, they were not involved in the design or location selection processes.

Nandan was complimentary of city personnel and policies in general, but said that slow implementation of solutions due to bureaucracy can be frustrating. She said the latest project “is a step in the right direction.”

But she cautioned that coastal communities nationwide lack the money and effort required to build strong coastal infrastructure. “We’re definitely not prepared for the next storm,” she said. “We’re better off than we were before Superstorm Sandy, but we’re nowhere near where coastal communities need to be.”

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