New York City has good bones. In the swivel of every moment and in the mad blur of millions of lives lived uptown and downtown, our grid sits unchanged. But global warming could change all of that. New Yorkers now face threats from climate change that will only become more common with every passing decade. With sea-levels rising around Manhattan, flooding in New York City will no longer feel like a once-in-a-lifetime memory.
The vulnerable coast
When Hurricane Sandy ripped through the city six years ago, New Yorkers saw their home in a new light – vulnerable and maybe most drastically, ill-equipped. Sandy brought unprecedented flooding across the five boroughs that wrecked neighborhoods, killed 43 people, and cost the city nearly $19 billion. Over 1 million New York City children could not attend school for a week. Neighborhoods were crippled for days with power outages and swamped roads and train tunnels.
New York has been thumbing its nose at the sea for 300 years”
The storm was even worse for minority communities and poor neighborhoods. New York City has over 500 miles of coastline; the wider metropolitan area has 3,700 miles of coastline with 23 million residents. Much of it, especially along the lower New York Bay, was fodder for Sandy. “It is virtually certain that sea level rise alone will lead to more intense coastal flooding in New York” said Ted Steinberg, professor of history and law at Case Western Reserve University, in a lecture titled “Can NYC Survive the Sea” hosted by NYCH2O. If this still feels like a distant concern, remember that Sandy was a tipping point. The seas around New York City have been rising at twice the global rate, and the worst-case scenarios are only a few generations away for millennials. In an era of rising seas, disastrous flooding doesn’t need a superstorm.
If you looked into the eye of the storm, you would notice the ocean bulging upward, like a marble floating in a glass of water. Eventually the relentless winds can push that water far enough to flood the coast. These storm-surges pose the biggest threat to New York City during a hurricane. Back in 2012, the East River swelled into Manhattan.
It is virtually certain that sea level rise alone will lead to more intense coastal flooding in New York”
Sandy’s storm surge reached nearly 9 feet in New York City and pushed the seas to a record height of 11.3 feet. For perspective, the subway begins to flood at 10.5 feet above the average low-water mark, and JFK Airport is just 14 feet above sea level.
One foot higher
The seas around New York City have risen by one-foot since 1900. But the pace is much quicker now because of global warming. According to a report by the Regional Plan Association, an organization that examines economic health, infrastructure, and sustainability, sea levels in the tri-state area could rise another foot by the 2030s. That’s high enough to submerge parts of LaGuardia Airport.
Flooding at this level won’t be drastic or immediate, and its effects will reach greater New York City first – starting at Jamaica Bay, Flushing Bay, and the eastern shore of Staten Island. But even one foot should be a cause for concern. One foot of sea level rise could inundate nearly 60 square miles of New York City where more than 19,000 people live today.
In the aftermath of Sandy, New York City revamped its flood zone maps, which designate where to evacuate. Flood zones include low-lying coastal areas with at least a 1 percent risk of flooding every year. Last time around, the maps and projections came up short. The most drastic model predicted flooding at the Battery at 11 feet, while the actual storm-surge reached nearly 14 feet. And zones not predicted to flood were soon underwater.
Back in 2012, the East River swelled into Manhattan”
New York’s flood zone includes parts of the Upper East Side between the 70s and 90s near the East River, which flooded during Sandy. The redrawn East Side flood zone also includes the 60s until York Avenue, East 75th Street, and much of Yorkville. In most flooding scenarios, nearly all of East Harlem is at-risk.
Until Sandy, visions of destruction from floods and hurricanes happened away from the urban sprawl of New York. But in the six years since that wake-up call, can we say that New York is really ready?
A stubborn mindset
The city has launched many efforts to prepare for the next big storm, like the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. Some communities are guiding development inland and avoiding the shoreline, a strategy called managed retreat. Even the financial industry is paying attention – Moody’s recently announced that climate-risk preparedness will affect its credit assessments of American cities. But there are years of work ahead and uncertainties about securing funding from FEMA’s embattled National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Waterfront development, especially at sites like Hudson Yards, is also still a cash-cow for the city despite flood risks. As Steinberg put it, “New York has been thumbing its nose at the sea for 300 years.” That attitude will be both the hardest to change and the exact thing we need to repurpose.
At the NYCH2O lecture, a hand went up in the audience. The man said, rather than asked: “You can’t just expect people to leave the Lower East Side!” But that may be what our future demands. This century, New Yorkers will need to make a gargantuan mental leap: imagining what it might mean for the grid to change — and for a neighborhood to disappear underwater.
Wondering if you live in a flood zone? Read more here.
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