I took a walk in the rain the other night. As usual, the streets surrounding my home began to flood.
I live in Red Hook, a peninsular neighborhood on the Brooklyn waterfront. More of an engineered knob than a "hook," the neighborhood — once marshland and later the rough-and-tumble dominion of dockworkers — is built atop fill and surrounded by water on three sides. As such, my apartment building comes complete with enviable New York Harbor views and a perpetually deluged basement. The entire building sways and shakes whenever a large truck rumbles by.
Having been forced to evacuate twice due to storms in the almost-decade that I've been here, I live in constant awareness that evacuation No. 3 could be just around the corner.
The flooded streets that I traversed on my walk were nothing compared to what was simultaneously unfolding along the Gulf Coast. The rain in my flood-prone corner of the world wasn't all that heavy — more of a steady drizzle, really. And unlike the rains battering Southeast Texas, which Matt Pearce described for the Los Angeles Times as being "less an atmospheric condition … than a kind of state of being, like mourning, that can't be forgotten unless you're asleep," I knew the rain in Brooklyn would end soon. Unlike the similarly vulnerable coastal communities hundreds of miles away inundated by Hurricane (now a tropical depression) Harvey, my neighborhood would dry out by morning.
In the fall of 2012, the second time I was forced to evacuate, it took months for my neighborhood to dry out.
Flooding on Van Brunt and Reed streets in Red Hook, Brooklyn, following Superstorm Sandy. The coastal community struggled to recover in the weeks and months after the storm. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
When I returned home — 30 days after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on coastal New York and New Jersey — the hum of generators was still constant, the piles of soggy household possessions tossed to the curb were still high and the stench of leaked oil from the neighborhood ship basins still permeated the air. Things didn't go back to normal in my sleepy waterfront neighborhood for a long time.
Nearly five years later, Red Hook isn't just back to normal. As I noticed on my rain-soaked evening walk, it's infinitely more prepared.
Deployed last week as the first phase of a $100 million flood protection system for Red Hook are two four-foot-tall storm walls that are 70 feet long. Called Hesco barriers, these sturdy sand-filled gabions — the same kind that popped up across New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina — line two especially low-lying streets a few blocks from my home.
The longer wall is along a cobblestone-paved stretch of Beard Street between Van Brunt Street and Richards Street with Eerie Basin Park and IKEA (an exemplary neighbor during Sandy's aftermath) located just a stone's throw to the east. A shorter wall can be found on Reed Street opposite two popular waterfront eateries along the perimeter of the Fairway supermarket parking lot. Both streets are high-traffic and frequently submerged.
In case anyone is confused as to what exact purpose these bulky new neighborhood additions serve, signage points out that they are part of the city's Interim Flood Protection Measures Program, "designed to reduce storm surge flooding in this community." Red Hook is the first low-lying part of New York City to have flood barriers installed on a neighborhood level.
Tall but not tall enough ...
As reported by Lauren Gill for the Brooklyn Paper, the so-called "surge protectors" will stay put for five years while the Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR) explores more permanent options to help keep the neighborhood out of harm's way. To be clear, the barriers are designed to protect against mild flooding produced by 10-year floods, which have a 10 percent chance of occurring during any given year. If a storm of the same magnitude of Sandy — or Harvey, for that matter — were to strike over the next five years, the barriers would be largely ineffective.
Jainey Bavishi, a climate adaptation expert and newly instated director of the ORR, explains to the Brooklyn Paper that barrier walls capable of shielding Red Hook from 100-year-storms like Sandy would need to be as tall as 15 feet, which isn't feasible along the bustling Brooklyn waterfront where views are at a premium.
"Not everything should be — or can be — built to protect against Sandy level storms," Bavishi explains. "We wanted to be responsive to the community's concerns and make sure we're doing everything we can to make sure Red Hook is safe."
Complicating matters is the fact that much of Red Hook's flooding comes from underneath as storm surge — even when not flowing in on street level — can cause the neighborhood's already-high groundwater table to rise. Jessica Colon, a senior policy advisor for the ORR, explained to DNAinfo in June that installing permanent walls along the entirety of Red Hook's shoreline would potential create a "bathtub" effect — that is, floodwater trapped in this markedly porous neighborhood would be kept from draining into the bay. (In Houston, a high water table explains the lack of a subway system and predominance of basement-less homes.)
Flood-blocking bike paths and mural-clad barrier walls
Watching the devastation unfold in Texas while semi-permanent storm walls debuted in my own flood-prone neighborhood was a weird bit of timing for sure. It offered some reassurance but also left me wondering what longer-term permanent solutions are on the horizon.
As of now, permanent fixes on the horizon include raising Beard Street (buh-bye cobblestones) and installing new bulkheads and a flood wall at Atlantic Basin, home to a new citywide ferry dock and the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. The latter fix would directly impact me — when Sandy's surge came rushing down my quiet street it came straight from the Buttermilk Channel and Atlantic Basin.
Resiliency-minded fixes are also underway at Red Hook's sprawling public housing development, which is home to a bulk of the neighborhood's population and was disproportionately impacted by the storm. As of last year, mold infestations resulting from Sandy continued to be a problem in individual apartments.
What's more, the Red Hook section of the partially completed Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, a 26-mile cyclist and pedestrian corridor that will eventually span the entirely of Brooklyn's western waterfront from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge, could boast flood-blocking design elements.
As for the rather unsightly Hesco barriers, they'll eventually be covered in eye-catching murals, which will be printed on vinyl banners and wrapped around the wire-mesh blocks. There's currently an open call for mural submissions. All, not just professional artists, are encouraged to submit designs that are "aesthetically pleasing and appropriate for the public realm" and also consider the "social, historical, architectural, geographical, and/or cultural context of the site."
Hurricane Harvey, which inundated large swaths of Houston and other coastal communities in Southeast Texas and beyond, is expected to be the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
So about that funding ...
While Bavishi and the ORR have big plans for Red Hook's flood-proofing, there's the not-so-small issue of money.
Half of the $100 million price tag attached to the neighborhood's flood protection plan requires funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the agency within the Department of Homeland Security that oversees relief efforts following natural disasters.
But federal funding for climate-related resiliency efforts like the one in Red Hook might be hard to come by.
As part of the Trump administration's budget plans for the 2018 fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, FEMA's state and local programs dealing with disaster preparedness and response would be subject to an 11 percent cut — that's $667 million — to help fulfill Trump's campaign promise for a wall along the Mexican border. An additional $90 million would be cut from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, the same program that would partially fund anti-flood efforts in Red Hook.
Red Hook, a somewhat isolated 'resi-dustrial' community on the Brooklyn waterfront, during the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. (Photo: Michael Fleshman/flickr)
The program it [Trump's budget plan] explicitly calls out as lacking congressional authorization is the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program and a second proposed change would require all preparedness grants to be matched in part by non-federal funds. All of FEMA's pre-disaster grants are meant to reduce federal spending after disasters, and according to the agency's website, there's evidence that $1 in mitigation spending saves $4 in later damages.
Other agencies that would potentially see dramatic cuts under the plan in addition to FEMA include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Considering the unpopularity of Trump's border wall and the catastrophic and costly situation along the Gulf Coast — Harvey is already slated to be the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history — there's a chance that FEMA programs on the chopping block may be spared when the spending bill goes before Congress in the coming days. Optics wise, slashing FEMA funding in the immediate wake of one of the country's worst natural disasters isn't great.
We'll see what happens. Meanwhile, I've never been more thankful for a wall. Here's hoping there are more walls like these — and barriers and bulkheads and berms and flood-stopping bike paths — to come.
National Public Radio has a comprehensive list of relief organizations, including animal rescue groups and regional food banks, actively working in the Houston area and beyond. It's worth a look if you're considering donating. (To make a greater impact, skip the Red Cross unless you're giving blood.)