10:34 am Nov. 20, 2012
Perhaps the most controversial debate to emerge from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is the question of whether New Yorkers should retreat from the waterfront.
Last night on NY1, former Port Authority executive director Chris Ward argued that's not a real option for New York City.
"Culturally and just socially for this city, to expect you can vacate Rockaway and Breezy Point, I just don't see that as a political likelihood," he said.
In today's New York Times, architecture Michael Kimmelman took a slightly different tack.
At this point there’s no logic, politics and sentiment aside, to FEMA simply rebuilding single-family homes on barrier islands like the Rockaways, where they shouldn’t have been built in the first place, and like bowling pins will tumble again after the next hurricane strikes.
“Retreat is a dirty word,” as Robert S. Young, a North Carolina geologist, has described American sentiment, but better finally to face reality and make plans for smarter construction, compensation and even, where necessary, relocation. Elected officials and utility companies shouldn’t just turn on the lights and heat and restore crippled elevators in forgotten public housing projects that were inadequately designed in the first place.
Common sense dictates upgrading many of these projects to withstand floods but also devising new homes elsewhere for some residents. Cost-benefit analyses, long overdue, should answer tough questions like whether it’s actually worth saving some neighborhoods in flood zones. Communities like Breezy Point should be given knowledge, power and choice about their options, then the responsibility to live by that choice.
The question of "retreat," and whether or not New York City should even contemplate it, also implicitly factors into the debate surrounding tidal barriers.
A proposal to build tidal barriers at the Verrazano, Throgs Neck and Arthur Kill addresses the need protect the city's center, but the plan would also leave a number of low-lying outer parts of the city, like Sea Gate and the Rockaways, unprotected.
Right after the storm, I asked Rep. Jerry Nadler, a vocal proponent of such measures, what that would mean the city's eastern flank.
"I'm not sure how you could protect those areas, or if you could," he said. "But the fact that something doesn't solve 100 percent of your problems is not an argument against doing it, if it solves 70 percent of your problems."
That sea walls are both extremely expensive and not a panacea is the basis for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's opposition to them.
"There's a real issue of winners and losers," said Ward last night. "If you're outside of the sea wall, then you're a loser. If you're inside, you're protected."