Army Corps narrows down plans to protect area from future storms

BY Briana Vannozzi, Correspondent |

When Superstorm Sandy came barreling up the Atlantic, 14-foot storm surges caused mass flooding across the metropolitan region, racking up more than $70 billion in damages.

Six years later, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is finally narrowing down design plans to protect the area from future coastal storm devastation, and almost all include massive sea gates, storm barriers or land-based flood walls.

“They basically span the spectrum from large comprehensive solutions which cover the entire harbor region, to more focused areas that are on areas that have high residual risk that haven’t been addressed already by one of the number of efforts,” said Bryce Wisemiller, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York district.

There’s six proposals in all. The Army Corps refers to them as alternatives, concentrating on the New Jersey/New York harbor. Environmental groups aren’t thrilled about any of them.

“Several of the proposals cut off tidal flow to either the entire estuary or to portions of it. When you cut off tidal flow, that means you’re cutting off oxygen, you’re cutting off nutrients. You’re cutting off the flushing of contaminants out of the system, so we haven’t seen any data on this,” said Greg Remaud, Baykeeper and CEO of NY/NJ Baykeeper.

The plan called Alt 2 is raising the most eyebrows. It proposes a giant gate that would stretch for about five miles from Sandy Hook, all the way to Breezy Point in the Rockaways. The gates would remain open most of the time for passing ships, but swing closed like a saloon door in the event of a storm surge. The rub is even if the gates remain open, the structures built on either side to support it could trap important sea life and disrupt the waterway.

“There’s a knee-jerk reaction here, and that is that the ocean, and the water and the New York Harbor are bad things and that they’re going to hurt us,” said Gil Hawkins, the former president of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association.

Not so, says the Army Corps. The organization is holding a series of public hearings this week to gather public input. The Corps says it doesn’t advocate for any single plan and there are plenty of other options calling for multiple, shorter barriers, all based on successful models from around the world.

“The Thames barrier in London, of course, protects London, and in fact is closed seven to eight times a year and has been protecting London. There’s another storm surge barrier in St. Petersburg,” said Suzanne DiGeronimo from the storm surge working group.

“We are doing some fatal flaw type modeling of surge barriers because they are common in several of the alternatives. So, we’re looking to see if they can capture the existing freshwater inflows that come in from the various tributaries, as well as wastewater treatment plants, so that you don’t get bad flooding from that,” said Wisemiller.

One design with common ground? Option five. It addresses sea level rise and uses a hybrid approach with shoreline-based flood walls, dunes, levees, natural buffers and stormwater management.

“All things that are very cost effective, save the taxpayer dollars,” Remaud said.

There’s still no cost analysis and all the designs are preliminary, but some estimates say option two could cost $25 billion to build and a few hundred million a year just to maintain.

The Army Corps of Engineers is aiming to select two design options by the fall, but any final plan still has a long way to go. The Chief’s Report, that’s the last step before getting funding from Congress, isn’t expected until 2022, and that’s a full 10 years post-Sandy.