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Coastal houses ravaged by Superstorm Sandy.Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The damage caused by Superstorm Sandy was unprecedented, but it wasn’t unpredictable.
For decades, academics and experts had warned that a big hurricane could wreak serious havoc on the New York metropolitan area. In 1978, a New York state committee on disaster preparedness concluded that New York City was particularly vulnerable if the right kind of storm struck.
But those warnings were never heeded.
Now experts say that as global temperatures increase, it isn’t a question of if but when another Sandy-like storm will hit. And while most everyone agrees dramatic steps need to be taken to secure the Northeast — from building sea walls and beach berms to ceding entire neighborhoods back to nature — very few seem to know exactly how or when those goals will be accomplished.
That’s because the multibillion dollar plans to ensure the resiliency of the coast hinge on entities that have proved resistant to spending and change: the United States government and the American people.
“The places that got hit, everyone knew they were vulnerable. They’d flood even during minor storms,” said Richard Flanagan, a professor of political science at the College of Staten Island. “The problem is the lack of will to get things done.”
Flanagan has been working with a team of researchers to study storm-surge scenarios on Staten Island for more than four years. The year before Sandy hit, one of Flanagan’s colleagues published a paper that predicted — with an eerie level of accuracy — which areas were most vulnerable if a Sandy-like storm were to hit.
Unfortunately, the researchers were proved right when Sandy flooded the south and east shores of Staten Island, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 23 people.
Still unwilling to pay
Flanagan and his peers believe waiting on the federal government to build protections is a waste of time, so they’ve been looking into ways to get Staten Islanders who live in flood-prone areas to pay about $6,000 a year to build a levee system.
They believe residents would buy into the system because levees would significantly reduce the risk of flooding, in turn reducing their flood-insurance premiums.
But if Ocean Breeze — a neighborhood that was completely inundated by Sandy — is any indication, Flanagan is going to have a hard time persuading people to pay for their own protection.
Everybody wants everything, and nobody wants to pay ... Sometimes a tax isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Despite being minutes from Manhattan, Ocean Breeze looks more like parts of New Orleans than New York City. Single-story houses sit on swampland. Pickup trucks litter lawns. Boarded-up windows are spray-painted with signs reading, “Do not trespass. You will be shot.” Also like New Orleans, the neighborhood is shaped like a bowl. Superstorm Sandy filled it to the brim.
But that hasn’t stopped residents like Janet Hague from moving back in after the storm.
Hague has lived 57 of her 64 years on Staten Island. She considered moving out after Sandy but said she felt too attached to her home in Ocean Breeze. She spent her life savings rebuilding the house and was able to move back in just two weeks ago. She knows another storm might come, but she’s not buying flood insurance and doesn’t want to pay for levees, either.
“After we paid for it, a disaster would happen, and they’d say, ‘Whoops, sorry it didn’t work out,’” she said.
Bill Jankunis lives down the block from Hague. He believed in the idea of levees but doesn’t see why taxpayers should have to pay for it.
“I don't know why that has to be paid by residents here when the safety of the citizens of New York is usually paid for by the city and state,” he said. “I don’t know what services I’m getting that I’m paying for now.”
But according to Flanagan and his fellow researchers, relying on the city, state and federal governments is what left Staten Island and other areas of the Northeast unprotected for so long.
“Everybody wants everything, and nobody wants to pay,” said Jonathan Peters, one of Flanagan’s colleagues at the College of Staten Island who has been working on the financing side of the levee study. “You’ve got to look at this and decide. Do you want to wait for the government to show up sometime in the future, or do you do something now? ... Sometimes a tax isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
Waiting on the government has gotten Staten Island in trouble before. The idea for a levee system was originated not by the Staten Island professors but by the Army Corps of Engineers decades ago. Most recently, the Army Corps began a study of the eastern shore in 2000, but it was repeatedly delayed by several budget shortfalls.
“It was zero-funded for two years,” said Army Corps spokesman Christopher Gardner. “It’s difficult to restart an effort like that. You move forward a couple of years, and then you have data that’s already out of date.”
The Army Corps has resumed its study and plans to begin construction on levees off the coast of Staten Island by 2016. It is not clear when the work will be done.
Staten Island isn’t the only area vulnerable to storms and lacking the money or public will to guarantee protection.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed $20 billion in projects — from removable flood walls around Manhattan to new dunes and a surge barrier in the Rockaways — that are meant to protect New York from the next Sandy. But he admits it won’t be enough money to complete all the projects.
And given the spending-averse climate in Washington, no one is sure where the rest of the money will come from.
Lack of ‘political will’
Some say Sandy was a sign of a larger problem facing the country. Infrastructure projects, whether for storms or anything else, are often underfunded and delayed.
In its quadrennial grading of the country’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers most recently gave the nation a D+ for overall infrastructure — a slight improvement from its D four years earlier.
“Unfortunately, I’m concerned that there’s not the political will,” said Patrick Natale, executive director of the society. “We’ve got to get away from the whole attitude of not spending.”
But money isn’t the only impediment to building infrastructure. After all, the spending-averse politicians in Washington were elected by Americans, including some of those in places affected by Sandy. The United States is still a democracy, and therefore its future relies heavily on the will of the American people.
In Long Beach, a town on Long Island near the border of Brooklyn, the Army Corps of Engineers had a long-standing interest in building storm-surge protections — in this case, high dunes on the beach. Unlike in Staten Island, the corps had most of the money and federal approval needed to get started.
In 2006, the Army Corps went to the government of Long Beach with its plan, but the local government turned down the project. Many residents said it would ruin their views and destroy the city’s iconic boardwalk, and surfers worried the dunes would dampen waves.
Much of Long Beach came to regret that decision when Superstorm Sandy swept away the city’s boardwalk and dozens of houses. The surrounding towns, which bought into the dune project, were left relatively unscathed.
Leah Herbert, a lifelong Long Beach resident, was originally worried the Army Corps dunes would change the character of Long Beach, so when the city council voted down the project, she was relieved. But now she said she’s learned her lesson.
“The life as we knew it — (the project) probably would’ve hampered some of that,” she said. “But going through what we’re going through now, my lifestyle has changed dramatically ... You really have to start to think, what is the value of (the dunes project)? Now, I’d definitely be for it.”