Saving Our Shores: The First Step

Bay Area ModelThe Bay Model Visitor Center in San Francisco is a 2-acre scale model that is visited annually by 150,000 students, tourists and experts from around the world.

Superstorm Sandy created much hardship for New York communities. And now we are left with difficult decisions on how to rebuild the infrastructure that supports millions of New Yorkers daily.

Empire State Future's interest is and has always been that we make infrastructure choices that are equitable, and fiscally and environmentally sustainable. In President Obama's request for $60.4 billion in aid to the East Coast, $12.97 billion is proposed for storm mitigation techniques. New and old storm mitigation techniques could be implemented. What best will prepare communities for sea-level rise and future severe weather is still untested.

Limited infrastructure dollars must be spent wisely when the money is available. If we don't do it right the first time, subsequent investments will continue to be needed. They will compete with worthy infrastructure investments needed across the state, from Buffalo to the Adirondacks to Babylon.

To allow for legitimate scientific, engineering, and financial consideration of options and alternatives, Empire State Future offers a tool and a venue to create sustainable infrastructure choices for the New York Harbor.

December 17, 2012

The New York region needs what together Sausalito, California and Vicksburg, Mississippi have. A publicly accessible means to determine what jetties, sea walls, green solutions, other structures, actions or non-actions would best reduce shorefront damage to manmade and natural assets from future Hurricane Sandy-size storms that climate change makes a virtual certainty.

This gathering place and tool, must facilitate useful dialogue among the experts, politicians, environmentalists, maritime interests and other users of the harbor who will evaluate the feasibility of proposed alternatives, their likely cost-effectiveness and the considerable, perhaps painful trade-offs they will engender.

In 1957 in Sausalito, the United States Army Corps of Engineers opened the "San Francisco Bay Area Model" to analyze the feasibility, costs and impacts of major dam, flood control, and other proposed engineered projects affecting San Francisco's iconic bay. Today, called the "Bay Model Visitor Center" that 2-acre scale model is visited annually by 150,000 students, tourists and experts from around the world.

In Vicksburg, Army Corps scientists and engineers operate dozens of such acre-sized scale replicas of U.S harbors, rivers and coasts in which they model waves, currents and tides, while sophisticated computer models analyze the effect of storms, surging waters, wind and other natural forces. The models test how a jetty, sea wall, dam, sand dune, oyster bed, or other natural or engineered solution might interact with a given harbor's physical characteristics, its docks, depths, islands, ship channels, beaches, bulkheads, rivers and marshes under diverse including severe weather conditions. Modeling allows the Corps to perform scale experiments to evaluate many interconnected, possibly expensive alternatives, before approvals are given or construction begins.

Governors Cuomo and Christie have asked for $70+ billion in federal money to help the region recover rebuild and prepare for the future. President Obama has requested $60 billion from Congress.

Ideas to protect us are numerous - sea walls, dunes, hardened assets, oyster beds, new wetlands, rebuilding, relocation, resilience - but they are not well understood by the general public, not sufficiently tested in local waters or coordinated with our neighboring states.

London, Rotterdam, and Tokyo built modern engineered storm defenses. So have Stamford, Connecticut and Providence, Rhode Island, and they work. But what will work here?

The Army Corps, the federal agency responsible for coastal structures and inland navigation can help find answers. It is their job. They are authorized, staffed with scientists and marine engineers and able to be funded by Congress. The Corps will need to model any major New York area work. They should bring their modeling here!

The regional waterfront (from Cape May in southern New Jersey to the eastern entrances of the Long Island Sound near Rhode Island and Connecticut) is among the world's most complex and valuable. There are three major entrances to the port, over a thousand miles of built-up or protected shoreline, essential wetlands and habitats, four major rivers, millions of nearby residents, office buildings, essential municipal infrastructure including airports, highways, and sewage treatment plants as well as power plants, gasoline storage and port facilities. Damage, disruption, or delay can lead to tragedy, dislocation and billions of dollars from economic loss as we have seen.

The Corps is certainly not perfect. Critics say that their dams, levees and beach replenishment strategies have underperformed, sometimes failed. That's why their work needs to be public, here and now.

The public, NGOs and politicians need to better understand the likely effectiveness, financial and human costs, and trade-offs (diversion of storm surge from a given state, community or asset may increase the repercussions on other states, communities or property) inherent in the choices we face, including the choice not to act. We need to agree, or agree to disagree, up front.

Sited within our harbor, supplemented by computers, linked to the Internet, and surrounded by amphitheater seating, with sound and lights, a model and visitor center, designed and built with resilience, would facilitate the needed decision-making.

The model could be sited on Governors Island or at Liberty State Park. They are at the center of the region and harbor, and are accessible by transit and ferry. They have space, and might benefit from four-season use and visitation. Bridgeport, Beacon, even Peebles Island on the Hudson River near Albany might work too.

The Corps can build physical models with pumps, pipes and flowing water in 6-12 months for less than $20 million - a wise investment if it usefully informs governmental preventive and ameliorative infrastructure choices here, and along the now-threatened east, west and gulf coasts of the U.S.

To get our region started, the Corps should immediately deploy its engineers and scientists to a NY area research center designed for education, engagement and timely public decision. Immediate funding for this East Coast Storm Preparation and Education Center should come from FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Program supporting community projects that reduce risks. The Governors should include funding in their federal "ask".

We cannot afford to find ourselves arguing when the next storm hits.