Hurricane Sandy slammed 35 public housing developments managed by NYCHA, leaving tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers without power for days or even weeks on end in autumn of 2012. Other types of affordable housing were hit hard, too; 24,000 government-subsidized apartments and 40,000 rent-stabilized apartments were in the path of the storm surge, according to data from NYU’s Furman Center, which studies housing policy.
Claudia Perez, residents’ association president at the Washington Houses in East Harlem, recalled watching the floodwaters surge around nearby NYC Health + Hospitals Metropolitan.
“Sandy was really scary,” she said. ”When you see a hospital going underwater, you’re like, ‘oh my God, what’s going on here?’”
Future storms, coupled with rising sea levels from climate change, will flood even more low-income New Yorkers’ apartments, exacerbating an ongoing affordable housing crisis. A WNYC-NPR analysis of data from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) predicts that a Sandy-like storm could flood more than 50 NYCHA developments by 2080.
“People in affordable housing are more exposed to flooding, and they have the least resources to deal with it,” said Bernice Rosenzweig, a professor of environmental studies at Sarah Lawrence College.
Disasters often leave a legacy that breaks down between “the haves” and “the have-nots” — and with climate change, it will be a struggle to adapt with limited resources as the sea steadily creeps closer. In East Harlem, for example, Sandy’s floodwaters damaged parts of Metro North Plaza and the East River Houses, two NYCHA developments. Both have received funding from FEMA for repairs and upgrades, which are still in progress.
Scientists at the National Hurricane Center used data to predict how a Sandy-like storm might flood New York City after several decades of sea level rise. Here, we show the extent of the original Hurricane Sandy and a hypothetical storm in 2080, overlaid with NYCHA buildings (in purple) and new buildings constructed since 2012 (in pink, sized by number of units.) Click the buttons to compare the 2012 impact versus the 2080 prediction.
But the nearby Washington Houses were outside Sandy’s main inundation zone, so the complex wasn’t eligible for the same FEMA-funded resiliency upgrades. But the NHC data predicts that, as early as 2050, a comparable storm could bring floodwaters to the development’s door, putting residents and infrastructure at risk.
Across the river, upscale neighborhoods are facing this struggle, too. The lapis-colored door for the El Pinguino oyster bar sits on Greenpoint Avenue, a few steps from the luxury tower-studded skyline of the East River. Restaurant owner Nicholas Padilla has been running a dining establishment on this patch of the Brooklyn waterfront for more than a decade, and he has come to dread the rain.
At any given time in his dirt basement, Padilla can dig about 6 inches deep and hit water. As a result, he can’t count on his basement for storage. Owners at four neighboring businesses told Gothamist the same thing.
Padilla’s first restaurant in the area, Alameda, was flooded with 6 feet of rain and raw sewage by Sandy, costing tens of thousands of dollars in damage just shortly after he had signed the lease. But he said he won’t leave until the floodwaters chase him permanently from his business and his home, located less than a block away. He doesn’t know where else to live.
“It just seems crazy we dug 6 inches under the underground, in the basement and there was standing water,” Padilla said. “It’s New York City. It’s so hard to find somewhere to go. It just feels like people will just live here until it’s in the river.”
Aside from the addition of new building codes to address flooding and private partnerships to build more greenspace on the waterfront, there have been no major coastal resiliency projects since Sandy flooded the neighborhood a decade ago, that’s according to municipal agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection, the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, and local City Councilmember Lincoln Restler.
“Our area has grown in population and had more new housing built than any other part of New York City over the last 15 years,” said Restler, who released a district-level climate plan for the area earlier this year. “But we have not seen enough investment in strengthening our shorelines and realizing a more resilient waterfront.”
Greenpoint and neighboring Williamsburg are among the several waterfront areas in New York City that are booming with high-priced developments — but also facing severe threats from storm surge and sea level rise. Other areas include Long Island City in Queens and Hudson Yards in Manhattan.
The local community board estimates that 40,000 new residents were added to the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront area in the past decade. Counting only the projects currently planned for the waterfront, at least another 20,000 residents will be added over the next decade, according to Stephen Chesler, chair of the environment protection committee for Community Board 1, where the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront is located.
Many live in the development of new high-rise towers right along the East River with unobstructed views of Manhattan. This property also ranks among the most valuable in the city. Last year, the neighborhood experienced the city’s second-largest rise in median home prices — a 28% increase that featured a median sale of $1.2 million. That’s 60% higher than citywide prices.
The area also lacks substantial measures to protect the homes and businesses in this vulnerable flood zone that is predicted to be inundated by the end of this century to the middle of the next. Over the next 30 years, tide and storm surges will increase further inland, and at greater heights, bringing damaging flooding at a frequency that will be more than 10 times as often as it does today, according to an earlier analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And these projections don’t account for other effects of climate change, such as inland flooding that’s expected from intensifying rainfall.
But all of these data sets are still predictions, and there’s still time to allay some outcomes. The damage will depend on the extent to which governments curb greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.
That’s why advocates and experts alike are urging the municipal, state, and federal governments to prepare New York City’s housing stock for coming storms. Some are calling for building upgrades, so New Yorkers aren’t trapped in powerless, hazardous apartments and houses the next time the storms arrive. Others say the time to depart is now.
“We can’t control the ocean, not even with sea walls,” said Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist and climate expert at Columbia University’s Climate School. “We need to start moving people to higher ground now, and using the coastal areas as a barrier.”
Is $2 billion enough security for the city’s affordable housing?
New York City isn’t unique, as rising seas threaten affordable housing in many coastal states. One 2020 study predicted a threefold increase in the number of low-income apartments at risk of frequent flooding by 2050 nationwide.
But in a city with a pre-existing affordable housing crisis, low-income New Yorkers can’t stand to lose any more housing options, experts and advocates said — particularly when they’re already more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The experience of Sandy prompted Perez to create an emergency plan for her residents at the Washington Houses, many of whom are elderly or disabled. Tenants have packed “go-bags” full of emergency items and identified their vulnerable neighbors who might need help evacuating in a flood.
The residents’ association even co-authored “Washington Houses Ready,” an illustrated bilingual pocket guide to help residents navigate weather emergencies. Perez said it helps her feel a bit more confident in her ability to protect her neighbors — particularly since they live in such a low-lying area, which she describes as a “fishbowl.”
City officials have also set in motion a wide array of climate protections, including seawalls and zoning rules. The Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem, for example, is now getting its own flood wall to protect it from future storms.
“From the promenades of Lower Manhattan, to the wholesale market of Hunts Point, to the beachfront communities of the Rockaways – New Yorkers are grappling with the realities of climate change,” Department of Housing Preservation and Development spokesperson William Fowler said in a written statement. “In response, the City is incorporating high resiliency standards into every plan, policy, and decision made to increase and protect New York City’s affordable housing stock from rising sea levels, storm surge, and flooding.”
Some newer buildings also are designed with flooding in mind, Rosenzweig said — generators and other important infrastructure are positioned above the flood line. And NYCHA said it’s making plans to protect buildings in the path of rising seas, although it will need to seek out funding for these external resiliency measures.
NYCHA spokesperson Rochel Leah Goldblatt said that many of the developments hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy have received repairs, along with internal add-ons to make them more resilient to the impacts of flooding and electrical interruptions. NYCHA has spent close to $2.5 billion on such projects since 2012, they said.
“NYCHA recently released its first Climate Adaptation Plan focused on a breadth of potential impacts from climate hazards and opportunities the agency can harness,” added Goldenblatt. “And NYCHA works in partnership with the New York City Emergency Management, including their Hazard Mitigation unit, to prepare for future major events that may have a citywide impact.”
FEMA also provided support after Sandy to harden the inner workings of affordable housing. These projects are still in progress and include moving boilers and electrical equipment off the ground, adding backup generators and floodproofing areas marked as being vulnerable to flooding by the federal agency. (New York City’s own flood map is more than a decade out of date; Goldblatt said NYCHA is using an unofficial version that’s more up to date.)
But buildings not in the superstorm’s path need upgrades, too, NYCHA noted in its report on climate change resilience. Otherwise, they’ll be vulnerable to future storms, which are becoming stronger and more frequent as a result of climate change.
At the building level, climate change protections are often reactions to recent storms rather than forward-thinking improvements, said Matthew Murphy, executive director of the Furman Center.
“Largely, the city’s strategy has been a response to Hurricane Sandy, and to flooding from increased storm intensity,” he said. “Government is not terrific at proactive preemption of issues.”
In East Harlem, advocates are calling on the city to elevate the local waterfront to protect vulnerable residents, one-third of whom live in poverty, according to data from the Furman Center. Otherwise, the neighborhood could be hit hard by the next big storm, warned Chris Dobens, communications director at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.
“If we get hit by another superstorm and it happens to coincide with the tides, East Harlem’s gonna get nailed,” he said.
When the ocean comes again
Future flooding could come with more serious impacts on the human health of New Yorkers. Along with creating perpetual trauma and destroying livelihoods, floodwaters tend to move urban pollutants that are better kept undisturbed.
Greenpoint has two superfund sites: Newtown Creek and the Meeker Avenue Plume. The area also sits atop one of the largest oil spills in the U.S., where the Environmental Protection Agency estimates 17 million to 30 million gallons of oil have leaked into the soil from surrounding refineries. When this part of the city floods from storms and sea level rise, the groundwater that comes up is highly contaminated, according to Robbie Parks, an environmental epidemiologist at the Columbia Climate School.
Many newer buildings advertise floodproofing, such as locating utilities on the roof and extended backup power generators in case a storm knocks out power. But these precautions don’t prevent residents from being trapped in their towers by rising waters, according to Jacob from the Columbia Climate School.
For the sea level rise projections in waterfront areas like Greenpoint, Jacob said the only plausible solution is “managed retreat” and to stop building in these areas.
“Engineering solutions have time limits. They work for a while in some places longer than others, but eventually the ocean will win,” Jacob said.
In a managed retreat, residents and businesses in vulnerable areas would be moved over several decades to other parts of the city. The government could acquire the properties through a buyout program, and the once-inhabited landscape would serve as a buffer to absorb storms and sea level rise. The city and state did this after Sandy when residents of the Oakwood Beach neighborhood on Staten Island opted for buyout and relocation over funding to rebuild.
At first, those residents — families that had lived there for generations — were very resistant to a buyout, including their local elected officials. But ultimately, 99% of homeowners sold their homes to the city and moved. Residents understood that Sandy was not a one-time event and that their homes would buffer and protect the rest of the borough, according to a report released by the Center for Community Investment in June 2021.
“If you were a member of a community and you were told you need to retreat, how do you think that would sound?” said Paul Gallay, Resilient Coastal Communities project leader at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia Climate School. “Before we start talking about retreat, we really need to do everything we can to keep communities in place and keep communities protected.”
While Jacob argues that retreating from these areas could take decades and should start immediately to be done properly, Gallay is more optimistic that there is no rush to abandon these densely populated areas. He said future technologies and focused efforts still have time to harden the coastline before the end of the century.
For example, over the coming years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a study on whether it’s feasible to protect New York-New Jersey Harbor with giant sea walls and other large-scale infrastructure.
Called the Chief of Engineer’s Report, the study initially was delayed because of lack of federal funding. It is now scheduled to be released no later than June 15, 2024, and will include a nine-step Coastal Storm Risk Management Framework, a plan that can be tailored for any coastal watershed for future flood mitigation. New York City is waiting on the engineer’s report to create its comprehensive climate resiliency strategy based on the study’s findings and recommendations.
“When the ocean comes, they don’t care how long you have lived or whether your grandparents have lived there,” Jacob said. “Flooding is flooding. So if we not take that into account, it’s sheer denial.”
This story is a partnership between WNYC/Gothamist, NPR, WLRN in Miami and WAMU in Washington D.C.