A handful of times a year, whenever the full moon meets the highest tide of the month, Jamaica Bay spills onto the streets of Broad Channel Island. Should the winds blow from the northeast, like they did early this March, the surge will inundate the driveways and sidewalks of this gridless community, knit so tight that members of the Volunteer Fire Department and Athletic Association strut around town in their uniforms, even when they are off duty. On March 3, the flooding on East 6th Street, in one of the island’s lowest lying areas, overtook Barbara Toborg’s front step. “Please don’t come at this time,” she told me. “Because you can’t get down the road.”
Cheap housing and a million dollar backyard view were among the reasons that drew Toborg to Broad Channel in 1985. They enjoy bird watching from their backyard and tell stories about living with the tide with a laugh. One time the flooding brought fish in the street and another, their young son brought out a rowboat to give the neighbors’ kids rides up and down the street. “If there is global warming,” Toborg said of sea level rise, “it’ll be inevitable. It’ll be like Venice. We’re often called the Venice of New York.” “At our age though,” her husband Fred said, “we’re not that worried about it.”
Even after 32 years on East 6th Street, they are some of the island’s newer residents. Many of Broad Channel’s 3,000-plus inhabitants are lifers like their parents before them, folks whose fisherman ancestors settled the island as squatters back in 1901, folks who walk their grandchildren to the same elementary school where they learned to read and write. The tradition of casting rods from backyard piers also endures. In the 1920s, the island was a waystation for rum-runners smuggling alcohol into the city center and in the 1960s, some locals say, there were 17 bars operating out in the tiny neighborhood.
The community’s build-as-you go beginnings are reflected in its confusing dead-end streets and finger-like roads. The New York city government has repeatedly tried and failed to phase out the neighborhood and until 1982, just three years before Toborg moved in, residents could not buy the land their homes stood on and instead paid the city rent.
Such history binds people together and, over the years, Broad Channel has acquired a reputation for insularity and a wariness of strangers. This did not stop Toborg, who found acceptance in the community by joining the Broad Channel Civic Association. Her Eastern European background enabled her to blend in easily with her largely white Irish and Catholic neighbors. Not even the ravages of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 scared her away, not even the scene she encountered when she and her husband returned home the morning after the disaster. “It was as if a giant had picked up my house and shook it,” she said. A friend offered to repair the house for free and his construction company ripped out the damaged parts and expanded and remodeled the entire first floor. This forbearing response to the island’s vulnerability and the nuisance of periodic flooding is typical of Broad Channelers. It is the price that Toborg and everyone else seem more than willing to pay to stay in a community they love.
The unimaginable $19 billion in damage that Sandy caused throughout New York City included almost all of Broad Channel. In the days following the storm, residents remember huge garbage trucks barreling down the streets, stopping to pick up remnants of bookshelves and moldy furniture left on the sidewalk. Another similar disaster, everyone agrees, is inevitable, however city and local officials do not yet have a plan. They are still debating the best way to move forward. Most large-scale plans developed to strengthen New York’s resiliency in Sandy’s wake have not made it past paper.
No one seems to challenge how the effects of climate change will heighten the extreme vulnerability of low-lying areas to storm damage, especially because of the rise in sea level that it is causing a host of other water-related threats. Unresolved problems in the relatively new field of coastal protection account in part for the delay in devising a plan. The variety of approaches and “silver-bullet solutions” offered by anyone with an opinion has plagued the process with indecision. Some urban planners and scientists have begun to question the viability of continuing to support and develop these vulnerable coastal areas, even as residents insist on staying in communities where they have planted roots and raised families.
Broad Channel thus is both a microcosm and a testing ground for New York City and the country’s coastal regions as both grapple with an unprecedented number of natural disasters and a warming planet. In Broad Channel, the community’s struggle to adapt to the erosion of nearby marshland protection, gird for the next storm and accept a daunting number of climate uncertainties reflect the flaws in our systems that make it difficult to prepare for the future.
On the morning of October 29, 2012, like many people in Broad Channel, Dan Mundy Jr. went out to measure the height and rate of the tide. The night before, President Barack Obama had declared an emergency for the State of New York, the MTA had suspended its service and Mayor Michael Bloomberg had closed all the public schools. The question facing Mundy and his neighbors was whether to evacuate. Between the morning’s high tide and how the moon’s gravitational pull would cause the tide to be even higher, local residents were able to extrapolate what the flooding might be at night, and what they likely could expect to face the next morning. Many decided to evacuate. Mundy, however, a fire chief in Queens and longtime president of the Broad Channel Civic Association, decided to stay.
All day on the 29th, the rain pounded and the wind roared. At speeds up to 80 miles an hour, the storm ripped decks off their platform and washed away several of the houses on stilts at the island’s edge. “The water went into my first floor, two-to-two-and-a-half feet,” Mundy said, “The house had never been flooded as far back as it was constructed in 1938.”
The next morning, Mundy surveyed the damage and looked in on his neighbors. “There was no electricity or cops coming to check on you,” he said of the scene. “Lines of communication were a bike ride, there was no [phone] line. It was archaic in that way.” The day after, he and Martin Feeney, a retired New York City police officer who is also a member of the civic association, set up a recovery center at the local American Legion Hall. “We got in there,” Feeney said, “and removed about four inches of mud, mopped the floor and decided, ‘This is it. This is where we’re going to live.’”
He said the outpouring from members of the community was unbelievable. “We were literally sleeping on blankets and people just started pulling up with trucks. Shoes, jackets, medical stuff, canned goods, a Buddhist organization offered everyone in the community two $300 debit cards,” he said. “You name it, we got it.”
However, even with out-of-state donations and volunteers pouring in, it took a long time for Broad Channel to begin recovering from the damage. The American Legion Hall remained open for three months as storm-weary residents worked to return to their homes. Feeney estimates that 95 percent of the neighborhood had to gut their first floors. Water completely submerged his own ground floor during Sandy and almost everything had to be trashed. “That was the weirdest thing about the storm,” he recalled.”People who were like the Hatfields and the McCoys, now their stuff was together in one bunch, getting bulldozed and thrown out.”
Recovery efforts continue to this day. Build It Back, the city-run reconstruction program that serves 300 Broad Channel families, stalls repeatedly, exacerbating delays to restoration. To date, only 148 of the damaged homes have been rebuilt. For six long years, where cars once parked on the sidewalks to make way for cyclists and street hockey, heavy equipment and skeleton frames now pock the island’s roads.
With Build It Back pledged to end this year, the workload has sped up. Since March, various Broad Channel streets have been completely shut down as cranes place ready-made modular homes on their expectant foundations. Other problems such as construction errors and flawed workmanship have stoked the frustration of residents, adding to the toll the storm has taken on the neighborhood.
Borough-wide, construction has been completed on the homes of 93 percent of the 3,578 Queens applicants for Build It Back relief. This figure, however, does not reflect the high dropout rate in this program. The New York Daily News estimates that almost half of all original applicants did not complete the process, exasperated with the drawn-out timelines and the uncertainty. Without waiting for complete recovery, efforts at strengthening the city proceed, albeit just as slowly. Since 2012, the only finished large-scale resiliency project is the Rockaway Beach Boardwalk, a clear reflection of its importance as a tourist destination and hub for the city’s own sun-seekers.
The unprecedented level of storm damage shocked the city into a heightened planning mode. In March 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio created the Office of Resiliency and Recovery, to lead the city’s charge. Three months later, President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force announced the winners of Rebuild by Design, a competition that encouraged participants to create innovative proposals for renewal of the decimated parts of the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region. Winners split $930 million of federal funds to begin their projects. In coordination with the new office and other city agencies, these seven projects have been debated, modified, scheduled and rescheduled for the past four years. None has been completed.
One of the winners was an ambitious plan to build a protective barrier and park around Lower Manhattan. It has had many names—the Big U, the Dryline, the Lower Manhattan and East Side Coastal Resiliency Projects The proposal sketches out a beautiful elevated space lined with trees and benches that could double as both a new public park and a blockade against overflowing storm water. However, in what has become typical of efforts to turn proposals into reality, contention over the designs and a shortage of funding have compromised the vision and delayed construction. The Big U today is in danger of turning into “half a J,” and one without any greening at all. Although construction is currently slated to begin next spring, local community boards are still refusing to approve of the design unless there are further changes.
One organization watching this process closely is the Regional Plan Association, not-for-profit urban planning advocacy group. For 90 years, it has been pushing some of the more radical proposals for the improvement of the tri-state area. The concepts are often loud and idealistic. For instance, the association has floated the idea of turning the New Jersey Meadowlands, a large wetland on the border of Jersey City, into the world’s first climate change park. Another of the group’s proposals is the redevelopment of Governors Island into a public park, which the association suggested as early as 1996.
When the RPA released its fourth regional plan in 2017, coastal resiliency and waterfront protection became a major association priority. The NGO’s recommendations for the region include the establishment of a coastal commission, improving dated transit systems and a reassessment of development efforts for low-lying areas. In the RPA’s eyes, the government and Rebuild By Design have not made the radical improvements needed to save the city. “In New York, we’re living in the aftermath of Sandy where I think a lot has been invested, but I don’t know how much safer we all are,” said Rob Freudenberg, the vice-president of RPA’s environmental programs.
Broad Channel does not go unnoticed in the RPA’s calculations. In the lead-up to the release of the latest plan, the organization brought together several architects and urban planners to create what is known as 4C, a series of renderings of the future of New York’s four geographical corridors: the suburbs, the highlands, the city, and the coast. The coast team presented a surprising vision of Jamaica Bay with an interactive photo of the bay in 2017, side-by-side with its imagined 2067 image. In 50 years, the planners envision a coastline receded to higher ground. Bulkheads reinforce the waterfront and whole swaths of coastal Brooklyn and Queens—neighborhoods like Howard Beach, the Rockaways and Canarsie—no longer exist. Neither does Broad Channel. The island has been submerged completely.
“We have 3,000 miles of vulnerable coastline [in the region],” Freudenberg said. “We’re recognizing that there are going to be places that we can’t protect.”
More than short-term resiliency projects, RPA means to encourage residents of low-lying areas to take a hard look at the future prospects for their neighborhoods. If climate change predictions are correct, much of New York will face adaptation challenges in the next few decades. It will become more difficult and less imperative to keep smaller New York neighborhoods in place. What’s needed, Freudenberg said, is to plan for a future “where the houses on stilts will be in water and where storm water systems are not able to flow out because they’re backed up.”
It is not so farfetched to imagine that New Yorkers who find themselves in the path of peril will opt for retreat. After Sandy, the Governor’s Office for Storm Recovery finally approved the requests of three neighborhoods in Staten Island for buyout and resettlement plans. Today, the 495 homes once in neat rows in Oakwood Beach, Ocean Breeze and Graham Beach are being demolished to allow the land return to its natural state. The deserted space will become a wetland, adding an additional buffer for area communities that are further inland.
In Broad Channel, however, stubborn defiance is the common response to this idea. Short of a federal mandate, Mundy is among those determined to stay put. “If I were to retreat, we’d have to be talking about a massive decision across the board,” Mundy said. “And if I go, where will I go? I look in California and Kansas, there’s swaths of areas that are just as high risk as we are. Am I going to the earthquake area, the hurricane area, or the forest fire area?” Feeny was just as adamant. When asked if another Sandy-level storm would affect his decision to rebuild, he responded, “This is my town. It’s where I grew up. This is where I die. There’s a funeral home here on 14th road and everyone always says that’s where we’re ending up.”
Feeny thinks most of the town’s other residents would have the same reaction. Their response after Sandy is, perhaps, telling. The Build It Back program did offer buyout options to anyone from Broad Channel who wanted to relocate. And yet, according to Mundy, only about 18 of the neighborhood’s more than 300 families—around 6 percent—were fed up enough to accept the offer.
Urban planners and scientists who consider retreat a viable option believe that residents of Broad Channel, along with other waterfront communities, will reach a tipping point where they realize that their only real option is to go. “Right now, it’s become a pride thing,” Freudenberg said. “People take pride in beating nature or staying in spite of. . . But I think that starts to go away when you’re seeing daily flooding or when you can’t drive because all the roads are flooded. That kind of pride turns into aggravation.”
That was the case for residents of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, a largely Native American community that has gotten the moniker of America’s first “climate refugees.” Unlike the buyout programs in Staten Island, this project aims to move the entire community to one new destination, an expensive endeavor that so far has received a federal grant of $48 million for a tribe of fewer than 100 members. They will go to a 515-acre farm upland from the sinking and vulnerable coastal island they currently inhabit. It is widely seen as a test project that could become either a model or a cautionary tale for the estimated 4 to 13 million people in the United States who rising sea levels will force from their homes by the year 2100. Globally, they would join the 50 to 350 million people likely to be displaced by climate change by 2050, according to a UN Secretary-General’s report issue in 2009.
In the United States, there are calls for national policies to address climate displacement. The “Cassandra” who predicted the damage Sandy would cause is Klaus Jacob, a German research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute who specializes in disaster risk analysis. In xxxx, he foresaw the vulnerability of the city’s aging infrastructure and transit system. Jacob will tell anyone who will listen that strategic relocation is the only viable solution for vulnerable communities in New York City. He has plenty of experience with this himself. Living in an area that juts out into the water in Piermont, NY, tidal flooding has often prevented him from leaving his home. Unlike Broad Channelers, the residents of Ferry Road in Piermont are ready to leave and have been pushing their mayor to buy them out.
Jacob cites both the buyouts in Staten Island and Isle de Jean Charles as he talks about the eventual need for relocation. “I think more in geological terms rather than in human timescales,” he said. “So for me, it’s clear that we fiddle around here on the edges of the waterfront, but you cannot keep the water out from where we live right now.”
So far, there has been no federal recognition of a large scale need to retreat, nor is there a universally supported plan for how to bring about relocations on such a huge scale. Jacob wrote the introduction to a book titled, A Call to Action: How to Save Millions of Lives, a self-published compendium of the climate risks that will affect vulnerable communities around the world. In it, the two authors, real-estate broker Eric Kaufman and attorney Joaquin F. Matias, describe their vision to manage widespread climate migration, which takes into account a number of criteria, such as access to water, food, energy, transit, flat land and high elevation, they hope to identify sites in the Northwest of the United States, in places such as the Dakotas and Montana, and former mining towns in the South, that could reasonably be transformed into communities that house anywhere from 50,000 to 250,000 new residents.
It is, arguably, the farthest out of the many proposals that are circulating. Freudenberg of the RPA also brings up “nomadic infrastructure”—infrastructure that can be relocated as the tides dictate — when he talks about the New Jersey Shore. “Before we populated barrier beaches,” he said, “they still had hotels and stuff. But there’s a picture I saw of homes that you could pick up and move with the tide.”
What all these groups have in common is their belief that the conversation must be ongoing, loud, and involve the city’s most vulnerable residents. It has taken years to develop a buyout and relocation process on the Isle de Jean Charles and efforts are still only in the planning talking stage. Knowing how arduous these processes can be, Freudenberg urges the laying of groundwork now. “When things start really manifesting and showing that what’s predicted is true,” he said, “they’ll have this to go to. Rather than just going ‘What do we do now?’ We can say ‘Here, this is what we did. Let’s make it happen. And we’ve talked to you about it.’”
Freudenberg said that the early introduction of policies that promote gradual change is the best way to combat resident resistance to the idea of leaving. One example would be to ask homeowners to agree to be the last inhabitants of a property. When local residents agree to move on, the government then acquires the land and does not resell it. Other measures, like a moratorium on development, would ensure that low-lying communities are eventually phased out in favor of becoming public spaces.
However, not only are such managed retreat tools far from common practice, but the opposite is happening. The lack of funds for widespread buyouts along the New York coast is one issue, so residential developments keep popping up along the Sandy-torn shoreline. In late 2018, a 90-unit luxury condo called One Sixteen will open on Rockaway Peninsula, a little south of Broad Channel. The building, which markets itself as a prime waterfront location, will stand in stark contrast to the scores of drab brown buildings of the five New York City Housing Authority that are scattered around the peninsula. The work to repair these developments after Sandy, along with 28 others in New York, began in 2016 and is projected to cost $3 billion. There is no known relocation plan yet for those who live in the 2,594 units of these federally funded public projects, among the most vulnerable of coastal inhabitants.
The rebuild versus retreat dilemma is just one of many challenges in what Freudenberg calls the “Wild West of adaptation” phase that we’re in right now. With countless stakeholders who all have varying degrees of power and influence, New York’s adaptation strategy is far from coherent. Different groups vie for the same few sources of funding and present conflicting ideas for how to move forward, thus causing inevitable stalls. As some groups insist on the infallibility of their proposals, others find ways to tear them down. Poor communication among the parties exacerbates the process.
“There’s no rule of law,” Freudenberg said. “Bullets are flying, houses are going up and houses are going away. It’s all kind of unorganized and a little sketchy. But we’ll get through this phase by necessity because it’s going to get harder to keep up. We can only do Band-aid fixes for so long.”
Today, Broad Channel residents lobby for limited adaptation funding to protect their island even as others may believe that nature should reclaim it. Mundy knows well that the regular tidal flooding is a likely portent for worse things to come. Even before Sandy, he was spearheading efforts to make his home more resilient. Every month, he leads contentious civic meetings where he moderates conversations on building bulkheads at the end of the island’s roads and elevating the lowest-lying streets to keep them dry. Although the debates get loud and rowdy, Mundy has been president for nine years and is a confident, connected leader of his community. As the only civic association on the island, he comes out of the discussions being able to speak for Broad Channelers with one voice.
Last year, Mundy used that voice to lobby the city government into directing $7 million in city funds towards a new resiliency project at the edge of the island, on land reclaimed in the 1990s from an owner who had been filling in the water without permission for years. Named Sunset Cove, the plan will cost $13 million in total, with the rest of the money coming from federal grants and a parks fund of fines paid by polluters of the bay—funds that Mundy also had a hand in securing. This April, at a meeting of the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, hosted by Mundy’s father, New York City parks representative Elizabeth Jordan unveiled the scope of the project so far. The first phase, she said, will begin August. A contractor will test the soil for contaminants and begin removing debris from the land to return it to “what it used to look like before.” While the goal of the project will be to restore the muddied waters to their former marshland state, the funds will also go toward an 8-foot high seawall that will help protect Broad Channel from storm surges. Mundy is also hoping that a second phase of the project will feature a long stretch of boardwalk and an outdoor classroom over the water for kids to walk out and observe the wildlife.
As a wetland, Sunset Cove will act as a natural buffer for storm surges and tidal flooding. The marshy grasses can absorb excess water and release it as it dries out during low tides. In conjunction with the American Littoral Society, Mundy has brought volunteer and student groups out to Jamaica Bay to plant other wetlands that act as hubs for wildlife and protection during large storms. In the 75 years between 1924 and 1999, increased pollution and sea level rise caused half of the bay’s marsh islands to disappear. The bay, which arches around both Brooklyn and Queens, acts as a natural migratory stop for waterfowl and is home to lush marshland plants and wildlife. For many ecologists, preserving the bay’s marsh life is a priority. The coastal protection the marshes offer is an added incentive.
And yet an 8-foot berm in the face of a storm like Sandy, where the highest surge totalled 14 feet, offers little comfort. The shocking scope of that storm motivated Bill Golden, for one, into thinking about storm surge protection on a much larger, more grandiose scale. Golden docks his restored, operational lightship, one of three in the United States. The attorney and former Massachusetts state senator began looking for solutions. He formed a nonprofit, the National Institute of Coastal and Harbor Infrastructure, or NICHI, to advocate for interstate coastal infrastructure. He threw his support to a plan proposed by Stoneybrook scientist Malcolm Bowman. Together, along with a president emeritus of the RPA, Robert Yaro, they hold monthly meetings to discuss the viability of a storm-surge barrier that would span the tip of Sandy Hook in New Jersey to Far Rockaway in New York. Inspired by barriers in the Netherlands, the wall would be five miles long and 20 feet high with multiple openings that could be shut to keep out excess water during a storm. The project could cost anywhere from $6 billion to $45 billion.
“What I see here is that we’re going to invest hundreds of billions of dollars going into the future,” Golden said of the field of resiliency. He has been in conversation with the Army Corps of Engineers as the federal agency begins studying the possibilities for infrastructure projects to strengthen New York. Two options on the table are Golden’s cross-state barrier and a smaller one that would just close off the mouth of Jamaica Bay.
However, to Golden, a smaller project is a nonstarter. For one, it would leave parts of New Jersey and Long Island unprotected, furthering the regional inequality that his group hopes to counter. He is also deeply skeptical of the effectiveness of local green infrastructure projects like Sunset Cove. “Unless it’s like a thousand acres or something, you think it is really going to absorb 20 feet of water coming through that low-lying area?” he asked rhetorically. “Or is that going to be a pathway for the water? Can that park even exist without a regional storm surge barrier? Isn’t this kind of a schizophrenic, disjointed kind of policy where one hand doesn’t seem to know what the other hand is doing?”
Climate change complicates Golden’s vision, as it does all the resiliency proposals. As icebergs melt, the hole in the ozone widens and the planet gets warmer, the ocean are predicted to grow in size, forcing higher sea levels all around the globe. Some places are already on the verge of complete submersion. In New York, it is likely that many communities on the city’s shoreline will see a drastic increase in tidal flooding and storm surges over the next half century.
When I asked Mundy whether he thought Broad Channelers believed in climate change and the science behind it, the answer was not a definitive yes. When DNAInfo released a map of how every district in New York voted in the 2016 presidential election, it put Broad Channel, which has a reputation for being predominantly white and blue-collar, in the Red. The publication reported that 69 percent of the voters in the island’s election district chose President Donald J. Trump. As to the fact of a foot of sea-level rise since 1900, Mundy said that while it was evident that the water was getting higher, it was unclear whether people believed that human causes were the source of the rise. The skepticism among residents may make it even more difficult to accept the inherent uncertainty in most climate change predictions.
Freudenberg of the RPA acknowledged that the skepticism among locals is one of the major challenges he faces when talking about sea level rise with those in communities that may eventually face the need to relocate. “The biggest question I get is, ‘When is this going to happen?’” Freudenberg said. “‘Can I put it on my calendar?’ And you say something like, ‘Well, you know, it’s six feet in some time in 2100, or it’s three feet by the end of the century, maybe by 2080,’ and people are like, ‘What are you talking about? Why can’t you tell me a date?’”
Freudenberg is citing the middle range projections of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, a group of independent scientists who advise the city on climate risks. In 2015, the panel released a report that compiled the results from studies of the different factors that can cause a rise in sea level. The point was to project what New York could expect in the rest of the 21st century. The document included low, middle and high estimates of how much the water could rise. The variation is enormous, from eight inches by 2050 to a high of 30 inches by the same year or more than triple the lower number.
Organizations that plan for resiliency are left on their own to decide what to believe. When planning standard protection like berms, it is likely that high sea levels will make short walls ineffectual. The most extreme scenario from the city panel predicts a 6.25 feet of sea level rise by 2100. If such a rise occurred today, Hoboken would become an island, flooding would overtake the Rockaways and Broad Channel would be a landless group of houses surrounded by water and on stilts.
Freudenberg wouldn’t be surprised if the next report put the 6-feet-by-2100 increase in the middle rather than higher range. “Maybe we see six feet closer to the end of this century,” he hypothesized, a scenario that would have profound implications on the infrastructure we build today, which should have life spans of 50 to 100 years. “We’re now making decisions about what we build and what we invest in that will be entering this six-foot timeline without considering this six-foot impact.”
The possibility of dramatic sea level rise by the end of the century is what casts doubt on ambitious plans like Golden’s storm-surge barrier. It would cost billions of dollars and has no guarantee of a century’s worth of sustained effectiveness. Golden disputes this, saying that it is worth it to build a 20-foot high wall and that it can withstand any challenge. However, the cost of annual maintenance for the barrier has not yet been calculated, nor has the question of governance been resolved. The barrier would cross three states and impact various levels of government. Who would decide when to close it? And who would take responsibility for wrong calls? Sea level rise and climate change could amplify the effects of even the smallest storm, making it more likely for one of them to cause Sandy-level damage. And on top of that, if the group that takes charge of the barrier should close it for every minor storm, it is uncertain what that could mean for the ecosystem in the region.
All of these concerns means that Freudenberg is cautious when considering the benefits of any proposal, big or small. Even so, he admits that New York City needs large-scale protection from storms. “Maybe it’s less a question of, ‘Should we build?’” he said. “But rather, ‘At what point does it make sense to build and what do we need to know before we do?’”
When considering possible storm barriers, the Netherlands is the go-to example. In 1953, a heavy storm caused major flooding that killed 1,835 people in the country and prompted the creation of the Delta Works Commission. Cited as one of the greatest achievements in civil engineering, the project was completed in 1997 and consists of 13 dams that span the Dutch coastline and protect the land surrounding the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta from the sea. The country invests over $1 billion in flood control. Resiliency experts consider it a model of what can be accomplished if the federal government invests in flood control and protection.
Jacob of Columbia University, however, does not believe that even the Dutch government has fully grasped the reality of the situation. Barriers, he said, provide a false sense of security. “New Orleans is a good example of what can happen when you think you’re safe, but then you’re not,” he said. “And you’re really in trouble because you’re not prepared for the water being there.” In 2005, the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, causing unexpected flooding and affecting thousands of unprepared residents. Although New Orleans flood protection has been found to have had structural deficiencies, not even the sturdiest barrier can stop what Jacob sees as inevitable. “The Dutch built their systems before sea level rise came about, so they are always held up as a model. But when there’s serious sea level rise, as we can expect in the future, this just doesn’t work.”
That is not the only reason why Jacob opposes Golden’s storm-surge barrier. Should the sea level rise, and the barrier is constantly shut, that would leave the Hudson River with nowhere to go, flooding the city from within. “If there’s a water supply, even if it comes out of the sky with heavy rainfall like in Harvey, or somewhere, then you have trouble,” he said. “So you could theoretically build a circular wall around whatever you want to protect, provided no water gets into there—not from the sky or from the river. And then you would live in a deep hole eventually and the ocean would be up there surrounding you.”
Mundy remains unconvinced by the severity of some predicted scenarios. He pointed to the disagreement among experts over the root cause of sea level rise. Some organizations point to the shifting of tectonic plates as the cause. “‘So half of what everybody else is saying, you’re discounting and saying ‘No, we’re sinking.’” The lack of consensus makes him doubt those who say the situation is dire enough for Broad Channelers to move into full retreat. “I’ve been in meetings and asking questions when some guy looks at me and says, ‘It’s settled science, it’s going to be five feet.’ But tell me how you know when there’s seven other people who are just as smart as you here who aren’t agreeing!”
His response is not uncommon. He and others remember climate change predictions like the Florida flooding over in Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, or statements from climate scientist and former director of NASA James Hansen, who told Scientific American in 2008 that “the point at which major climate change disruption is inevitable is already upon us.” These scenarios may eventually come to pass. But the lack of immediate evidence means that it is easy to dismiss these potential futures as exaggerations.
Rebecca Swadek, of the New York City Parks Department, pointed to an even larger problem. She is a senior program manager for wetlands restoration and oversees a team of 15 people who create and implement wetlands preservation projects around the city. Sunset Cove is part of her brief. “The tricky thing with climate change—and this is a tricky thing everywhere,” Swadek said, “—is knowing how the damage resulted. Situations like erosion and sea level are hard to definitively tie to climate change. Sometimes we just find damage and we don’t know why.”
Jacob has little patience with the doubters, who he believes are just stalling for time. Of the rise in sea level, he said, “We know one thing for certain, it only will go up, it won’t go down. So if it doesn’t happen 20 years earlier, it will happen 20 years later. What we’re only talking about is the time. And people use this fact of uncertainty to avoid making decisions. That’s a cop out.” He compared the situation to deciding whether to take or leave an umbrella when the morning weather report predicts a 10 percent or an 80 percent chance of rain. If the chance is 80 percent, he said, “I bet you’ll take either an umbrella or a raincoat,. We live with uncertainty all the time.”
With so much doubt, it is only natural that the people most affected hold out hope for Hail Marys, last minute solutions—late-in-the-game technology that could reverse the most serious potential impact—that could save their community.. Apart from completely stopping our carbon emissions, which seems unlikely, avenues like carbon capture and storage have the potential to slow or stop the warming of the planet. The process involves capturing large amounts of carbon dioxide and depositing it underground, turning it into minerals or, in some cases, using it to assist in oil recovery itself. In Oman, Jacob says, there are scientists trying to harness and accelerate the country’s natural geology, which consists of rocks that turn CO2 into solid carbonate minerals. It is not yet known if either of these projects, or ones similar to them, can be reproduced on a large enough scale to have a significant environmental impact.
An early 2018, a study by the National Institute of Building Sciences concluded that every one dollar spent on mitigation could save six dollars in future disaster recovery. Superstorm Sandy would have cost 3.12 billion dollars instead of 19 billion if the money had been spent on strengthening the city before the disaster. Although it is easy to speculate after the fact, in the United States at least, the political will for spending has always been greatest after a disaster. Thus, this finding has not yet been reflected in government policy.
As for Broad Channel, it is unknown whether there will be the funds and inclination to rebuild the neighborhood again if it was destroyed in another storm. At the same time, it is hard to imagine as marshland this storied place where residents adorn their front doors with decoration for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and St. Patrick’s Day. No more volunteer-run historical society. No volunteer fire department. No athletic association. No beer club.
Mundy’s house stands on his grandmother’s old property, at the end of East 15th Road with a dock that opens out onto Jamaica Bay. His dad lives on the next block and one of his daughters just bought a house around the corner. Mundy supported the decision completely. He holds tight to his way of life on the island, scuba dives at least twice a week and on a quiet, clear morning, from his kayak on the Bay, the Manhattan skyline seems close enough to touch. “Where else in this city of eight million people,” he asks, “could I get to be alone like that?”
The Toborgs, as transplants from mainland Queens, may not have generations of island legacy, but they, too, intend to stay. They love the view of the A Train as it rattles to its Broad Channel stop, just beyond the marshland wildlife refuge that abuts their house. Barbara remembers the California poppy seeds she planted in the yard on their very first day on the island and that night, the tide came in and washed them away. So, later, she just planted them in a different spot.