New York and New Jersey go it alone on resiliency in wake of Army Corps decision

Politico: With the Trump administration pulling funding for a comprehensive resiliency study in New Jersey and New York, local governments are increasingly on their own to pursue costly efforts to bolster their shorelines in the face of rising sea levels and more intense storms.

So far, few projects have been completed to better protect the region from another Hurricane Sandy in the nearly eight years since it damaged 346,300 homes in New York and New Jersey, though some local efforts appear to be heating up. In New Jersey, the governor has issued two executive orders related to land use and climate change, and municipalities are taking on projects to deal with increased flooding. In New York, the city is preparing to break ground on a $1.5 billion plan to fortify lower Manhattan by building a series of flood walls and berms around the southern part of the island.

But environmental advocates and elected officials say the recent news out of the Trump administration dims the prospects of weathering another major storm.

“This is the only federal regional study going on right now to ensure that our region is protected from storms like Sandy, and we’re now left completely vulnerable again with no foreseeable way to consider what steps we might take to protect ourselves,” said Rob Freudenberg, vice president of the Regional Plan Association. “Not to say the states and cities aren't pursuing their own options, but this was always going to be part of that integrated approach.”

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Congress passed legislation directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study areas in the eastern and southern United States at the greatest risk of storm surges.

In 2018, the Army Corps said during a public hearing it was considering six options to better protect the area, including a 5-mile hurricane barrier that would stretch from Sandy Hook, N.J., to Breezy Point, N.Y. But the agency’s approach faced an onslaught of criticism from local officials and environmental advocates alike, who said the study failed to account for sea level rise caused by climate change and that surge barriers could limit tidal flow and disrupt fish migratory patterns.

Following a New York Times article on some of the local concerns, President Donald Trump panned the sea wall as a “costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly idea that, when needed, probably won’t work anyway.”

“Sorry, you’ll just have to get your mops & buckets ready!” Trump said in the January tweet.

Roughly a month after the president’s public dismissal of the concept, the resiliency study was abruptly shelved due to a funding lapse. The Army Corps hasn’t returned requests for comment from POLITICO.

Climate advocates view the decision as politically motivated.

“This fits with a larger theme of … this administration's consistent fight against recognition of climate change and the intended effects,” said Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance. “Every other [coastal area] in the nation, including Mar-a-Lago, will have to deal with the rising waters, and denying it won’t make it go away.”

The lack of funding raises concerns as to how cities and states can prepare for a future where severe storms are becoming an ever-increasing threat, said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild By Design, a federal design effort launched by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the wake of Sandy.

“Our governments are dealing with what they can,” Chester said. “However they’ll never be able to foot the really, really deep spending that’s needed to completely address climate change for our region.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio called the decision to pull the study “DANGEROUS” on Twitter, characterizing it as “another one of Donald Trump's blatant political hits on New York City.”

But back home, the de Blasio administration has been slow to start major resiliency projects that have had federal funding for years.

The $1.5 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency project scheduled to begin this spring was originally supposed to break ground in 2017, after receiving federal grant money through Rebuild By Design years prior. But it suffered setbacks at the hands of the mayor's office, which in 2018 pitched an entirely new version of the plan — sparking criticism from local officials and community members who had spent years shaping the project and were blindsided by the reversal. It’s currently facing a lawsuit from a local community group over proposed park closures during construction.

Another project awarded funding through Rebuild By Design — the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency project — has also undergone major changes.

Shortly before launching his since-failed presidential bid, de Blasio unveiled a new concept for the plan, proposing to spend $10 billion to extend the existing Lower Manhattan shoreline into the river. De Blasio himself has acknowledged that federal cooperation would be necessary to realize his vision. In the interim, the city plans to launch a variety of other adaptation measures in the area in 2021 — de Blasio’s last year in office.

Some have criticized the de Blasio administration for not pledging more resources to protect the outer boroughs, which in some parts are more vulnerable than Manhattan, according to the New York City Panel on Climate Change.

“Their resiliency efforts have not been equitable,” said Council Member Mark Treyer, who represents parts of southern Brooklyn. “They [say] they need more help from Washington — which I don’t disagree — but at the same time, why aren’t your dollars equitable?”

The de Blasio administration said the city is “definitely safer” than when Hurricane Sandy struck, adding that it has $20 billion worth of investments planned.

“We are strengthening our coastline, increasing the resiliency of new and existing buildings, floodproofing critical infrastructure, strengthening our emergency protocols, preparing for extreme heat — the deadliest extreme weather event in New York City — and much more,” said Phil Ortiz, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has focused on taking into account climate change considerations when planning and making land use decisions.

In October, on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Murphy signed an executive order requiring the Department of Environmental Protection to establish a statewide planning strategy for adapting to and mitigating climate change. He also recently signed an order requiring the DEP to reform its rules to consider climate change impacts as part of the permitting process.

The state Assembly has also created a special committee on infrastructure and natural resources to examine issues related to beach erosion, stormwater and wastewater infrastructure, as well as sea level rise.

While planners and environmental advocates said they were encouraged by these actions, they also say much more needs to be realized to actually protect the Jersey coastline from another Sandy.

“The proof is in the pudding, and we’ll see what happens,” said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future. “They’ve taken the right steps, but how do we move through those steps expeditiously and with enough foresight to think about the future? … The DEP and the state need to make sure they have the resources and staff to carry through with it.”

Still, there have been some success stories on the local level.

Hoboken, which was among the hardest hit New Jersey cities during Sandy, has used its Rebuild By Design funding to build infrastructure that captures stormwater and and has installed berms along its edges for storm surges. Chester called Hoboken a “premiere city” when it comes to resiliency efforts.

Hoboken has also recently received $14 million in FEMA funding to complete what will become the city’s third — and the nation’s largest — resiliency park, which will be able to hold almost two million gallons of rainwater and runoff.

The township of Woodbridge has also worked with the DEP to buy out homes located in vulnerable areas and has taken steps to restore its floodplain.

In New York, Staten Island is in the midst of building a 5.3-mile sea wall along its coastline. A long-term erosion control project for the Rockaways in Queens is also moving forward this year, Ortiz said.

Yet while piecemeal resiliency projects are in the works, many elected officials lament the loss of a regional approach to address the growing threat of climate change.

“While not all of the projects studied may have been pragmatic, what is lost by this suspension is protection for many vulnerable New Jersey communities that would undoubtedly benefit from the smaller, more strategic and cost-effective projects that were also included within these studies,” said New Jersey DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe in a statement.

New York Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Nassau), chair of the committee on environmental conservation, also said the study provided a unique opportunity to answer big questions on resiliency planning.

“I think studying these things regionally makes a lot of sense and, of course, if we’re able to put in good preventative measures, it will prevent us from paying for exorbitant cleanups and rebuilding down the road,” he said.

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