Think Sandy was just a 100-year storm that devastated New York City? Imagine one just as bad, or worse, every three years.
Prominent planners and builders say now is the time to think big to shield the city's core: a 5-mile barrier blocking the entryway to New York Harbor, an archipelago of man-made islets guarding the tip of Manhattan, or something like CDM Smith engineer Larry Murphy's 1,700-foot barrier — complete with locks for passing boats and a walkway for pedestrians — at the mouth of the Arthur Kill waterway between the borough of Staten Island and New Jersey.
Act now, before the next deluge, and they say it could even save money in the long run.
These strategies aren't just pipe dreams. Not only do these technologies already exist, some of the concepts have been around for decades and have been deployed successfully in other countries and U.S. cities.
So if the science and engineering are sound, the long-term cost would actually be a savings, and the frequency and severity of more killer floods is inevitable, what's the holdup?
Like the argument in towns across America when citizens want a traffic signal installed at a dangerous intersection, Sandy's 43 deaths and estimated $26 billion in damages citywide might not be enough to galvanize the public and the politicians into action.
Unfortunately, they probably won't do anything until something bad happens, said CDM Smith's Murphy. And I don't know if this will be considered bad enough.
Sandy and her 14-foot surge not bad enough? By century's end, researchers forecast up to four feet higher seas, producing storm flooding akin to Sandy's as often as several times each decade. Even at current sea levels, Sandy's floodwaters filled subways, other tunnels and streets in parts of Manhattan.
Without other measures, rebuilding will simply augment the future destruction. Yet that's what political leaders are emphasizing. President Barack Obama himself has promised to stand with the city until the rebuilding is complete.
So it might take a worse superstorm or two to really get the problem fixed.
The 13-mile-long Manhattan island serves as the country's financial and entertainment nerve center. Within a 3-mile-long horseshoe-shaped flood zone around its southernmost quadrant are almost 500,000 residents and 300,000 jobs. Major storms swamp places like Wall Street and the site of the World Trade Center.
Proven technology already exists to blunt or virtually block wind-whipped seas from overtaking lower Manhattan and much of the rest of New York City, according to a series of Associated Press interviews with engineers, architects and scientists and a review of research on flooding issues in the New York metropolitan area and around the globe.
These strategies range from hard structures like mammoth barriers equipped with ship gates and embedded at entrances to the harbor, to softer and greener shoreline restraints like man-made marshes and barrier islands.
Additional landfill, the old standby once used to extend Manhattan into the harbor, could further lift vulnerable highways and other sites beyond the reach of the seas.
Even more simply, the rock and concrete seawalls and bulkheads that already ring lower Manhattan could be built up, but now perhaps with high-tech wave-absorbing or wave-reflecting materials.
Seizing the initiative from government, business and academic circles have fleshed out several dramatic concepts to hold back water before it tops the shoreline. Two of the most elaborate proposals are:
• A rock causeway, with 80-foot-high swinging ship gates, would sweep five miles across the entryway to inner New York Harbor from Sandy Hook, N.J., to Breezy Point, N.Y. To protect Manhattan, another shorter barrier is needed to the north, where the East River meets Long Island Sound, and another small blockage would go up near Sandy Hook. This New Jersey-side barrier and a network of levees on both ends of the causeway could help protect picturesque beach communities like Atlantic Highlands, in New Jersey to the west, and the Rockaways, in New York City to the east.
• An extensive green makeover of lower Manhattan would install an elaborate drainage system beneath the streets, build up the very tip by 6 feet, pile 30-foot earthen mounds along the eastern edge, and create perimeter wetlands and a phalanx of artificial barrier islets — all to absorb the brunt of a huge storm surge. Plantings along the streets would help soak up runoff that floods the city sewers during heavy rains. This concept was worked up by DLANDSTUDIO and Architecture Research Office, two city architectural firms, for a museum project.