A man walks by the remains of part of the historic Rockaway boardwalk in New York City after large parts of it were washed away during Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012.Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)
Just before Halloween in 2012, Hurricane Sandy climbed up the East Coast and pummeled New York City and the Jersey shore. The storm’s destruction shut off power for millions, knocked out parts of the subway system, and inundated coastal communities with a 14-foot storm surge.
“Sandy was definitely that first big wake up call, where a lot of people saw that the train that they needed to take was out of service for, in some cases, over a week,” said Kara Gurl, research and communications associate for the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “[It] really highlighted the need to be proactive with resiliency.”
The repairs took years, and local agencies were forced to pivot to climate-conscious city planning. Sea level rise stopped being a consideration for the distant future, and the area is now dotted with flood wall projects.
The post-storm trail of destruction
17% of New York City’s entire land mass was flooded, much of it throughout Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and coastal Queens. All eight subway tunnels in the MTA system flooded; the South Ferry Station at the very bottom of Manhattan was shuttered for almost five years for extensive repairs. The East River subway tunnel, which connects Brooklyn to Manhattan via the L train, was damaged by the corrosive salt water that flooded it during the storm surge; it wasn’t completely repaired until 2020, for a cost of about $500 million, according to Curbed NY.
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Gurl noted that some of the delay in the repairs for the subway system occurred because train facilities are usually right by the beach or a river. “The Coney Island yard is all the way in Coney Island, right up against another body of water,” she said. “They were completely flooded, and that damaged the yards themselves but also a lot of the subway trains and other important MTA equipment that was located in those yards.”
Green spaces throughout the city were wrecked, too. Emily Maxwell, the director of cities at The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental network based in New York, said that wildlife areas in and around the city needed help to recover from Sandy, something that’s often overlooked when discussing the storm’s toll. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest bird habitats in the Northeast. When the storm hit southern Brooklyn during the high tide, the freshwater ponds were mixed into salty, brackish water. Many of the plant species in the park are not flood resistant or cannot survive when exposed to a lot of salty water.
“We saw a lot of die back, particularly big beautiful trees like birch trees,” Maxwell said. “We also witnessed a real influx of invasive species … especially with invasive vines, not only are they not high-quality habitat or food for wildlife, they also can sort of twine around and choke out other existing good vegetation. So it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle.”
Many New York City’s hospitals are located right by the water. Both Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn and Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan experienced power outages, and medical professionals had to relocate patients so they could receive adequate care in the weeks following the storm.
Years of upgrades
During the Sandy recovery effort, the MTA made significant system updates to prepare for future storms and flooding events, Jamie Torres-Springer, the president of MTA construction and development said during a committee meeting. This has included quicker water removal systems and testing flood barriers over subway entrances to keep as much water out of the tracks as possible.
“We’re not just going in and recovering and putting back what was there. We’re taking the opportunity to do additional work in strategic ways,” Torres-Springer said. “We’ve taken a wider lens to comprehensively protect each of the 31 stations that fall within the category 2 hurricane flood zone.”
Resilience planning has come for NYC Housing Authority buildings, too. Though many recreational areas around public housing still flood to this day, there are plans to make the surrounding areas more flood resistant. The housing authority has invested over $2 billion out of $3.2 billion awarded to the buildings most affected by the 2012 storm. This has been used to protect 100 multifamily buildings at 18 NYCHA developments, and by the end of the program, 200 buildings will be retrofitted for future storm surge, according to the 10-year recap from the Mayor. Some of the changes include installing garden beds that can absorb tens of thousands of gallons of water, Grist reported earlier this week.
The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge has also been retrofitted to withstand extreme precipitation and flooding. Because the storm washed away and damaged so much of the plant life in the reserve, the Conservancy began introducing flood-resistant shrubs and trees, like oak and pine.
“We know that in order to have an urban forest that thrives into the future, our plants and trees along the coast are going to need to be more tolerant of saltier soils and standing water,” Maxwell said. “We see that new forest canopy is beginning to come in and thrive.”
Maxwell acknowledged that it may take years to see the full growth of the new salt- and flood-resistant greenery. But so far, the plants are thriving.
The future of climate change in NYC
Agencies throughout the city hustled for years to become fully functional in the decade after Sandy. But recovery has not been equitable. The Coney Island community was devastated after the storm hit during the high tide. But, despite being right by the water and in the path of future flooding, more than 2,000 housing units have been added to the area since 2012, The City reported. Only 19 homes in the community were elevated through the city’s Build It Back program.
New York City is now dotted with flood wall projects that seek to protect its many shorelines. The city is working on erecting a $1.45 billion system of walls and floodgates to protect from future flooding and sea level rise. The system was established by the East Coast Resiliency Project, and construction began in the fall of 2020 and will continue until 2026. The project also seeks to upgrade New York’s decades-old sewer system, so that it will have the capacity to manage especially heavy rainfall.
Other projects have focused on critical locations like hospitals, including the Bellevue Hospital campus in Manhattan. Workers broke ground on a $120 million project in May, funded by FEMA. It will include an upgraded storm water pumping system to stop water from damaging the medical campus, as well as a flood wall that reach up to 12 feet high to protect the hospital from storm surge.
A rebuilt Coney Island Hospital, to be named the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hospital, will feature a second floor emergency room to avoid inundation, along with backup power systems that are flood resistant enough to hopefully withstand a 500-year storm.
Gurl said that she believes Sandy was ultimately the Northeast’s wake up call to the reality of climate change. Extreme weather and sea level rise are happening now—which means the solutions need to come now, too.