Protecting New York From Future Flooding

Steve Inskeep speaks with Malcolm Bowman, head of the Storm Surge Research Group at Stony Brook University on Long Island, about flooding from Sandy, and the possibility of creating storm barriers around New York.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, says he thinks there should be some kind of physical barrier to protect New York City from future storms like Sandy. We're going to hear now from an expert who's been advocating that for years. Malcolm Bowman heads of the Storm Surge Research Group at Stony Brook University on Long Island. We reached him at his home, where he has no power, but does have a working phone.

Is it reasonable to expect that this may happen again at some point in the future?

MALCOLM BOWMAN: Oh, surely, yes. I mean, it's going to happen more frequently, I think. With climate change, we can expect more extremes in the weather, and so we can expect this more in the future than perhaps in the past.

INSKEEP: Define the problem when it comes to New York. Obviously, it's on the ocean, but there's a certain topography, there's a certain geography that may make the potential flooding worse. What is the problem that New York faces?

BOWMAN: Well, the problem is that a great deal of its 510 miles of coastline is really only a few feet above sea level, so it's very vulnerable. Then the south shore, the south coast of Long Island and what's called the Outer Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, they're exposed to the Atlantic Ocean. So outside, they're getting these huge waves coming from the ocean. Inside, we get this surge that the wind drives when pushing the water along in through the harbor entrances and into the harbor itself.

INSKEEP: So when you talk with other experts as part of the advisory groups that you're on, what solutions present themselves?

BOWMAN: I've been, for many years, been promoting the concept of storm surge barriers, a regional approach to protecting the city, rather than the piecemeal approach that we presently have. The city has embraced the concept of what's known as resilience. And resilience is kind of adapting and responding to events as they happen. So it's a bit like if you have a power station that's too close to the water and it's flooding, you build a little wall around it.

INSKEEP: So that that little bit of damage doesn't happen again. OK.

BOWMAN: Right. But now, we've been overwhelmed, and this approach, I think, is grossly inadequate, and I've been telling the city that for years. None of this would've happened if we had a barrier system like they have, say, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, or in the Netherlands. None of this would have happened.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand what you're saying. You're describing New York City, New York Harbor as being this area that has two major openings to the sea, both of them really wide - the mouth of New York Harbor and Long Island Sound. And you envision barriers with, say, floodgates that can be closed that would go across both those openings?

BOWMAN: Yes. One would be in the upper East River near the Throggs Neck Bridge, and the second would be what we call in the outer Harbor, which would stretch from New Jersey, northern New Jersey. There's bit of sand called Sandy Hook, and across to southwestern Long Island, a place called Far Rockaway. And this is a five-mile opening. It sounds a long way, but the water is quite shallow. It's only 20, 25 feet deep. And so a levee system with openings, floodgates to allow shipping in and out during normal weather would protect the city.

INSKEEP: People in the middle of the country will be familiar with concepts like this, because there is an immense system of levees and floodgates and other things that have been built along the Mississippi River to control that river over the decades. And there have been a lot of unanticipated consequences having to do with the way that the movement of silt and the building of the earth changes, and in some ways, the flooding problem has been made more dangerous. Are you worried about unanticipated consequences to these sea walls?

BOWMAN: Well, yes, of course. So what needs to happen is that Congress needs to instruct the Army Corp of Engineers - they are responsible for navigable waterways in the United States - to do a comprehensive feasibility study. No one's suggesting we start pouring concrete next week. And that study could take five years.

INSKEEP: Let's assume that the price tag is in the billions for something like this?

BOWMAN: It would be in the billions, in the range five to $10 billion each. That sounds a lot of money, but it's not. If you look at the damage that resulted from this storm, when it's all added up, it's going to be much, much more than that.

INSKEEP: Of course, there's also the challenge in terms of looking at public expenditures to invest billions of dollars now to guard against a danger that you're not sure when it's going to happen. It might be 20 years, 50 years, next year.

BOWMAN: Certainly. And that's an argument used for, like, doing the resilience approach and keeping your fingers crossed that this doesn't happen in our lifetime again. But how long do we want New York City to exist as we know it? I mean, we've got a lot at stake here.

INSKEEP: Malcolm Bowman is a distinguished professor of oceanography at Stony Brook University on Long Island, and has advised the city on climate and other matters. Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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