Shoring up Staten Island

By Vanessa Montalbano

Staten Islanders say their calls for help in natural disasters are not being heard, regardless of the threat of climate change in the area becoming more intense.

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The day before Superstorm Sandy hit Staten Island in October 2012, New York City officials warned businesses and homeowners in the most vulnerable areas of the danger they would soon face from the hurricane. That same night, Haley Essig and her family decided to hunker down in their Dongan Hills home, far from the Island’s coast. 

She said she never imagined the water would ever reach her home — let alone inundate it.

But, Essig, 21, said she watched in fear as the flood water quickly rose.

Her father was the first to notice the water rushing down their block. He ran inside to tell his family to arrange their things and get ready to leave — they needed to escape. 

Within minutes, she said, the water reached the top of the first step going into their house. With no time to think, Essig grabbed as many personal items as she could and ran out the door. She saw her neighbors racing in the same pursuit. By the time her family left, the water was at her hips. 

Wading through the flood, they made their way to their floating car. “I was terrified,” Essig said. “I thought I would be stuck here and the car would fill up with water.” 

Eventually the car engine started and they reached a family member’s home a few blocks away, where they stayed for two months. 

In total roughly 12 feet of water entered Essig’s home — causing their entire basement and first floor to need to be rebuilt. 

New York City and borough officials, she said, only reached out to her family after they filed an insurance claim for financial assistance through FEMA a week or two after Hurricane Sandy. Prior to this, the city never contacted them to address the aftermath of the storm. 

Essig said she and her neighbors were not satisfied with the government response to the wreckage. “People expect the government to be hands-on when a disaster occurs,” she said. “There really hasn’t been much progress.” 

Sandy walloped Dongan Hills and numerous other neighborhoods across the Island, resulting in 24 deaths in the borough alone. The hurricane’s storm surge was relentless — trapping people, toppling cars and pulling homes off their foundation. In the days, weeks and months that followed people saw unparalleled damage to their property and families.

But, while each resident can recall which tragedy they endured in 2012 most  prefer to talk about how the aftermath of the storm seemed to only be beaten by the perseverance and grit of communities destroyed as state and federal assistance was slow in coming.

“We were all in a vulnerable place and I believe it brought us all closer together,” Essig said. She remembers her entire community coming together physically to help rebuild, and emotionally when they needed to cry to each other.

Nearly a decade after the storm, Essig said there are many homes on her block that remain untouched and abandoned. Most people did not return at all after the disaster. If another storm as intense as Sandy were to hit again, she said, “there is no doubt in our minds that we would leave and never look back.” 

Why is this happening? 

The frequency of storms like Sandy, climate scientists say, is going to keep increasing and intensifying because hotter air holds more water and allows storms to gather strength more quickly and grow larger. Coastal cities are taking the brunt of destructive floodings nationwide. 

“Every government, every community, everywhere. This is everyone’s problem,” said Monica Weiss, a climate activist from 350NYC, an organization that mobilizes activists looking for solutions to the climate crisis. 

Weiss said it’s great that scientists can now predict that there are going to be stronger hurricanes with more frequency. But, it’s the unpredictable that she is afraid of having the most cascading impact.  

“Once the climate changes so permanently and so severely and so irreparably and unpredictably,” she said. “It’ll become which one is it going to be, how big is it going to be, when will it hit and do we evacuate?”  That threat is constantly hanging over people’s heads, Weiss continued. She said this fear is only exacerbated as insurance costs in the most impacted areas skyrocket. 

Over the last 35 years, erosion rates on Staten Island’s coast average more than one foot per year. Near Tottenville’s Conference House Park in particular, erosion rates average more than three feet per year, leaving the area extraordinarily vulnerable.

Tottenville was once protected by oyster reefs, but over time, due to siltation, overharvesting, channel dredging and human pathogens in the water, the reefs collapsed.

Today, the Raritan Bay to the south of Staten Island lacks not only the oysters, but the complex habitat their reefs provided. Without these natural systems, the shore of Staten Island remains exposed to wave action and even more coastal erosion.

Farid Kader, executive director of Yellow Boots, an Island based volunteer non-profit providing relief for people affected by natural disasters, said both city and borough lawmakers are struggling to keep up with the evolving climate crisis. Plus, Kader said, the government isn’t as invested as it should be in shoring up Staten Island. 

In the aftermath of Sandy, Kader said both the city and federal government took too long to send help. And, when the help did arrive, he said it was slow and that residents were not informed about what they were offered or how they could go about receiving the services. 

“We came in to rebuild, empower the homeowner, raise funds and get the bureaucratic process circumvented to a certain extent,” Kader said. 

This August, after Hurricane Ida delivered more than half a foot of rain in one hour to New York City, Kader again said help barely came to Staten Island. The storm caused historic flooding in the borough, trapping people in their cars and submerging homes with water.

But, compared to Sandy, this time there were also few volunteers arriving in the area to assist in the rebuild process. Plus, he said, at the end of October FEMA had only approved about $12 million for over 6,000 people who applied for a loan on Staten Island after the damage from Ida.

 “That’s sad as hell,” Kader said. “There’s no less than $12,000 worth of damage in each home — from a sheetrock, mold remediation, rebuild — you’re well outside of that number.” He estimated that $77 million might be a better number to adequately address the situation. 

Since Ida impacted the inland areas exposed to flash flooding, as opposed to communities on the coast, few people actually purchased flood insurance thinking they would never need it — leaving them extremely unprepared. 

Not only did Ida expose a lack of government response, Kader said, but it also proved how rapidly climate change was evolving on Staten Island. 

“This is a completely different group of people that got hit,” he said. “We’re starting to see different types of impacts in different areas that we never even thought were possible.”

James Scarcella, president of Staten Island’s Natural Resources Protection Association, a consortium of conservation groups dedicated to protecting the marine environment of the Raritan Bay, agreed and said “we are in severe trouble if a serious hurricane hits.” 

What is the state doing? 

Over the past five years, the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery has worked with residents in Oakwood Beach and two other small sections on Staten Island to appraise and buy their houses at pre-storm values, then began clearing away the buildings and debris.

Deputy Borough President, Edward Burke, suggests working with nature, not against it, to combat the climate crisis on Staten Island. To him that means letting nature restore its natural habitat and letting the water “go where it is supposed to go” — or moving people out of the floodplains.

By 2022, when the mandate for the Build it Back program, run by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, expires, the purchased land will be open space. So far, around 250 units have been sold and former residents have moved inland.

The Island’s wetlands, Burke said, should have never been developed on. He said this helped cause additional flooding not only in the floodplain  but also in other areas as the water had nowhere to go. 

In September, construction began for the Living Breakwaters project to Protect Tottenville’s shoreline from deadly wave action and improve water quality in the Raritan Bay. It is a $107 million effort by the state government to provide physical, social and ecological resilience for the South Shore as an extended response to Sandy. 

Scarcella, of the Natural Resources protection group, said there is a major gap in the Living Breakwaters’s initiative, leaving the area between Tottenville and Huguenot vulnerable. “They’re going to get zapped again,” he said. “It really is a danger and I just don’t think there’s enough attention on it.” 

A press release from the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery said “the Living Breakwaters project was designed to reverse the impacts of decades of erosion of the beach by capturing sediments along the shoreline, allowing the beach to widen over time.”

It was also designed to “reduce waves reaching onshore buildings and roads to below three feet in height, protecting the low-lying coastal community,” the release said. 

The project is expected to be completed by 2024. 

“I think the people who have personally lived through these disasters deserve to see change,” Essig said. “We should feel safe in our communities with guidance from the government.”

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