East Harlem’s slum dodged the worst of Sandy, but the neighborhood still isn’t ready for the next storm

The timing, wind and tides around Superstorm Sandy devastated some New York coastal communities – while sparing others a fraction of the damage that could have been.

On the body of water where Long Island Sound and the East River meet — adjacent to East Harlem, Hunts Point, Soundview and other areas — the effect of the storm was lessened.

It was low tide there. Further south along the ocean-facing shores of Staten Island, the Rockaways and Brooklyn, Sandy hit at high tide.

“If the tide is out when a storm surge comes in, you have a lot more space where you’re used to watering before you start flooding dry land,” said Alison Branco, director of adaptation. climate change at The Nature Conservancy in New York. . “We’ve seen much worse flooding in the southern parts of the city than around the East River.”

Around New York, tides can raise or lower water levels two to six feet, Branco said. Recent research from Stevens Institute of Technology has shown how a six-hour difference in Sandy’s landfall would have worsened flooding in much of the city and especially in East Harlem, where heavy rains alone can easily overwhelm the streets.

The drains “just don’t have the capacity” for a big rainstorm, said Xavier Santiago, president of Manhattan Community Board 11, let alone a hurricane.

“We were built over marsh and water. We had a river,” he said, referring to the old Harlem Creek that ran along what is now East 106th Street. “We have to think intelligently about: how to pump this water? How can we keep more out? »

Community Board 11 President Xavier Santiago on the East Harlem Esplanade.

In East Harlem, a 280-page resilience report that cost $1 million to produce, as THE CITY previously reported, remains on hold and not fully published.

In it, experts considered the possible reconstruction of East 106th Street as a “green corridor” with a creek or ditch halfway through that would allow for better stormwater drainage. The report outlined ways to make the neighborhood more porous to absorb rainwater and recommended investigating pumping systems that could store stormwater in a “large storage tunnel,” according to an abbreviated version of the report shared with CB11 in April 2021.

The report also looked at a variety of scenarios for rebuilding the waterfront, including decking over FDR Drive to elevate parks and open spaces, or constructing a land barrier or a wall.

But none of it made it past the page.

The neighborhood has seen some resilience projects move forward, including a $120 million project to build flood walls around the Metropolitan Hospital on First Avenue, which opened this spring. The New York Public Housing Authority also made progress in flood mitigation at Sandy-damaged complexes in East Harlem, including the East River Houses, Clinton Houses, Isaacs-Holmes Complex and Metro North Plaza. But there was no comprehensive approach to protect the whole area.

“We are unfortunately not prepared,” Santiago said, adding that after Sandy, “there was an opportunity to really engage and assess the infrastructure, flood resilience and look at it holistically. “.

But since then, “there has been a lack of commitment or reluctance to create a meaningful partnership to right many of the wrongs our community has suffered,” he said, referring to both the old municipal administration and to the present.

Asked by THE CITY, the Mayor’s Office for Climate and Environmental Justice did not say whether the city would release the East Harlem Resilience Report. In a statement, a spokesperson for MOCEJ, Amy Sohn, said the agency “is proud to collaborate with our city, state and federal partners on several East Harlem resilience projects such as the Metropolitan Hospital Flood Wall Resiliency. Project, the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway expansion and the Clinton Houses Stormwater Resiliency project to name a few.

“Additionally, we launched Climate Strong Communities (CSC) earlier this week, which will help create the next pipeline of resilience projects in environmental justice communities that historically face deeper impacts due to climate change. “, she added.

“Think broadly”, act locally

For George Janes, an urban planner and zoning expert who consults with CB11, the lack of specific designs and projects means missing out on the key element to creating meaningful protection: money.

“The problem with not having a plan and not having movement towards developing a plan is that the money – state and federal money for resilience – well, it doesn’t fit in East Harlem because there’s no plan to spend it on,” he said. “And you have to have a plan before you can get funding.”

The issue isn’t just a problem for Harlemites, said Fiona Cousins, president of the Americas region at Arup, a global environmental consultancy. In her work, she says that “you always plan for the last [previous] disaster.”

“Everyone thinks the areas that were hit by Sandy are the areas that would be hit by another hurricane. But in fact, it had very particular characteristics,” she said – a wind pattern that created a huge storm surge and a relatively light amount of rain.

That thinking has widened a bit in 10 years as New Yorkers face more frequent extreme weather, especially since Hurricane Ida hit the city last year, killing 13 people in apartments. in the basement flooded following a downpour of more than 7 inches of rain – a deadly record. .

“I think what we’ve learned between the different storms is that there are many ways storms can impact New York City and therefore we need to think broadly,” said Cousins.

Branco of The Nature Conservancy found that “people are becoming more aware of all the different types of flooding that can impact New York City,” including inland flooding – caused by rains like Ida – and the rising seas.

“Sea level rise is causing our groundwater to rise,” she said. “It impacts our infrastructure, our street drains. You have street flooding, yard flooding. And so we have to remember that we have these periodic events – like hurricanes and rainstorms – but we also have the more chronic type of flooding.

Waves of progress

Certainly, New York has moved forward with massive plans to protect the city from Sandy. In Lower Manhattan, construction of the East Side Coastal Resilience Project – to put a flood barrier between the sea and the Lower East Side – is underway. In the Rockaways, work is underway to fortify six miles of beach with newly reinforced dunes and other flood mitigation measures. And billions have been spent to rebuild flooded subway tunnels, strengthen pumping systems and renovate storm-affected public facilities like hospitals and schools.

But much of the major work has advanced in areas where Sandy has caused the most damage. And even this work has been delayed.

As THE CITY previously reported, about a quarter of federal funds earmarked for post-Sandy infrastructure upgrades and reconstruction went unspent, according to a recent City Comptroller report. This totals $4 billion in unused funds.

On the South Shore of the Bronx – relatively unscathed during the 2012 storm – the city spent just 6.3% of the funding for a resilience project in Hunts Point that would install storage batteries and solar panels in two schools public.

At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the area’s development corporation spent just 5.9% of the $98 million allocated by FEMA for post-Sandy work. According to the report, only 0.3% of funding for the “Raising Shorelines” program – to raise frequently flooded roads – has been spent, despite the city’s promise that these commitments will be completed by mid-2025.

In East Harlem, local leaders have only seen 71 pages of their neighborhood’s resilience report, which was released weeks after THE CITY reported on the shelved document in early 2021. The rest remains secret. , despite the community council’s request for the full version through the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The sun glistens over the water where the East River meets the Harlem River.

Branco said it’s “not uncommon for communities to do planning work and end it on the shelf.”

“We see it over and over and over again, for a whole host of reasons,” she said.

But getting that job done is an important first step. Pushing to implement it is a whole other battle.

“They just have to keep reminding everyone. Unfortunately, it’s an extremely big city and there are neighborhoods everywhere that need this type of planning,” she said. “They just need to remind everyone that they’re here and they’ve done a lot of work.”

Santiago from CB11 is ready to dive.

“Let’s get into the meat and potatoes of it all,” he said. “From my point of view, even if it is a draft, it is taxpayers’ money that has been paid. We should have access to this information.

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