Engineers hope support for storm barrier surges
Experts say need to shore up vulnerable NJ/NY coastlines long overdue
In 2009, the engineering firm Halcrow Group drew up a plan for a 5-mile-long, 80-foot-high storm surge barrier stretching from Breezy Point, in Queens, N.Y., to Sandy Hook.
The design, based on a similar project in Russia, was presented at a conference of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which was meeting in Brooklyn, N.Y., to discuss ways to protect the region from the kind of mega-storms that seemed likely to materialize in the coming years.
Three years later, that storm became a reality. The barrier, meanwhile, has yet to leave the drawing board.
Halcrow was one of four firms that drew up barrier proposals spanning four different spots on New York City's waterfront. The barriers contain a system of floodgates and sluices designed to let water flow during normal weather, and transform into a wall during major storms.
Jonathan Goldstick, a vice president at CH2M Hill, which bought Halcrow last year, said the region must prepare for more storms like Hurricane Sandy.
"We had Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011, and Sandy hit in October 2012," Goldstick said. "Those are three of the biggest storms in memory, and they happened within 15 months of each other."
Piet Dircke, a global water management expert at the Dutch engineering firm Arcadis, said Sandy proved the New York/New Jersey area could receive a direct hit from a hurricane.
"At the same time, you also see that the city can recover — the water just flows in and out after a couple of days," he said. "I think after five days, most of the subways were already running again."
Arcadis was also at the Brooklyn conference, presenting a barrier that would run parallel to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The company was involved in the new storm protection system in New Orleans, and in similar barrier projects in the Netherlands.
Dircke said the New York metropolitan region could benefit from a storm surge barrier system, but said there are other steps the region should consider first, such as developing mechanisms to seal off tunnels and other vital infrastructure, building walls to shield highly valuable or highly vulnerable neighborhoods, and replenishing beaches and marshlands.
After that, he said, "you could look at the option of, 'Do we also need, in addition to all of this, barriers?' "
John R. Schuring, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, agrees a multifaceted approach is needed, but said those checklist items are already overdue.
"I think we should be doing the other things 10 years ago," he said. "That's something we should be doing always as we move forward, and certainly as we rebuild — but again, that still will not preclude the surge from coming again."
Schuring said that's why the ensuing conversation needs to also focus on major initiatives, including evaluating a barrier system.
Ann Brady, managing director at Plan Smart NJ, said in general she thinks planners need to figure out how to work with nature, rather than trying to control it, but she said regional officials should explore the costs and benefits of all available options.
"I think we need to look at this as an opportunity to take seriously the science behind changing weather patterns and say, 'OK, this is the new normal,' " she said.
Both Arcadis and CH2M Hill said rough cost estimates for their barriers three years ago were about $6 billion each. But Dircke said the storm surge system in New Orleans cost $14.5 billion and took about four years to construct, though barriers in Holland took a decade or longer.
"The Americans did their work very fast in New Orleans, and I'm glad they did, because it saved New Orleans from Isaac," he said. "Because most probably, New Orleans would have been destroyed again."
Putting a barrier between New York and New Jersey would likely mean getting buy-in from lawmakers on both sides of the Hudson River, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers. Stephen Dilts, vice president at CH2M Hill's transportation business group, doesn't see the multistate nature of such a project as a problem.
"Sandy didn't know state boundaries," he said. "The federal government and president are committed to the types of relief and recovery that our region needs. There is a lot of momentum there already, and certainly the focus on bipartisanship and goodwill that I think we've seen to date is a good foundation for these types of discussions."
Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said his agency hasn't considered a storm surge barrier.
"It's not something that's on our plate at the moment," he said. "It's not something that's been formally proposed."
However, Ragonese said the department and other agencies will discuss a number of issues as the cleanup from Sandy takes hold, so he said the idea could come up at a later date.
CH2M Hill hopes that happens sooner rather than later.
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