Unlike New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the water did not stay festering in a devastated city. What New York City (NYC) has learned from Hurricane Sandy is that as fast as the storm surge pushes into the streets of the city, it recedes, all in a typical tide cycle. At 1:12 on 30 October, Hurricane Sandy's storm surge paired with a full moon high tide reached its peak at 4,23 metres above mean tide (2,7 metres above normal) at the Battery on the southern tip of Manhattan. By the next morning the water was back to its pre-storm shores, leaving power out, basements flooded, a transportation system underwater and neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island washed away.
A crippled infrastructure makes recovery difficult, but in the immediate aftermath of the storm, like in many man-made or natural disasters, NYC conducted its own recovery in neighbourhoods without power with human capital. As Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers pumped water from subway tunnels beneath the East River, neighbours in all areas of the city gathered supplies to distribute to elderly residents stuck in high-rise apartments with no power. As sanitation workers cleared streets so emergency services could reach those in need, activists organized teams to clear debris from devastated homes. In the absence of fully functioning systems, the participation of citizens formed an infrastructure that brought relief to the impacted.
On 13 November, a little over two weeks after storm, the Speaker of the New York City Council, Christine Quinn (who is also anticipated as a 2013 New York City Mayoral candidate) gave a speech to local business leaders, outlining aggressive action to prevent future storms from causing the significant long-term damage that Sandy left behind. "Well, the time for casual debate is over," Ms. Quinn said. "It's now crystal clear that we need to build protective structures. This will include both hard infrastructure, like sea walls, bulkheads or flood gates, and natural defense, like sand dunes, wetlands and embankments." Although the arsenal of proposals outlined in Speaker Quinn's speech aim to deal with the impacts of hurricanes via landscape infrastructure, this laundry list of initiatives is overshadowed by the thought of building a sea wall to seal off New York Harbour from future storm surges.
Whether built at the Narrows — dividing Brooklyn and Staten Island — or from Sandy Hook, New Jersey all the way to Breezy Point — the western most tip of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens —, a sea wall would restrain both citizens and marine life in the rising waters from being part of the infrastructure that makes the city resilient to impacts of storms like Sandy. A sea wall would prevent a debate on whether or not we should inhabit many of the waterfront parcels where we are currently concentrating development. This proposal alone masks the vulnerability of the city and surrounding region, providing a false sense of security to citizens who, because of the location of their property, have a precarious relationship with the surrounding waters. Simultaneously, a sea wall would be doubling down on the engineered solution to our water's edge, keeping land and sea as distinct entities, and limiting the tidal flow which mixes with the fresh water of the Hudson River forming a unique brackish water — which was once the foundation for a diverse aquaculture, yielded oysters the size of dinner plates, and formed a natural filtering tidal barrier.
The New York City harbour marks a vortex called the New York Bight, where the mid-Atlantic seaboard takes a hard turn east and transitions to the shores of Long Island and New England, making it clear that the city will flood. With 836 kilometres of coastline and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers living within the potential flood zones, it is clear that the city has to adapt to a post-Sandy world, but it must employ its residents, ecology, and marine life to participate as part of its infrastructure solution, and not rely on engineering solutions of the past. Ben Abelman (@benabelman) is a New York-based Urban Designer and a contributor to SCAPE's Oyster-Tecture project at MoMA's Rising Currents exhibition.