This article originally appeared in In These Times.
For more than a decade before Hurricane Sandy, oceanography professor Malcolm Bowman, head of the Storm Surge Research Group at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, warned that a superstorm would someday drown New York City. There were plenty of precedents, he noted, such as the 1992 nor’easter that crippled train lines and Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999, which dumped a foot of rain in 24 hours and caused flash flooding.
“My middle name is Noah,” laughs Bowman, who looks the part of an old salt, with a tanned complexion and trimmed white beard. “The flood’s coming, you better build the ark, get everybody aboard.”
In 2008, Bowman was asked to join Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York City Panel on Climate Change, and he recommended that the city build surge barriers like those protecting London and the Netherlands. But his advice wasn’t heeded. According to Bowman, “the panel thought that it was too ambitious, too expensive, too futuristic.”
Now, in the aftermath of the most devastating storm New York has ever seen—one that claimedmore than 100 lives in the region, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, and notched a record storm surge of 13.8 feet in Lower Manhattan—an idea that was once seen as implausible now seems inevitable. One poll found that 80 percent of the public favors fortifying the city with surge barriers. “Money shouldn’t be a problem,” declared the New York Times. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has thrown his weight behind barriers, as have the state’s top Congress members and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the frontrunner in this year’s mayoral contest.
Bowman and his Storm Surge Research Group have sketched out a plan that could cost an estimated $25 billion and centers on a five-mile-long “Outer Harbor Gateway” between Sandy Hook, New Jersey and the Rockaway peninsula. The barrier would be a belt of landfill, stone and reinforced concrete, possibly topped with a highway that would provide an alternate route from the mid-Atlantic to New England. Thirty-foot-high sand berms would be piled on Sandy Hook and the Rockaways to prevent flood waters from circumventing the gateway. Another gate, this one a mile long, would be built in the upper East River to stop surges coming in from the Long Island Sound to the north.
Proponents say the funding question could be solved by making the highway bypass a toll road. The next step is for Congress to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study, which experts say could take five years and cost more than $20 million.
Despite the costs, storm barriers seem more a question of when, not if, given that risks of more powerful storms barreling in on higher sea levels will increase exponentially as the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt ever faster. Scientists say coastal cities should plan for sea levels to rise by seven feet by the year 2100. In Brooklyn and Queens alone, says Bowman, “you have to worry about the two to three million people who live less than six feet above high-tide level.” Since it would be virtually impossible for millions of people to abandon New York anytime soon, planners are trying to figure out the best way to hold the next hurricane at bay.