Should New York Build Sea Barriers?

As NYC struggles to cope with the damage from Superstorm Sandy, officials and experts are revisiting the possibility of building, at great cost, a protective barrier around its coast.

November 10, 2012, 7:00 AM PST

By Erica Gutiérrez


In the midst of the recent storm, a two-mile-long barrier system built in 1969 at the cost of $14.5 million, kept Stamford, CT protected from an estimated $25 million in damage to businesses and homes, reports Mireya Navarro. Stamford's mayor, Michael A. Pavia, said: "It was extremely effective in protecting areas that would have been flooded completely by this storm. It made all the difference in the world." If it worked in Stamford, can it work for New York?

"The technology of movable sea barriers, from Stamford's modest flap gate to London's mighty 10-gate system in the River Thames, has long intrigued engineers and planners contemplating a solution for low-lying areas of New York City," writes Navarro. "The notion is that such a system could one day block surges from Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean into the East River and New York Harbor," thus keeping the areas behind the barrier, including Lower Manhattan, safe. However, for NYC, which has opted for smaller-scale and less-costly solutions in the past, this begs a number of delicate questions on topics such as the marring of vistas and whether scientists can "accurately predict the size of hurricanes that the sea gates would one day have to withstand."

Skeptics argue that what worked for Stamford is not the solution for New York, where costs and implications are grander. Dr. Jeroen Aerts, a geographer and expert on water risk management and climate from the University of the Netherlands, "estimates that any barrier system would cost $10 billion to $17 billion." And this does not take into account the millions of dollars, time and effort needed to conduct a comprehensive feasibility study to examine a range of factors, including its design and potential environmental drawbacks.

One skeptic, Philip Orton, a storm surge research scientist with the Stevens Institute of Technology adds, "I don't think we've had our big disaster where hundreds of people die to make this palatable. But it certainly will change the debate."

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 in The New York Times

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