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Future storms will put parts of NYC underwater, endangering hundreds of thousands

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As climate change warms the planet, drives up sea levels and energizes hurricanes, a big concern is storm surge. NPR has analyzed modeling from the National Hurricane Center for Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York City. The modeling shows that development continues in places that will be underwater in future storms, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk. In New York, WNYC's Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky and Rosemary Misdary report from different sides of the East River.

JACLYN JEFFREY-WILENSKY, BYLINE: I'm Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky. And we're at the Washington Houses in Harlem, which are a sea of green. Lush grass and tall shade trees fill the campus of this New York City housing authority development, and there are garden beds everywhere.

CLAUDIA PEREZ: Eventually, we're going to have an apple and peach orchard.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: Claudia Perez, president of the residents association, says her neighbors spend hours each week tending the flowers and vegetables. And they've got more planned, too.

PEREZ: We have lots of rose bushes. We have lots of gardening that happens here, and it makes it more beautiful. Actually, sometimes I don't even go on the street. I stay here, which is bad.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: But 10 years ago, during Hurricane Sandy, Perez saw the streets turn into rivers around her home. She watched as the storm hit the local hospital and two other public housing developments nearby.

PEREZ: Sandy was really scary. When you see a hospital going underwater, you're like, oh, my God. Like, what's going on here?

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: Perez's complex escaped Sandy, but with another few decades of sea level rise, a similar storm could bring floodwaters right to its doors. A WNYC/NPR analysis of exclusive data from the National Hurricane Center shows that a Sandy-like storm could flood more than 50 NYCHA developments by 2080. That's nearly 50% more than were inundated by the original superstorm in 2012. Nationally, another estimate projects three times as many low-income homes at risk of frequent flooding by 2050. Bernice Rosenzweig is a professor of environmental studies at Sarah Lawrence College.

BERNICE ROSENZWEIG: People that live in affordable housing are more exposed to flooding, and they have the fewest resources for dealing with the increased flood risk.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: Rising seas threaten low-income housing up and down the coasts. But in a city with an affordable housing crisis, low-income New Yorkers can't lose any more housing options, particularly when they're already more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

ROSENZWEIG: People that did not in any way profit from the emission of heat-trapping gases are going to end up having to either leave their homes, or someone is going to have to provide funding to make their homes more resilient to flooding.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: The New York City Housing Authority spent nearly $2 1/2 billion to repair and upgrade public housing hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy. In East Harlem, damaged buildings are using FEMA money for backup generators, new roofs and elevated electrical systems. But there are still many more that need to be climate-ready, like the Washington Houses. The housing authority, which receives about 60% of its funding from the federal government, says it will have to look for other ways to pay for the upgrades. The experience of Sandy prompted Perez to create an emergency plan for the Washington Houses. She even helped write a bilingual, illustrated pocket guide called Washington Houses Ready.

PEREZ: I think this is in part in - preparing for evacuation, which is on the first page. East Harlem is a neighborhood where a hurricane could cause severe flooding. In most emergencies where life is in danger, the first thing to do is call 911.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: But local advocates, like Chris Dobens at the nonprofit We Act for Environmental Justice, want the city to do more, like elevate the local waterfront. Otherwise, he says, it'll just get destroyed again by the next Hurricane Sandy.

CHRIS DOBENS: If we get hit by another superstorm and it happens to coincide with the tides in the East River, East Harlem is going to get nailed, and they're going to have to redo all the cosmetic work that they did. If they don't elevate it, I mean, it's going to waltz right in.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: Across the East River, upscale neighborhoods are also at risk.

ROSEMARY MISDARY, BYLINE: I'm Rosemary Misdary in Brooklyn, where the blue door for the El Pinguino oyster bar sits a few steps from the luxury tower-studded skyline of the East River. Owner Nicholas Padilla has been running a restaurant on this patch of the Brooklyn waterfront for more than a decade, and he has come to dread the rain.

NICHOLAS PADILLA: Water penetrates everything. It gets into every crevice.

MISDARY: And even when it doesn't rain, the floodwaters seem to be waiting.

PADILLA: It just seems crazy, right? We dug six inches underground in the basement, and there was standing water.

MISDARY: But Padilla has no plans to leave.

PADILLA: It's New York City. It's hard to find somewhere to go. It just feels like people will just live here until it's in the river.

MISDARY: Greenpoint and neighboring Williamsburg are among several waterfront areas in New York City that face severe threats from storm surge and sea level rise. At the same time, they're booming with development. The local community board estimates 20 towers are in the works, between 30 and 40 stories each, with median home prices over $1,000,000. The lure of seeing the Manhattan skyline across the river and lavish amenities come with shortfalls for residents, according to local city council member Lincoln Restler.

LINCOLN RESTLER: Our area has grown in population and had more new housing built than any other part of New York City over the last 15 years. But we have not seen enough investment in strengthening our shorelines and realizing a more resilient waterfront.

MISDARY: But major infrastructure projects like giant seawalls may be no match for keeping the East River at bay during a downpour. Over the next 30 years, tide and storm surges will increase further inland. That means flooding will happen 10 times as often. Many climate experts argue a much more drastic measure is needed. They say homes and businesses in these parts of the city will have to be abandoned, a process known as managed retreat. Dr. Klaus Jacob is a geophysicist at Columbia University's Climate School.

KLAUS JACOB: Engineering solutions have time limits. They work for a while in some places longer than others. But eventually the ocean will win.

MISDARY: In a managed retreat, Jacob says the government buys out property in flood zones. The deserted areas serve as natural barriers against storm surges, protecting structures further inland. This was successfully done on Staten Island after Sandy.

JACOB: When the ocean comes, they don't care how long you have lived or whether your grandparents have lived there.

MISDARY: To be clear, some climate experts believe that retreat should be a last resort. They say future technology and engineering solutions could help keep these communities safely intact. But even at this stage in the climate crisis, New York City doesn't have a master plan for climate resiliency.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: Municipal leaders say they're waiting to draft their strategy based on a report from the Army Corps of Engineers. This study will determine the feasibility of large-scale infrastructure, such as seawalls for the more than 500 miles of urban coastline. But the final report has been delayed for years due to lack of federal funding.

MISDARY: It's now scheduled to be released within the next two years. For NPR News, I'm Rosemary Misdary.

JEFFREY-WILENSKY: And I'm Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "UNDER THE BRIDGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky
Rosemary Misdary is a 2020-2021 Kroc Fellow.