Army Corps Envisioned Hurricane Walls for NYC 50 Years Ago

A hurricane rolls up the Atlantic Coast and causes widespread death and destruction.  Congress then appropriates money to investigate ways to protect the coast. People talk about the need to build levees, sea walls and hurricane gates.

Sound familiar?

It started in 1954, when a series of damaging storms caused more than $750 million dollars in damage and killed more than 150 people in the U.S. The Army Corps of Engineers started a series of studies for New York City’s shoreline. Then, in 1960, Hurricane Donna hit the region as a Category 3 storm, and gave a sense of urgency to the endeavor.

But very little of the outlined plans came to fruition, although some of their features may resurface when the Army Corps releases a new set of studies over the next year and a half.

“We just put the mops away and people went back to normal,” said Dan Mundy, Sr., a resident of Broad Channel, Queens, who was 22 at the time. In the mid-1960s, after the study for the Rockaways was finally released, Mundy got a copy of it and pored over it.

The proposal, drawn up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was quite extensive. It recommended making the beach deeper and higher, and then building a flood wall 18-feet above sea level. The wall would rise up a bit above the boardwalk’s surface, like a solid fence that people could lean on and look out over, towards the ocean.

At the time, Mundy thought the plan was fanciful and doubted it would go anywhere.

“I looked at it and said, ‘Wow, this is some dream here,’” he said in an interview earlier this month on Rockaway Beach, which was seriously damaged in Sandy. “But what if that plan had been put in effect? We might not be standing here looking at this 24-7 operation that’s going on here, trying to get this beach ready.”

Mundy ended up founding an environmental organization that has helped restore the salt marsh in Jamaica Bay. He held on to the Army Corps study for decades until Sandy came, flooded the lower level of his house, and swept the report out to sea.

Protections against Sandy-style surges

Looking back on the Army Corps studies, they seem eerily to presage just such a storm as Sandy:

  • The Rockaway study proposed a hurricane gate across the mouth of Jamaica Bay. The gate would have been kept open in good weather, but would have been closed before storms to protect neighborhoods on the inside of the bay, like Broad Channel and Canarsie, which in fact suffered seriously flooding from Sandy.
  • A 1964 Army Corps study for Staten Island’s South Shore suggested a thick reinforced levee, 15-feet above sea level, to wrap around neighborhoods like Oakwood Beach and Midland Beach, where more than a dozen people drowned from flash flooding.
  • In 1972, the Corps proposed a flood wall on Coney Island’s beach, according to a New York Times article at the time, as well as hurricane gates for Coney Island Creek and Sheepshead Bay—areas which also suffered fatalaties, extensive damage and lengthy power and heat outages during Sandy.
  • The Corps took another look at Staten Island in 1976 and proposed extending the barrier it had earlier recommended all the way north to Fort Wadsworth, in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

The structures would have been higher than Sandy’s storm tide, which topped out at 14 feet above sea level. It is hard to predict just how these barriers would have behaved during Sandy—some levees in New Orleans failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But John Boulé, a former commander of the Army Corps’ New York District, said they likely would have helped prevent damage.

“Certainly, the city and New York area remain vulnerable,” Boulé said in an interview, “and projects on the coast would reduce risks to the facilities and the structures behind them.”

Lack of interest, and money, doomed the plans. At the time, the Corps estimated the three plans would have cost about $100 million, more than $700 million in today’s dollars. The city, which was then entering its fiscal crisis, would have had to have contributed a portion of the money. Local officials said the Coney Island sea wall would have cut the city off from the water. And there were plenty of other engineering projects around the country that powerful congressmen wanted to get done instead.

The Downside of Levees

Environmentalists also have long been wary heavy engineering solutions, and raised questions about certain aspects of the plans at the time. The hurricane gates, they said, would hinder water flow in and out of Jamaica Bay, which was polluted from sewage treatment plants.

As for levees and seawalls, Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University, said they only encourage development in areas that people should instead move away from.

“The plans that the Corps made, I just simply would not trust,” said Pilkey, the co-author of a book, The Corps and the Shore, that is critical of the government agency.

Several years ago, the Army Corps began new studies for how to protect Staten Island and the Rockaways from erosion and storm damage. The federal Sandy bill allocated about $4 billion dollars to help finish those and other studies and potentially to build some of the projects that they will recommend. Suddenly, these old studies from the 1960s are relevant once again.

A recent report on the current Staten Island study, for example, indicated that a levee and seawall between 13 and 15 feet above sea level was being contemplated for part of the South Shore.

The project manager for the current Rockaways study, Dan Falt, said sea walls and hurricane gates are under consideration for that segment of the coast.

“We are going to much take a good look at this project with its flood wall approach,” Falt said, “because that may be the way to go.”