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A Flood of Ideas, Post-Sandy

Brooklyn -

Two weeks after Sandy stormed through Coney Island, the basement of the Fellowship Baptist Church still looked and smelled like it happened yesterday.

The dark, damp space emanated a stench of stale ocean water, which came in through the doors and windows during the hurricane, reaching seven feet. The flooding damaged the electrical system throughout the W. 20th Street building, knocking out power, heat, gas and hot water.

“If they could build something like a strong fence thing in certain areas because, you know, this is not the first storm and it’s not going to be the last,” said Elijah Goodman, a deacon at the church.

Goodman’s musing isn’t all that far off from what some experts have been proposing for years. The damage to Coney Island and other coastal communities has renewed calls for ideas to help reinforce New York’s waterfront to prevent future devastation.

“If climate warming continues and sea levels continue to rise, a storm of an even lesser extent than Sandy, even a smaller storm surge superimposed on a higher sea level, could result in the same amount of flooding,” said Dr. Vivien Gornitz, a special research scientist with the Columbia University Center for Climate Systems Research.

Dr. Malcolm Bowman, a professor of Physical Oceanography at SUNY, has long pushed for building a storm-surge barrier system in New York. His plan calls for two barriers, one at the mouth of New York Harbor, and the other at the entrance to Long Island Sound. When he first proposed the measure in 2005, he encountered skepticism from city officials who said it was “too ambitious, too expensive,” Bowman recalled.

A ‘Bold Approach’

But that was before Sandy. Bowman’s plans have now resurfaced to become the subject of a heated public debate.

“Hurricane Sandy is a wake-up call,” said Bowman. “Now is the time to start planning a regional approach, a bold approach to protect” the metropolitan area.

Bowman notes that surge barriers have worked for the Netherlands, London, Venice and St. Petersburg, and believes they can be effective in New York, too.

Dr. Bas Jonkman, a professor of hydraulic engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, said in an email that New York should consider various flood-prevention options.

“It seems this was an extreme event, once in 100 to 500 years, so (I’m) not sure whether the large investments in barriers would pay off,” he said. “My current feeling is that some more smaller scale/local measures like local flood protection and flood proofing of buildings and tunnels would be most likely to happen.”

Dr. Radley Horton from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies called for fast-track research into a range of prospective solutions. “The most important thing is to get everyone to the table,” he said, referring to engineers, funders, government officials, environmental and community groups.

​Food for Thought

Meanwhile, Pastor Robert Rubino is making room at the table at the Fellowship Baptist Church, expanding the congregation’s food offerings for the needy.

“The building is not the church. The people are the church,” said Rubino.

“Anyone can walk in here seven days a week when someone’s here and have access to clean water, fresh water, food, clothing,” he said.

Despite steep challenges ahead, Rubino stays optimistic: “In a way, I am glad the building was damaged because now it can relate to the community.”

He tells the story of a man who walked up to him after the storm and said he needed new pants for work. “His pants were black with dirt and other debris. We gave him a pair of new pants,” Rubino said.

“He said, ‘Thank you, Pastor.’”