Perched on the edge of the Upper New York Bay, Red Hook has nurtured a close relationship with the water. But when Hurricane Sandy devastated the peninsula four years ago, it became clear to residents and city officials that climate change poses a severe threat to the neighborhood.
Since then, the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR) has explored plans to build a seawall as part of a multi-million-dollar initiative to protect the are from extreme weather. But officials and local stakeholders are far from unanimous on how to best protect Red Hook, which lies less than 10 feet above sea level.
Red Hook is a thriving waterfront community. Cargo ships dock at Red Hook’s shipping terminal and water taxis shuttle people to and from Manhattan. Residents enjoy uninhibited views of the sea and dozens of small businesses hug the shore.
Yet the neighborhood was one of New York’s hardest-hit regions during Sandy. Floodwaters flushed many residents out of their homes. Three blocks from the shore, the restaurants, boutiques and other small businesses that line the main strip suffered heavy damage.
Red Hook has rebuilt in the four years since the storm, through a combination of community efforts and government funding – but it is not in the clear from potential new weather threats. According to the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront report released by the city, Red Hook currently has a 1 percent chance of suffering a major flood in any given year. As seas rise and warm, the likelihood of Sandy-scale storms is increasing.
The Mayor’s Plan
The ORR, established in 2014 to arm New York against extreme weather, is considering three possible locations for a seawall. However, no solution is without compromise: The seawall, if built, would protect land but would also disrupt water traffic and obstruct the area’s scenic views of the bay and Manhattan.
To navigate this potential problem, the ORR has held three public meetings to engage Red Hook’s residents and business owners in the decision-making process. But according to a summary released in October after the third meeting, the community concluded that it needs better options.
Carolina Salguero, the founder of PortSide NewYork, a nonprofit in Red Hook whose goal is to make better use of New York’s waterways, opposes the idea of a seawall.
“We are at risk of walling ourselves off from something that can be a major asset,” she said.
St. John Frizell, owner of the restaurant Fort Defiance, which suffered damages from Sandy, said that the efforts being made don’t address the urgency of the problem. “You’re talking about four years of consultants and studies,” he said. “There’s gonna be no money left for construction.”
For the community, money, particularly funding cuts, is at the root of widespread cynicism about the government’s commitment to helping the neighborhood become climate resilient, said local activist Andrea Sansom.
In 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Vice President Joe Biden announced that $200 million would be allocated to Red Hook for resiliency projects. However, earlier this year, the ORR clarified that the figure was $100 million.
A Community Proposal
Instead of the city’s proposed ideas, activists are more interested in homegrown solutions like the one being developed by Alexandros Washburn, a Red Hook resident and urban designer.
Washburn’s plan, featured in the Red Hook Star-Revue, is based on poldering, a flood-prevention technology invented by the Dutch.
The technique relies on dikes built offshore, which can pump water out of an enclosed area. Washburn has proposed using this technology to control the height of the water that reaches Red Hook’s shores.
He did not respond to requests for comment.
Salguero is in favor of Washburn’s plan, noting that a seawall could impede transportation and recreation.
“We need to portify as we fortify,” she said.