There was perhaps no other community in Queens taken by surprise by Hurricane Sandy as much as Howard Beach.
The neighborhood was thought to be immune to Sandy’s storm surge because of it’s relative weakness as a Category 1 storm and geography: the Rockaway Peninsula stood between Howard Beach and the ocean.
But during the storm, nearly the entire neighborhood was flooded. One resident was killed when she drowned in her home near Charles Park. The storm has led to concerns that the costs of flood mitigation for residents, from raising homes to paying flood insurance premiums, would make Howard Beach unaffordable for many residents.
Bill Ulfelder, state executive director of The Nature Conservancy, said the community can be better protected from future storm surges through both natural and man-made means.
Ulfelder was on a panel discussing post-Sandy shore protection at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn on Oct. 16, specifically talking about Howard Beach. In an interview after the event, Ulfelder said green-only flood barriers — natural ones — would work, but not well enough alone to be worth the cost.
“We modeled for a 100-year storm,” he said. “The green-only did not have a huge return on investment, but that’s only for one storm.”
He said the models only predicted the effects on home and buildings and not on infrastructure like bridges and subways.
Natural barriers like marshland, mussel beds and vegetation berms, especially in Spring Creek Park, are options to help prevent storm surge flooding. But Ulfelder said they would have to be complemented with “gray” infrastructure, including modern flood barriers.
“Once you started getting into the hybrid approaches, then you started seeing big returns on investment,” he said.
One of his suggestions is a movable barrier that could be put in place on the shore when storms come. A similar system is used in the Netherlands, where most of the population lives below sea level. Floodgates in the mouths of Hawtree Creek and Shellbank Basin were also suggested. Homes along the banks of the two canals were hardest hit by the storm.
“We should be open to all options and we shouldn’t presume that nature and natural defenses will protect us always, nor should we believe only engineered solutions will protect us,” he said.
The price of this new infrastructure would be expensive, but Ulfelder said it would be cost-effective in the long run since the Federal Emergency Management Agency takes such protections into consideration when modeling the flooding risk and pricing flood insurance premiums.
“If every home in Howard Beach decided to elevate itself, the estimated cost of that is $150,000 per home,” he said. “That would be roughly $820 million, but if you take some of these solutions, these are things that cost say, a quarter billion dollars.”