Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last Friday that he will allocate $50 million from the state’s share of the $67 billion federal Hurricane Sandy aid package toward rebuilding protective marshland in Spring Creek Park to serve as a stronger barrier between Howard Beach and Jamaica Bay and alleviate future flooding in storms like Sandy.
The project, developed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, will involve excavation, recontouring, and revegetation to establish a self-sustaining system of wave-dampening barriers to reduce storm damage on the south and west coasts of Howard Beach. It would also make the land, which is a public park, into a more inviting and functional space.
Key features of the innovative project include low- and high-level vegetated salt marshes, dune complexes, grasslands and maritime forests at increasing elevations, which will protect against storm surges like those experienced during Sandy and provide an additional level of resiliency against sea level rise.
The project will restore over 150 acres of valuable maritime habitats including 86.6 acres of upland buffer (dunes and maritime forest), 49 acres of low marsh, 10 acres of high marsh and 6 acres of tidal creek.
The project also allows for the introduction of shellfish reefs which lessen storm surge and will interact with ongoing efforts to restore marshes to ultimately establish multiple barriers of protection for Howard Beach and other neighborhoods around the bay.
“To strengthen Howard Beach against future flooding and storms, we are moving forward on a major project that improves the natural infrastructure along Spring Creek and the Jamaica Bay coast in Queens, with the approval of federal funding,” Cuomo said in a statement. “As the state continues to work with local communities to identify and implement strategies to make at-risk areas more resilient to extreme weather, this project is another example of how we’re building back better to better protect New Yorkers’ homes and businesses.”
Nearly 2,000 homes and 38 businesses were damaged due to Sandy’s storm surge in Howard Beach, as were two schools. According to FEMA, 700 of the affected homes received disaster relief loans totaling $43 million. The community also experienced damage during Hurricane Irene in 2011.
“A grant of $50 million in federal Sandy funding being allocated for flood-mitigation to protect our homes and businesses in Howard Beach is great news,” said Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park). “This project will repair the deteriorating waterfront and build on nearly 150 acres across Jamaica Bay to create a resistant barrier that will limit floodwaters and surges during potential storms.”
But some in Howard Beach are concerned the project does not tackle the neighborhood’s main vulnerability. The most devastating storm surge during Sandy struck in the eastern part of the neighborhood and along Howard Beach’s main commercial strip on Cross Bay Boulevard. That part of the neighborhood is home to two canals — Hawtree Creek and Shellbank Basin — which overflowed their banks during the storm. Many of the homes located closer to Spring Creek Park were not as badly damaged as those on or near the two canals.
The eastern portion of the neighborhood also lacks the green space between homes and the bay that exists on the west side.
Dorothy McCloskey, president of Friends of Charles Park, said she wanted the state to focus on repairing the bulkheads at Charles Park and Hamilton Park in Hamilton Beach, which provide natural protection along with investing in flood mitigation efforts in the canal.
“If they’re going to do work on federal property, why do the work there and not where it’s needed,” McCloskey said. “The most urgent issue is the bulkhead.”
She added that nearly all of the neighborhood’s businesses that were damaged were located on the east side of the neighborhood and were flooded by storm surge coming from the canals.
Dan Mundy Jr. of the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers said he was pleased to hear of the project and noted that it complements similar work being done on marshland in the bay and a vacant location called Sunset Cove in Broad Channel.
“It’s an investment in the future,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge ecological boost, and in that one area, it will help stop the tidal surge.”
Mundy added that he agreed with McCloskey that more attention needed to be paid to the bulkheads in Charles and Hamilton parks and flood control in the waterways and noted that he has been involved in conversations about that which have included input from experts who designed and maintain flood control barriers in the Netherlands, which is mostly below sea level and are flood-prone.
“What we’ve basically learned is that you have to combine the hard infrastructure with the soft infrastructure,” he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will undergo phase two of their coastal flood mitigation study next year, which will focus on Jamaica Bay. Mundy said many of the hard infrastructure concerns — including bulkheads and floodgates — will be explored in that study.
Mundy also pointed out that the work would also restore the parkland to make it more inviting and usable to local residents in a part of the borough that has very few parks.
Goldfeder said he too wants to see more attention paid to the bulkheads and other flood mitigation measures.
“You have to start somewhere,” he said. “This is a good start.”
Neither Cuomo’s office nor the DEC had a timeline for the project as of yet.