During an eerily foreshadowing talk I attended the week before Sandy came crashing ashore, New York City’s climate resilience advisor, Leah Cohen, assured the small attending audience that PlaNYC 2030, a tentative map for the city’s sustainable growth, outlined no such plans to “buy back” developed areas in the city—even those dangerously close to the water’s edge. That is true. It’s also true that the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been in the habit of snatching up unwanted acres—most of them inland, not beachfront properties—on Staten Island since 1991.
In the two decades since, the city spent $350 million buying undeveloped land, preserving creeks and ponds, and restoring natural wetland areas. All of it is an answer to Staten Island’s rapid housing and development boom that mostly occurred after the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964. The need to manage excess water runoff during storms outpaced water drainage infrastructure.
Forward-thinking city officials noted that, thanks to the series of ponds and streams carved by a gigantic glacier during the glacial period named Wisconsin more than 10,000 years ago, Staten Island featured a natural drainage system into Raritan Bay, located at the southern tip of the island. The project to link water runoff from streets, then filter it, and guide it back into streams is called the Staten Island Bluebelt, a watery counterpart to the more commonly known ‘greenspace’ regions of parks in that borough and throughout New York City.
The officials who lead the Bluebelt project want to make patently sure that they are not viewed as storm surge troopers. When Sandy hit, the Bluebelt could do nothing to prevent the combination of rising tide waters and winds that slammed water into the island, because it was never intended to handle such onslaught.
“Sandy didn’t produce the amount of rainfall that we anticipated,” said James Garin, director of engineering for Staten Island’s Bluebelt. The system of stormwater drainage sewers, pipes and excess water retention ponds is designed to handle 1.75 inches of rain in one hour. So because the Bluebelt performed well with the inland rainfall, Garin and Bluebelt project chief Dana Gumb agreed that the city will probably continue to support the project. Currently city workers are expanding a Bluebelt area into the Queens borough. “The fact that we are buying this land means that people will not live there,” Gumb added.
Sandy didn’t change any plans with the Bluebelt project, and cannot be considered a frontline protection mechanism in future hurricanes and tropical cyclones. However, it is a well-established so-called ‘soft’ infrastructure that has been working quietly for 20 years. And residents haven’t seemed to mind the city’s good intentions to buy the land.
One week after the eve of Hurricane Sandy, a group of would-be marathoners and I huddled around a shopping cart carrying industrial-grade garbage bags, Swifter pads, paper towels, woolen gloves and hats, and water—lots of water. We listened as a lifelong Staten Island resident told us of halcyon days spent in the shade of beach bungalows in New Dorp neighborhood, a community still covered in the media as one of the hardest hit areas.
“I did all my crying yesterday,” she said. Then, maybe she saw confusion creeping in our faces, as we glanced around, looking for the ruins of the beloved bungalows. “Mayor Bloomberg bought all that land a while back. We tore those buildings down a long time ago before the storm,” she said.