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City Struggling With Rising Sea Levels

TRANSCRIPT: New Yorkers who experienced intense flooding during and after Hurricane Sandy have been seeing more flooding during ordinary weather events. According to new research published last week, sea levels are rising at a faster rate than ever before. While the city has taken steps to protect critical infrastructure, Nina Agrawal found out that it hasn’t done quite as much in residential areas. FADE UP AMBI FAIRWAY AGRAWAL: At the edge of the Fairway parking lot in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Oumar Cisse shows me the temporary gates his employees put up to protect against flooding. CISSE So they are a combination of aluminum and rubber, and they’re very tight. We have them at almost 4 feet, so that will prevent water from coming into the building. And they’re also on the other side of the building. [0:18] These gates aren’t just for a major storm like Hurricane Sandy, which hit the waterfront grocery store hard and forced it to close for a year and a half. Cisse says they use these gates all the time. CISSE During period of high tide last week or 2 weeks ago, we did have the water all the way here. Just during regular high tide? Yeah. Here and in our cafe there, the water started to come in. It was a little bit of a challenge, and you know, you get a little bit worried when you see the water coming in like that. [0:25] FADE DOWN FAIRWAY Cisse may have more cause for worry in the coming months and years. New research out last week indicates that sea levels are rising faster than in any of the past twenty-eight centuries, and could rise by more than four feet before this century is up. That means coastal areas like Red Hook could see a lot more flooding — and not just during major events like Sandy. Philip Orton is an oceanographer at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He studies storm surges and sea level rise. He’s also a member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, which advises the mayor’s office on climate change and resiliency. ORTON The flooding comes in a couple different flavors. The first place it’s felt is with nuisance flooding, flooding whenever there’s a full moon, or a new moon actually, when you have a spring tide. The rain flooding problem is actually by far the most common problem–when it rains, and the sewer can’t drain b/c sea level’s high or because the sewer pipes are just really flat. And then there’s also the actual storm surge flooding. [0:21] That last one is the biggest threat to New York City right now, says Orton. But as sea levels rise, high tides combined with minor storms will become more and more of an issue. The city took steps immediately after Sandy to start protecting its most important assets. ORTON One major thing being done that’s really good is that they’re protecting vital infrastructure–so the electrical sub stations are getting protected better, subways are getting protected better… [0:11] But there are still plenty of New Yorkers — especially outside Manhattan — who have yet to see any major changes. ORTON Dealing with protecting neighborhoods, you’re seeing a lot less happening, and it’s happening more slowly. New York City has a plan to protect every neighborhood in the whole city, but they don’t have the money to do it. [0:09] There’s only so much money available. So the city has had to make strategic choices. Take the South Bronx, for example. The Hunts Point Food Distribution Center supplies New York City with more than 60 percent of its food. The center was spared Sandy’s wrath — but only because the storm hit during a time of low tide in Long Island Sound. The storm could have seriously jeopardized the city’s food supply. Together, the federal government and New York City have committed forty-five million dollars to promote energy resiliency and coastal protection around the center. Mayor Bill De Blasio also said the city would invest a hundred and fifty million dollars over twelve years to strengthen it. But nearby areas that are primarily residential haven’t gotten much attention. Juan Camilo Osorio is the director of research at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. He says that in other South Bronx neighborhoods like Soundview, Port Harris, Motthaven and the Harlem River Waterfront… OSORIO Nothing really has been fully funded or is in the pipeline to address the vulnerability of the residential areas. [0:08] Osorio says the city needs to do more to protect residents in these areas, which are home to a disproportionate number of low-income New Yorkers, people with disabilities… OSORIO Other indicators– youth, seniors –you see that the same areas that are mostly vulnerable by storm surge are also the same areas that mostly concentrate these populations. [0:10] Relief is coming, but it’s still a long way off. FADE UP WAVES Back in Red Hook, the city has been holding community meetings to discuss possible flood protection measures, like a sea wall, pumps or raised streets. But a feasibility study won’t be finished until October, and then there’s still the design and construction to wait for. Those won’t be complete until well after the next hurricane season. Nina Agrawal, Columbia Radio News.


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