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How Sandy sparked new thinking on resiliency architecture

Host 1: It’s been a year and a half since Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and residents in places like the Rockaways say they don’t feel much more protected than they did in the immediate aftermath of the storm. They feel things that could make them safer aren’t being done.

Host 2: But policy makers and architects tell reporter Matt Collette the projects that will make a big difference aren’t ready yet. They’re still being thought up.


Sylvan and Rose Klein have lived in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways for 27 years.


ROSE: So this is Main Street

SYLVAN: Well for us.

ROSE: Yes. Beach 129th Street is Main Street. So this is when I say it’s like Mayberry. You walk down here and this is where you know everybody. (0:14)

The Rockaways are completely surrounded by water, with the ocean on one side and Jamaica Bay just a few blocks away on the other. That’s why this seaside community was one of the places hit the hardest by Hurricane Sandy back in October 2012.

SYLVAN: In almost every way, you feel like nothing happened. It was like talking about something that happened to my parents or my grandparents. It was so far … even though it was only 18 months ago there. You had so many different things.

ROSE: But then when you walk down to the beach, you definitely don’t forget that it happened, because it totally looks different. (0:23)


At the beach, the boardwalk is still gone, washed away by a 14-foot storm surge that flooded almost all of the Rockaways.

The Kleins watched all that happen from their front window. They’d evacuated for Hurricane Irene a year before, and pretty much nothing happened. By the time it was clear just how powerful Sandy was, it was too late to go anywhere. The water had breached the seawalls at both Jamaica Bay and the ocean, which seemed to combine right outside the Klein’s split-level house.

ROSE: So they both met, and this must have been right where it met, right over here. And it just started getting higher and higher. And if you look across the street, at that lovely new door those people have, the water went halfway up that door. (0:16)

The things that were supposed to protect the Rockaways didn’t. Since the storm, the city and the Army Corps of Engineers have built a new seawall and erected new dunes along the waterfront. Even with these new barriers, people like the Kleins think there’s much more that needs to be done.

Policymakers and architects would agree, but most don’t think higher walls or bigger dunes are the answer. Sandy was a game-changer when it comes to how people think about building near the water.

CASSELL: On the one hand, it was a wake-up call, right? (0:02)

That’s Stephen Cassell. He’s a partner with the Manhattan-based Architecture Research Office, a firm that dedicates some of its time to exploring hypothetical projects. They were trying to solve a problem like Sandy years before Sandy actually hit.

CASSELL: This thing that’s a theoretical thing that might be years or hundreds of years from now? It happened now. And we have to start engaging this quickly and start rethinking the relationship between the city and the water. (0:11)

One project proposed building new wetlands and parks that would radiate off lower Manhattan like long, marshy wharves. It would sop up and slow down huge torrents of water that threaten waterfront areas.

CASSELL: A lot of the areas that were flooded during Sandy, if you looked back at the old maps, you’re going to see that’s exactly where the low-lying areas and the wetlands were. And it flooded right to where the original shape of the island was – it was completely predictable. (0:15)

That wetlands work proposed by Cassell’s firm got new attention after the storm. The plans were even put on display at the Museum of Modern Art. Now, a new architecture competition is seeking even more ambitious designs — and intends to fund their rollout.

Henk Ovink heads the federal government’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and is co-chair of a new architecture competition, Rebuild by Design.

OVINK: Design competitions you know sometimes end up in a museum with cool designs and models and drawings but nothing gets done. (0:11)

The 10 projects in the competition focus on ideas for the areas hit hard by Sandy, including New Jersey, Lower Manhattan, and the outer shores of Brooklyn and Queens.

OVINK: Implementation is actually within reach. Not only because there is federal dollars to help implement, but also because the process already created a rareness and acceptance that we have to do things differently if we want to be prepared for the future. (0:16)


One plan comes from a firm called the BIG Group, which has an office in Chelsea just a block from the Hudson River. It calls for a 10-mile park that would run along lower Manhattan from West 57th Street to East 42nd. It’s called the “Big U” and  project lead Jeremy Siegel says it protects the city from a storm — and makes it more livable when there isn’t one.

SIEGEL: That becomes something that people can use and that actually makes the condition along the waterfront something better than it is today. (0:06)

This project isn’t a seawall. Instead it’s a combination of parks, berms, and barriers that both protect us from and connect with the water that surrounds New York.

SIEGEL: It’s about making sure that these things that we put along the waterfront don’t block us from the waterfront, especially at a time that New York is really rediscovering its waterfront. (0:10)

The Big U would be built in segments, with an early phase happening along a section of the East River that saw particularly bad flooding after Sandy. Projects like this are going to take a long time to get the new kinds of projects done right.


And that’s cold comfort for people in places still recovering from Sandy in the Rockaways, who feel that, with Hurricane Season starting June 1st, this could all happen again.


ROSE: The thing that we realized was that we were on our own. When we had the emergency, when we had a disaster, Red Cross did not come, city never came, we were on our own. We depended on neighbors and the community groups to help us. (0:21)

To people like the Kleins, a big new infrastructure project doesn’t help if it isn’t in place before the next storm. Matt Collette, Columbia Radio News.


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