Survivors of the 2012 storm remain haunted. As hurricanes continue to batter the US, many say plans to mitigate climate change have not gone far enough: ‘People need to open their eyes’
October 29, 2017 — Hurricane Sandy still assails the thoughts of Annie Willis, haunting her with its onrushing black water and the harrowing sound of shattering windows. The storm mauled a cherished home that Willis and her family are still unable to return to, five years since it ravaged New York City.
“I’d seen nothing like it in my life, the water was surging above the cars. It was like an out of body experience,” Willis, now a 20-year-old student, said. She lived with her mother, brother and dog in far Rockaway, part of a jawbone-like peninsula that juts out near JFK airport in Queens.
The stricken home was boarded up, with repairs still not done, as the family was shunted between hotels and relatives. “It’s incredibly frustrating,” Willis said. “I can’t believe it has been five years. It’s like no one was ready for what happened after the storm.”
The lingering anguish of Sandy is shared by several hundred others in New York and New Jersey who have been unable to return home since the storm hit. Their houses lie derelict or in an ossified state of repair, with residents plagued by a confusing tangle of bureaucracy, delays, contractor fraud and the fear that any rebuilding in vulnerable areas will be nullified by another storm.
A program called Build It Back was meant to have restored damaged New York City homes – such as the Willis’s – by the end of 2016, but one in five eligible people still haven’t had their dwellings repaired.
The city’s public housing is in a particularly parlous stasis – of the 33 apartment towers that required repair work on crippled heating and lighting systems, only one property has completed work. Protesters will march on Sandy’s fifth anniversary to highlight those still struggling with the storm’s aftermath.
“There have definitely been problems along the way, it hasn’t gone smoothly,” said Amy Peterson, the city-appointed head of Build it Back. Peterson predicts the final repairs will take place in 2018.
Around 300 homes were demolished and more than 1,400 homes have been elevated, by as much as 9ft, which has proved complex work in tightly-packed neighborhoods. “It hasn’t been easy, it’s been incredibly complicated,” Peterson said. “No one anticipated this level of damage.”
Unnervingly, as New York and New Jersey continue to mop up from Sandy, far stronger hurricanes have recently pummeled Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. Donald Trump’s administration has also taken an axe to measures that address climate change – which is known to amplify hurricanes – as well as tear up federal rules requiring adaption to sea level rise.
“It’s such ridiculous theater, it’s shameful,” said Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist who works on climate change adaptation at Columbia University. “New York has made some progress since Sandy but it’s hard to know if we will recover from the step backwards with the current administration. It will not cost this nation not only in billions, it will cost it trillions of dollars if we don’t turn things around.”
After forming as a tropical depression off the coast off Nicaragua, Sandy mustered enough strength to become a category 1 hurricane, triggering mudslides that killed more than 50 people in Haiti as it roiled the Caribbean. Sandy then turned north, heading parallel to the US east coast before crunching into New Jersey, near Atlantic City, on the evening of 29 October 2012.
By now the hurricane is no longer; Sandy becomes a tropical storm.
But it is still strong enough to obliterate parts of the Jersey shore and trigger a record storm surge in New York harbor. Bolstered by a high tide, around 14ft of water careens into the southern tip of Manhattan, flooding subway stations and the foundations of the under-construction 9/11 memorial. The electricity in the world’s financial powerhouse flickers and dies.
In parts of New York and New Jersey, power isn’t restored for several weeks. More than 100 people lose their lives, with economic damage of around $75bn.
Rachel Riveria was watching the progress of the storm on TV in her top floor apartment in Brooklyn when she heard a cracking noise. As she checked on her sleeping six-year-old daughter, Riveria witnessed the ceiling caving in on her, only narrowly escaping the room with the child in her arms. “My daughter was terrified, she still cries to this day when it rains,” Riveria, who is now 38-years-old. “They say time heals wounds but this 11-year-old is still hurting. She hasn’t healed.”
Barefoot, the duo fled into the storm and found their way to a shelter. They spent nearly two years being moved to various hotels by charities as Riveria’s landlord gave up on repairing the building.
Finally, stable accommodation was found for them but not in the same area of Brooklyn. Disaster still looms large – Riveria’s mother was rescued when Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in September, although her sister is still missing. A family friend was found crushed to death under a car. Back in New York, Riveria frets a storm will revisit her, too.
“People need to open their eyes,” she said. “Wherever there’s disaster, there needs to be help. The working class are the backbone of this country, we aren’t expendable. And we need to do something about climate change. All this drilling for fossil fuels, all those bad fumes. We need to change that.”
‘No fundamental change’
New York’s anti-flooding bulkheads have been strengthened, the subway system has a new mechanism to prevent inundation and new safeguards are in place to ensure the city’s lights stay on and the running water remains clean. Streets have been raised in some places and Rockaway’s five-mile boardwalk, left warped and crumpled by Sandy, has reopened.
A rezoning process has altered rules for buildings in vulnerable areas, such as the southern edge of Brooklyn, the east side of Staten Island and the East Village area of Manhattan. But no areas have been completely barred from development and hard decisions over the viability of increasingly soggy parts of the city have been largely deferred.
“If Sandy happened again this year I think New York would be operationally better prepared, people would follow evacuation orders better,” said Jacob.
“But the water would still go in the same places, streets and houses would be flooded, there would be havoc in the Rockaways and Coney Island. It’s still the same set up. There’s been fiddling around the margins but no fundamental change.”
The biggest lurch from the status quo has occurred in Staten Island, where residents in the low-lying east shore neighborhoods of Oakwood Beach, Graham Beach and Ocean Breeze have been offered money to sell up and leave. The $200m relocation, overseen by New York State, has seen 495 out of 659 eligible households take the voluntary buy-outs.
The area was ravaged by Sandy and several people perished. A lesser blow was struck a year before by Hurricane Irene. Still, Joe Tirone, a local real estate broker, said it was a surprise when he asked who was interested in buy-outs at a community meeting and was faced with a forest of raised hands. “Irene put these people back on their heels and Sandy was the knockout punch,” he said. “Sandy hit and it was like ‘boom, we are out.’”
The east shore of Staten Island is marshy land and most residents – many of them police and fire fighters – have multi-generational roots in the area. But the community-led effort to get buy-outs came after it dawned on householders that climate change would eventually outpace them. “I drove around after the storm, houses were gone and it was just swamp,” said Tirone, who advocated on behalf of the community. “The city was still issuing building permits and I just thought ‘how did these houses ever get built?’”
Jan Nuzzo, now a 37-year-old medical assistant, was recuperating at her Oakwood Beach house in Staten Island following the cesarean section delivery of her son, who arrived a month before Sandy struck. For five hours her house filled with water, forcing her to clamber atop furniture with her infant son and dog. At one point she had to change his diaper while lying him on a sofa that had just floated past. “I was waiting to either die or be rescued,” said Nuzzo.
The national guard reached Nuzzo at 2am and from that moment she vowed never to return. She got a buy-out, moving elsewhere in the borough, and now a vacant lot stands where her house once did.
Large chunks of the eastern part of Staten Island has been effectively handed back to nature – tall reeds sprout from empty plots of land, deer roam and opossums scurry around the houses that remain. A surge in turkey numbers prompted a cull.
“We all know the water is rising now,” Nuzzo said. “People absolutely should not have lived in the area we were. It’s a marsh. Everyone loves an ocean view, but it shouldn’t cost you your life. We just wanted to get out and get on with our lives.”
‘The storm is the easy part. Restoring your life is the challenge’
A recent survey of 500 New Jersey families affected by Sandy found one in five still have not returned home, with a third admitting it’s now a struggle to meet bills and afford food and fuel. A separate Monmouth University poll revealed than more than half of affected New Jersey residents are unhappy with the state’s recovery effort.
Tricia Campbell McAvoy, 67, has sunk her life savings into repairing her house in Brick, New Jersey, a town riven by waterways near the coast, about 60 miles south of New York City. Sandy brought 3ft of water into her house, forcing McAvoy and her son to flee in a truck and her husband to be rescued by kayak.
McAvoy planted a sign reading “looters will be shot and thrown into the river” outside her house and set about trying to make it habitable again. But a series of misfortunes, bureaucratic dawdling by local, state and federal officials and a botched elevation of the house by a rogue contractor mean she still lives with her 100-year-old father in his small, box-filled apartment. Her husband passed away shortly after the storm.
“The storm is the easy part – restoring your home and your life is the challenge,” she said, surveying the detritus inside a house that has been unhabitable since 2012. McAvoy has had two stokes, takes around a dozen pills a day and, like Willis, doesn’t like returning to her wrecked home. She shakes and weeps as she surveys it.
“Life was good before this,” she said. “I had a beautiful life, I had a husband. So many people around here have become sick and died because of the stress of this storm.”
Brick’s wealthier neighbor of the east, the town of Mantoloking, is attempting to make nature bend to its will. Sandy caused damage to almost every one of the 524 houses in the seaside town, perched on a narrow barrier island that has a bay on one side and the Atlantic on the other. Around 60 homes were utterly destroyed.
In order to get flood insurance and to avoid a similar fate, multi-million dollar homes have been elevated by up to 14ft. Visitors have to scan upwards to find vertiginous front doors. Diggers are working to mould sand dredged from the seabed into protective beach dunes that will reach 22ft. To the south, in Seaside Heights, a rollercoaster that was washed out into the sea by Sandy has a gleaming new replacement, also placed on a short pier overhanging the waves.
“We are at risk, there’s no doubt about it, but people hope they will lift their home and survive it, for now,” said Lance White, president of New Jersey’s Mantoloking council. “People here love the ocean, they love the beach. This is where they want to stay. But at some point we will be underwater.”
‘The threats are out there and growing’
Climate change’s hand in Sandy was identified in a 2013 study that found sea level rise, driven by the melting of glaciers and thermal expansion of a warming ocean, extended the reach of the storm by 27 sq miles, affecting 83,000 additional people.
Heavy blows like Sandy may soon become quotidian – research released this week by Rutgers University estimated that 8ft floods, which used to occur once every 500 years, will batter New York every five years within the next three decades.
Such scenarios are invoked by Bill de Blasio, New York’s mayor, in his push to cut the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and in his excoriation of Trump for aiming a “dagger straight at the heart of New York City” by pulling the US from the Paris climate agreement.
City Hall has thrown its weight behind a coastal defence system, nicknamed the big U, that would hug lower Manhattan in a 10-mile perimeter. Work on the $750m project is set to begin in early 2019 and will take several years to complete.
The big U is vying with other ideas such as a huge barrier that would stretch from New Jersey to the Rockaways and envelop New York harbor, closing it off during a storm. Ostensibly supported by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, the initiative would cost around $25bn.
Neither of these huge projects would be infallible. The big U would provide a buffer from storm surge but should New York suffer the sort of downpour experienced recently by Houston – when the Texan city was drenched in 25 trillion gallons of water during Hurricane Harvey – lower Manhattan would fill like a bathtub.
A barrier is more ambitious but the continual onslaught of sea level rise – New York City is likely to get a 1-2ft increase by mid century that could balloon to as much as 6ft by 2100 – means the barrier could spend more time closed than open, causing flooding behind it as water piles up from the East and Hudson rivers.
“When we are finished (with the big U) it would be absurd to say everything will be safe but we are reducing vulnerabilities,” said Daniel Zarrilli, New York City’s climate change and resilience chief.
“We know the threats are out there and growing. Things haven’t been perfect but we are moving as fast as we can. We will be at this the rest of our lives.”
At some point, New York may be forced into what Columbia’s Jacob diplomatically calls “sustainable relocation” – parts of the city are allowed to flood, creating a sort of Venice in places like lower Manhattan where bridges and boats connect skyscrapers.
“Let Canal Street be a canal, let Water Street be water,” Jacob said. “People may feel temporarily safe behind the big U but it’s like declaring war and then not having a strategy on how to extract yourself from that war. It’s a purely defensive strategy.
“We should move critical assets such as hospitals and schools to higher ground and reduce density at lower ground. With the storms and flooding, some corporations will start to think about it. We will probably make it to mid century but beyond that – it’s all up for grabs.”