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Low-Lying East Harlem Dodged Sandy’s Worst But Neighborhood’s Still Not Ready for Next Storm

The moon helped spare some vulnerable coastal areas in 2012, and they’re still struggling to get attention and funding a decade later.

SHARE Low-Lying East Harlem Dodged Sandy’s Worst But Neighborhood’s Still Not Ready for Next Storm

The Harlem River is seen snaking north of 102nd Street next to the FDR Drive.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The timing, wind and tides around Superstorm Sandy left some coastal communities in New York devastated — while sparing others with a fraction of the damage that could have been.

On the stretch of water where the Long Island Sound and East River meet — adjacent to East Harlem, Hunts Point, Soundview and other areas — the storm’s effect was muted.

It was low tide there. Farther south, along the ocean-facing shores of Staten Island, the Rockaways and Brooklyn, Sandy hit at high tide.

“If the tide is low when a storm surge comes in, you have a lot more space where you’re used to water being before you start flooding dry land,” said Alison Branco, the climate adaption director at The Nature Conservancy in New York. “We saw much worse flooding in the southern parts of the city than we did up around the East River.”

Around New York City, tides can move the water level up or down anywhere from two and six feet, Branco said. Recent research from the Stevens Institute of Technology showed how a six-hour difference in Sandy’s landfall would have made flooding far worse in much of the city and especially in East Harlem, where hard rains alone can easily overwhelm the streets

The drains “just do not have the capacity” for a bad rainstorm, said Manhattan Community Board 11 chair Xavier Santiago, never mind a hurricane.

“We were built on a marsh and water. We had a river,”  he said, referring to the former Harlem Creek that ran along what is now East 106th Street. “We have to think intelligently about: How do we pump that water out? How do we prevent more from coming in?”

Community Board 11 President Xavier Santiago on the East Harlem esplanade.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In East Harlem, a 280-page resiliency report that cost $1 million to produce, as THE CITY previously reported, remains shelved and not fully released.

In it, experts envisioned the possible rebuilding of East 106th Street as a “green corridor” with a mid-road stream or ditch that would allow better stormwater drainage. The report described ways to make the neighborhood more porous to absorb rainwater, and recommended investigating pumping systems that could store stormwater in a “large storage tunnel,” according to an abridged version of the report shared with CB11 in April 2021.

The report also looked at a variety of scenarios for rebuilding the water’s edge, including decking over the FDR Drive to elevate parks and open space, or building a land barrier or wall.

But none of that has moved beyond the page.

The neighborhood has seen some resiliency projects move forward, including a $120 million project to build flood walls around Metropolitan Hospital on First Avenue, which had a groundbreaking this spring. The New York Public Housing Authority has also moved forward with flood mitigation at complexes damaged by Sandy in East Harlem, including the East River Houses, Clinton Houses, Isaacs-Holmes complex and Metro North Plaza. But there has been no comprehensive approach to protecting the entire area.

“We’re woefully unprepared,” Santiago said, adding that after Sandy, “there was an opportunity to really engage and assess infrastructure, flood resiliency, and look at it holistically.”

But since then, “there is a lack of engagement or an unwillingness to create meaningful partnership to correct many of the wrongs that our community has experienced,” he said, referring to both the previous mayoral administration and the current one.

When asked by THE CITY, the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice did not say whether the city would make the East Harlem resiliency report public. In a statement, a spokesperson for MOCEJ, Amy Sohn, said the agency “is proud to be collaborating with our city, state, and federal partners on several East Harlem resiliency projects such as the Metropolitan Hospital Flood Wall Resiliency Project, the expansion of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, and the Clinton Houses Stormwater Resiliency project to name a few.”

“In addition, we launched Climate Strong Communities (CSC) earlier this week, which will help create the next pipeline of resiliency projects in environmental justice communities that historically face deeper impacts as a result of climate change,” she added.

‘Think Broadly,’ Act Locally

To George Janes, an urban planner and zoning expert who consults with CB11, the lack of specific designs and projects means missing out on the key piece to creating meaningful protection: money.

“The problem with ​not having a plan, and not having any movement towards developing a plan, is that money — state and federal money for resiliency — well, it doesn’t find a home in East Harlem because there is no plan on which to spend it,” he said. “And you need to have a plan before you can actually get funding.”

The issue is not just a problem for Harlemites, said Fiona Cousins, chair of the Americas region at Arup, a global environmental consulting firm. In her line of work, she says that “you’re always planning for the last [previous] disaster.”

“Everybody thinks that the areas that were affected by Sandy are the areas that would be affected by another hurricane. But actually, it had very particular characteristics,” she said — a wind pattern that created a huge storm surge, and relatively small amount of rain.

That thinking has expanded a bit in 10 years as New Yorkers contend with more frequent extreme weather, especially since Hurricane Ida hit the city last year killing 13 people in basement apartments that flooded following a downpour of more than 7 inches of rain — a deadly record.

“I think what we’ve learned between the different storms is that there are many ways in which storms can impact New York City and, therefore, we need to think broadly,” Cousins said.

Branco of The Nature Conservancy has seen that “people are becoming more and more aware of all the various types of flooding that can impact New York,” including interior flooding — from rain events like Ida — and rising seas.

“Sea level rise pushes our groundwater up,” she said. “It’s impacting our infrastructure, our street drains. You get street flooding, yard flooding. And so we have to remember that we have those periodic events — like hurricanes and rainstorms — but then we also have the more chronic type of flooding.”

Waves of Progress

Certainly, New York has moved forward with some massive projects to protect the city since Sandy. In Lower Manhattan, construction of the East Side Coastal Resilience project — to put a flood wall between the sea and the Lower East Side — is ongoing. In the Rockaways, work is ongoing to fortify six miles of beach with newly reinforced dunes and other flood mitigation. And billions have been spent on rebuilding flooded subway tunnels, shoring up pumping systems and renovating storm-hit public facilities like hospitals and schools.

But much of the major work has moved forward in the areas where Sandy brought on the most damage. And even that work has been delayed.

As THE CITY previously reported, about a quarter of federal money earmarked for post-Sandy infrastructure upgrades and reconstruction has not been spent, according to a recent report from the city comptroller. That totals $4 billion in funds not yet used.

On the south shore of The Bronx — relatively unscathed during the 2012 storm — the city has spent just 6.3% of funding for a resiliency project in Hunts Point that would install battery storage and solar panels on two public schools.

At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the area’s development corporation has spent just 5.9% of $98 million earmarked by FEMA for post-Sandy work. Just 0.3% of funding for the “Raising Shorelines” program  — to raise frequently flooded roadways — has been spent, the report found, despite the city’s promise that those commitments will be complete in mid-2025.

In East Harlem, local leaders have seen just 71 pages of the resiliency report about their neighborhood, which were released a few weeks after THE CITY reported on the shelved document in early 2021. The rest remains under wraps, despite the community board’s request for the full version through the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

The sun shimmers on water where the East River meets the Harlem River.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Branco said it’s “not all that uncommon for communities to do some planning work and have it wind up on the shelf.”

“We see it over and over and over again, for a whole host of reasons,” she said.

But doing that work is an important first step. Pushing to get it implemented is a whole other battle.

“They just have to keep reminding everyone. Unfortunately, it’s a tremendously large city, and there are neighborhoods all over the place that need this kind of planning done,” she said. “They just need to keep reminding everyone that they’re there, and they’ve done a lot of work.”

Santiago from CB11 is ready to dive in.

“Let’s get into the meat and potatoes of it all,” he said. “From my point of view, even if it’s a draft, it’s tax dollars that were paid. We should have access to that information.”

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