Twenty years before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the slim spit of land that is New York City’s Rockaways, local artist Richard George was out planting trees. He was in his 40s then, and had shifted his home a few years earlier from Corona, Queens, to a 1920s bungalow colony in the Far Rockaways, abutting the Atlantic Ocean. He didn’t know anything about trees, had never given a thought to dune ecology or sea surges, but he’d joined the board of the local Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association, and a friend gave them $15,000. The directive was to plant trees, so that’s what he did.
“He planted the money in my hand,” George recalls when I meet him at his cottage, a bright white bungalow with turquoise trim that matches his T-shirt. “I said, ‘Where am I gonna plant trees?’ ” Then the artist saw the wide expanse of beach down the street, like a blank canvas in waiting.
George is convivial, a man who enjoys talking, which he’s doing at a rapid pace in a heavy New York accent as we head from the cottage toward the beach. It’s a clear spring day, making it hard to imagine the devastation that Sandy wrought when she landed on the shores of New York City, generating a 14-foot storm surge that dumped the Atlantic Ocean into thousands of homes, decommissioned trains, caused a Con Edison power station to explode, plummeted tracts of the city into darkness and others into fire, and took 43 lives. The storm cost an estimated $19 billion in damage and an unquantifiable amount of grief.
The street ends in a ramp that leads to an elevated boardwalk, rising a dozen feet above street level. In 1992, George tells me, you could walk right under the boardwalk with room to spare. Now, as we walk up the ramp to get to the length of the boardwalk, which was untouched by Sandy, we are surrounded on both sides by a dune so high that it’s packed against the bottom of the boards. It’s thick with plants, a seaside forest filled with bayberry, beach plum, autumn olive, wild rose, and Japanese black pine 15 feet tall. The first fiery hints of poison ivy inch out of the sand at toe level. This beach forest is what is considered a secondary dune; on the other side of the boardwalk, waves of beach grass cover the primary dune before sand takes over. The water appears so innocent, softly lapping onto the beach, sparkling in the sun.
“At first, we just planted tiny little beach grass,” George tells me. He gathered up 35 volunteers, and they spent a couple of weekends planting the starts. “One blade, one blade, one blade,” he explains, his fingers poking into the air. Later, they planted trees.
In 1994, they got another $15,000 and planted more. This time they rented a machine to dig the holes, and a neighbor cooked the volunteers lunch. Once the plants became established—NYC Parks GreenThumb, which supports the city’s network of community gardens, helped keep them watered through that first vulnerable summer—residents and beach bums could sit back and watch the sand grow. And grow.
“The beach grass grew by itself,” he says, as he bends to show me the thick, matted root system, exposed at the edge where Sandy’s storm surge gnawed away half of the primary dune. He’d been standing in this very spot just five hours before the surge hit. The double-dune system that stretches for a few blocks on either side of George’s street seemed to help fend off Sandy’s deluge: The water breached on Beach 27th Street, where the dunes stop.
“The dunes were twice as high before the storm,” he says, looking at the remains of the sacrificial sands. “It saved us.”
* * *
Once upon a time, about 2 million years ago, the Pleistocene era locked up the world’s water in glaciers miles thick. Then, it warmed. It was about 10,000 years ago when the water of the melting glaciers was released to reshape the world into the coastlines we now associate with modern-day maps.
By all indications, though, the shape of those coastlines is about to change.
The archipelago of New York City’s five boroughs has almost 600 miles of littoral zone between solid ground and watery sea, a place of straits and river mouths, bays and beachy backshores. It’s also a place whose contours have been radically transformed by its citizens. A large percentage of the city’s edges were created artificially, filled in and built upon with the false confidence that land taken from the sea is permanently allocated for terrestrial use. But on Oct. 29, 2012, the record-breaking storm surge that swept over New York City flooded 51 square miles of that falsely allocated land—and like a finger from a watery grave, the high-water mark traced the coastline that once was and may soon be again. The mayor’s office says that, by the 2050s, 800,000 New Yorkers will live in hundred-year flood plains, double the current number.
In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), a multidisciplinary group comprised of academic and private-sector experts on everything from climatology to oceanography to law and insurance risk. Their task was to assess how climate change might affect the city and make suggestions about how to mitigate those effects. Sea levels vary around the globe, and models still vary wildly, but the NPCC settled on 48 inches—the average height of a 7-year-old child—as the informal figure for estimated sea level rise in the New York City area by the 2080s. They readily admit that this number is subject to change, especially if the polar ice sheets get caught in a feedback loop that speeds up the process.
Given the huge number of people who live on the world’s coasts, how will human populations—whether in Brooklyn or Bangladesh, Miami or Mumbai—adapt to an increasingly aquatic world? Do we stand strong and demonstrate our clever technical ingenuity with multibillion-dollar floodgates and waterproof buildings? Or do we humbly bid a hasty retreat, scrambling for higher ground while there’s still time, waving a white flag to Mother Nature?
It seems increasingly clear that there may be a third way: an approach that blends a trace of conciliation with an abundance of creativity, using hints from the ecological past to design the coastlines of the future—and it could be the key to surviving in coastal communities in an age of rising seas. The way forward will require an unlikely collaboration, not just between public institutions and citizens, but also between humans and the one player too often left outside, literally and figuratively: nature herself.
* * *
When it comes to prospects for human life within the increasing reach of the ocean, design answers fall into two categories, the soft and the hard, the yin and the yang. Dunes, wetlands, and oyster reefs fall on the soft side; hard is the stuff I know from my childhood on the Jersey Shore: tar-smeared bulkheads and jetties jutting out at perpendicular angles in an effort to staunch the natural movement of sand. A floodgate is as hard as it gets.
Speculation about the construction of a great surge barrier surfaced soon after Sandy. The largest proposed gate would run parallel to the expansive Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, nearly a mile long. Outright critics spoke of engineering cockiness, ethical and legal conundrums, disrupted harbor ecosystems, and a false sense of security. More cautious skeptics noted that comparisons with countries that do employ floodgates, like the Netherlands, fall short when one considers that the eastern United States routinely weathers storms the Dutch can’t imagine in their mild climate.