Red Hook coast
The Red Hook Grain Terminal in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

A rising economic tide has lifted New York City’s Red Hook neighborhood in the seven years since floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy brought the area to its knees. But climate change is lifting the sea level too, and residents are worried about the growing frequency of flooding that increasingly comes at high tide.

In late 2018, the end of Van Brunt Street, the Brooklyn neighborhood’s main drag, flooded during an average nor’easter event.

“This used not to happen in the past,” said Gita Nandan, an architect and an organizer for a local advocacy group named Resilient Red Hook who has lived on the street for two decades.

And it is expected to get worse. Scientists predict that with future warming Red Hook’s piers will be submerged under a normal high tide by the late 2020s, Van Brunt Street will flood almost daily by 2080, and by 2100, many parts of the neighborhood will be subjected to twice-daily deluges.

Red Hook’s experience could be repeated in communities nationwide. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that 15 million people live in areas at risk of flooding. A recent study suggests the number could be nearly three times higher.

Ray Toll, the former director of coastal resilience research at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, urges governments and coastal communities everywhere to work together to improve resiliency. “Sea-level rise coupled with more intense storms will only increase the likelihood for flooding,” he said.

Seeking protection after the storm

During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, storm surge pushed the East River over bulkheads, along the shore and into streets, parks and basements, flooding homes and businesses in Red Hook with more than 10 feet of water.

“I’d seen nothing like that in my life. Water was everywhere,” recalled Susan Povich, a longtime resident whose restaurant was inundated. “It looked like a war zone.”

But Red Hook is back, and it’s booming. Many of the stricken houses have been repaired and improved. Businesses destroyed by floods have been rebuilt, and new ones have popped up. And new residents are coming in, fostering growth in home sales and rental markets as well as a spate of new developments.

The growth is making residents and local officials all the more anxious to get going with the permanent $100 million flood protection measures the city planned for the neighborhood to ward off future storms. The measures – which include building two below-street-level floodwalls alongside a reinforced bulkhead and additional regraded blacktop along the neighborhood’s southern end – were due to be completed by 2021. But cuts by the Trump administration have cast doubt that federal funding will arrive in time for that target date. Even if measures are completed, many worry they will only provide partial protection to the community.

City authorities initially said that the initiative would be enough to protect the neighborhood from a 100-year flood event – Sandy was two to three times worse. But then officials pared back its estimate, saying the measure would actually reduce flood risk from a 10-year storm. That upset residents.

“It’s utterly inadequate,” said Karen Blondel, a resident and an organizer for the nonprofit Fifth Avenue Committee, who said the organization will continue to call for 100-year protection.

“The point is not to have just some protection in place, but to have something protecting the community in the long term,” she said.

Still vulnerable seven years later

Experts say Red Hook remains almost as vulnerable as it was back in 2012 and likely would flood again in another major storm, which due to climate change and more powerful hurricanes could happen sooner rather than later .

At the Red Hook Houses, a public housing development where more than half the neighborhood’s inhabitants live, Sandy-related repairs are underway. The New York City Housing Authority is spending $550 million to upgrade mechanical equipment, move apartments out of the flood plain and improve the resilience of the power system.

In the wake of Sandy, several ideas to flood-proof the area were floated, including deployable elements such as folding barriers and sliding gates to hold back the sea. But so far, the city has built just a single, four-foot-tall interim barrier consisting of inflatable tubes and sand-filled HESCO barriers – containers made with collapsible wire mesh and heavy-duty fabric liner.

Phil Ortiz, assistant director for external affairs with the Office of Recovery and Resiliency, said the measure is intended to protect Beard Street, one of Red Hook’s low points, from a surge like the one caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011, the year before Sandy.

Ortiz said he is confident the neighborhood will get better protections “as more funds become available in the future.”

As Red Hook waits for funding, rising seas are bringing more floods. Waters around New York have already risen at least by a foot over the past century. The city estimates that New York could face an increase of eight to 30 inches by the 2050s and as much as 15 to 75 inches by the end of the century. Citywide, 400,000 residents live in the 100-year floodplain.

“Because of sea-level rise, it will only take a weaker storm in the future to produce the same water level, as the water is starting from a higher place to begin with,” said Adam H. Sobel, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University.

Two recent studies suggest that mostly as a result of sea-level rise, chances of flooding on a par with that resulting from Hurricane Sandy are increasing.

Allison Reeves, an architect whose office faces Red Hook’s waterfront, noted the pier and the nearby Valentino park already flood regularly during the monthly high tides.

“We still don’t know how much the sea level will rise,” Reeves said. “But it will, and without coastal protections it won’t take much for the ocean to retake Red Hook.”

Residents take action to prepare for what lies ahead

As most of Red Hook remains unprotected, residents are getting ready for the future. Owners are raising vital components of buildings and mechanical systems above ground level. Others are installing drainage systems and equipping themselves with pumps, generators, emergency kits, and back-up lights.

Red Hook recently wrote its own community recovery and disaster response plan to be put into action in the 72 hours after a major storm strikes – the critical window of time before formal government assistance arrives.

Local organizations are also focusing on increasing public awareness and post-storm readiness, training people in the area to address emergencies such as heat loss and first aid and offering free courses on matters such as climate change and individual and collective resilience.

“We’re now for sure better prepared in a number of ways,” said Nandan, the architect, who added that several other resiliency initiatives are in the works within the community.

She acknowledged there’s still plenty of work to be done before Red Hook will be ready for another major storm. But Blondel of the Fifth Avenue Committee said the neighborhood is headed in the right direction.

“We are survivors and thrivers,” Blondel said. “So while we are anxious and concerned, we will continue to fight to save Red Hook until the ocean forces us to retreat.”

Marcello Rossi is a science and freelance writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Smithsonian, Reuters, Quartz, and Outside, among other publications.

Topics: Oceans