For Staten Island, a different kind of wall

A crucial seawall is coming to Staten Island. 
A crucial seawall is coming to Staten Island.  Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Here’s a wall that actually may get built. 

City, state, and federal officials celebrated on Tuesday an agreement that secures funding for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seawall project on Staten Island.

An approximately 5-mile system of berms, levees and walls ranging from 16 feet to 22.5 feet high (as per Army Corps documents), the structure will protect some of the neighborhoods on the island’s eastern shore exposed to the open Atlantic and pummeled by superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Plenty of attention has been paid to President Donald Trump’s steel slats, fencing, or concrete on the U.S.-Mexico border, but the Staten Island project would likely be more relevant to New Yorkers in the coming years. It would be one of the first major resiliency steps dealing with severe storms and climate change to move forward in NYC. 

There has been talk of protecting Staten Island’s shores for decades, dating at least to storms in the 1950s. After a 1992 nor’easter, an artificial dune system at Oakwood Beach was breached and left low-lying areas with 5 feet of water, according to an Army Corps report.

Then there was superstorm Sandy, “the most devastating coastal storm event on record to impact the south shore of Staten Island,” an area the Army Corps had already been studying. A city report determined that about half of NYC’s Sandy-related deaths occurred on Staten Island. 

The new wall system from Fort Wadsworth to Great Kills is slated to cost more than $600 million in federal, state and city funds, with work starting in 2020 to be concluded in about four years.

Benefits include diverting water for seaside neighborhoods, in a climate change era when extreme weather events could become more and more common.

Also, the new protections are expected to lead to a decrease in flood insurance premiums, according to Staten Island Rep. Max Rose’s office. That’s a real pocketbook concern for residents.

But what will the wall look like? At a news conference about state funding for the wall in 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo joked that a wall’s a simple wall as far as the military is concerned. 

“They’re in the Army, they’re very specific those people,” he riffed.

But beyond the rebar basics, he said this particular seawall would be topped with a picturesque promenade for walking and biking next to the beach – which might help distract from the local grumbles about water sight lines being lost and other inevitable wariness as this long-awaited project nears shovels. 

Cuomo suggested the promenade could even be an attraction for the borough and city, pointing out that it will be longer than Manhattan’s tourist-swamped High Line.

Unclear whether Staten Islanders are exactly looking for that kind of visitation. But keeping the water at bay might be a different story.

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