Brooklyn's Red Hook Is Washed Out. Its Future? Even Wetter
A day after the winds of Hurricane Sandy died down, I cycled down to Brooklyn’s soggy waterfront to sort out the winners and losers that any natural disaster leaves behind.
The Red Hook neighborhood smelled like oil; everywhere, gas-powered generators running electric sump pumps roared. Greasy hoses spurted murky water onto cobblestone streets, and vast piles of storm-wracked household chattel -- clothing, furniture, electronics -- lined the sidewalks, ready for disposal. A high-end grocery store was tossing its entire contents -- everything from produce to packaged foods, toilet paper to garbage bags. Everything that was once inside the market, which had been filled nearly to the ceiling with seawater, would soon be buried in a landfill. (Unless it was metal, that is: that had some scrap value.) The store wouldn’t reopen, an employee told me, for two months.
Across the street, front-end loaders were digging out nineteenth-century brick warehouses and loading dumpsters. Behind the warehouses, the storm surge had lifted a dock ten feet up on its pylons, then left it there, suspended. Another dock had been similarly elevated, then tilted 90 degrees like a mussel-covered Mobius strip. Outside an artist’s studio, vast quantities of red paint were staining the harbor red. The dabbling mallards didn’t seem to mind. (What was it with Red Hook and red dyes? Two summers ago, neighborhood bees began producing red honey after getting into the local maraschino cherry factory’s waste barrels.)
Residents of Red Hook, which was declared a mandatory evacuation zone, are dealing with enormous property losses. The environment suffered as well: wastewater treatment plants continue to spew raw sewage, and wrecked boats and swamped cars are leaking fuel, into urban waterways. But Sandy produced some winners, too: anyone with a generator to rent, laborers willing to man the hoses, scrap metal dealers, glaziers, carpenters, mold abatement companies, ecological restorationists, and designers promoting a greener, more resilient future. Landfills far and wide would clean up, too: they charge by the ton to tip. As soon as electricity was restored to the neighborhood Ikea, residents would start to replace all the worldly goods they’d just thrown out. The entire consumption-and-waste cycle was on steroids.
What’s next for Red Hook, a sparsely populated low-income neighborhood that has only recently started to gentrify, with artists, entrepreneurs, and homesteaders moving into brick buildings along a westward-facing sweep of waterfront? Did it make sense to rebuild homes and businesses less than a foot above sea level?
For years, Klaus Jacobs, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has been warning New Yorkers about the inevitability of sea-level rise and the prudence of retreat to higher ground. He’s warned the mayor of the vulnerability of the city’s subway system (“the city’s most important piece of infrastructure” -- what, not its drinking water system?), and suggested that $9 billion in retrofits would protect it. Needless to say, the city hasn't spent that kind of money, and now it’s paying the price. Some time ago, Jacobs himself spent $10,000 to elevate his house, which sits along the Hudson River. The investment paid off last summer when Hurricane Irene blasted upstate: his house survived largely intact while his near neighbors suffered $30,000 in damage.
Jacobs sees an urban future of high rises on high ground and more waterfront parks -- green belts to soften storm surges. We need to prepare all our buildings and our streets for sea level rise and for surges, he told an audience at a waterfront conference last May, placing critical infrastructure -- like generators -- on top of buildings or sealing it below ground. “If we don’t listen to the scientists and adapt, we’ll be teaching our children -- in underwater classrooms -- about climate change,” he said. “If we don’t do more public education, then Mother Nature -- or her modified form -- will. I’d prefer the classroom to a wall of water.”
Pedaling around Red Hook, I had a feeling that residents in flooded areas around the city might agree. Now all they needed was a national agenda to make it so.
Image: Sunset Parkerpix