Two days after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, Barbara Garofalo, a lifelong Sea Gate resident, stood in front of the community’s chapel, which had been turned into a makeshift headquarters for emergency personnel.
She watched bulldozers work their way through the ruins of the neighborhood’s private beach club, surveying the piles of rubble and twisted metal and the uprooted cabanas that littered the streets after the storm sent waves crashing through the neighborhood’s beachfront homes, ripping several off their foundations. Eyeing the damage, Ms. Garofalo couldn’t help but wonder whether some of the houses could have been saved if a planned government project to reinforce the community’s beaches had started sooner.
“They have the money in process, but they haven’t started it yet,” said Ms. Garofalo. “Maybe we would have had water damage, but maybe would have—could have saved the homes. Every home on the beach is gone. It breaks my heart.”
For at least two decades, there has been an effort to reinforce Sea Gate’s beach with a multimillion-dollar array of what is known in the parlance of coastal engineers as “heavy armoring”: walls, jetties and rock barriers known as “t-groins” built to stop and absorb energy from waves before they batter the shore.
In April, after a long series of delays due to bureaucratic and political factors, more than $26 million in federal, city and state funds was finally secured to install a storm protection system in Sea Gate. Construction was slated to begin late this year, but it clearly wasn’t fast enough to fight the hurricane.
Even if the storm protection planned for Sea Gate had been in place before the waves crashed through the neighborhood last month, it probably wouldn’t have been sufficient to withstand a storm of Sandy’s magnitude. But with growing acknowledgment that climate change is leading to fiercer weather patterns, the decades-long saga to shore up Sea Gate is a dramatic illustration of how potentially lifesaving civil engineering measures are being outpaced by the forces of nature.
Congressman Jerrold Nadler was elected in 1992 to represent a seat that includes parts of Manhattan as well as Sea Gate and Coney Island on the southwestern tip of Brooklyn. Less than two weeks after he arrived in Washington for Congress’s freshman orientation, Sea Gate was hit hard by a nor’easter, and Mr. Nadler received a call from an aide who said, “Congressman, I think you better get back, your district is being washed to sea.”
Since then, Mr. Nadler has been heavily involved in the push to install t-groins and other storm armoring in the area. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he hopes construction will begin “without further delay” on the storm protection barriers for Sea Gate.
“Shorefront protection must be our priority, now more than ever, on New York’s coastline. We don’t know when the next major storm will arrive, but we do know that it will come. T-groins are a common-sense measure for Coney Island and Sea Gate—one that we have already fully funded—and we need to construct them without further delay,” he said. “I hope the U.S. Army Corps will act with urgency to correct the mistake that left the Sea Gate community without beachfront protection.”
Developed as a private beach community in the late 19th century, Sea Gate sits on the western tip of Coney Island behind gates patrolled by the community’s private police force. Residents divide the world into two parts, “in the gate” and “out of the gate.” Inside, there are quiet streets and beachfront homes with ornate balconies and living rooms that open onto the beach. Outside, the boardwalk and amusement park rides became surrounded by housing projects as Coney Island slipped into decline in the latter half of the last century.
The push to protect both areas from storms began as far back as 1969, when the government became aware of the beach erosion that was eating away at the Coney Island shoreline.
Three years later, the Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a $27.5 million plan to secure the area, a project that included a 15-foot seawall that would have extended from Manhattan Beach to Sea Gate, causing an uproar among locals who did not want their cherished beach views obstructed.
Local leadership instead backed a plan to extend the beach 250 feet beyond its original boundaries. This created another obstacle to the storm protection plan; at the time, federal guidelines mandated that any project to extend beaches must be funded locally rather than with federal money.
Sea Gate residents turned to the feds. In 1986, Congress authorized extending the Coney Island beaches under something called the Water Resources Development Act, with the project’s approval hinging on the increased recreational use that wider beaches would afford.
But that same year, in an instance of could-not-be-worse timing, President Ronald Reagan began an effort to cut the Army Corps of Engineers’ budgets and increase the amount of local funds used on projects relative to federal monies. This push deprioritized projects approved for their recreational benefits, and the Coney Island plan was scrapped.
So it was back to square one for Brooklyn’s oceanfront dwellers; the Army Corps of Engineers came up with another shore-protection plan, this one based on protecting the government’s investments in Coney Island’s many units of public housing.
Three years later, with the support of Mr. Nadler and other local leaders, construction on the Coney Island beach replenishment and storm protection project finally began. However, once the project was complete, it proved to have an entirely unexpected negative side effect: even more beach erosion for Sea Gate.
The changed contours of the shoreline shifted the surrounding waters, depleting sand from one of the beaches in Sea Gate and actually leaving the area even more vulnerable to storms.
Because of this, in 1996, the Army Corps of Engineers took interim steps to, quite literally, shore up the area and began researching a long-term solution. A plan to install t-groins was finally devised between 1998 and 2000, but, due to tight federal and local budgets, finding funding took more than a decade.
By 2010, Congressman Nadler had secured $18.9 million in federal funds for heavy storm armoring in Sea Gate. In April of this year, the city and state allocated another $7.3 million for the project. As all of the money fell into place, the Army Corps of Engineers began seeking contractors for the project in the hope that they would be able to begin construction late this year. Then Hurricane Sandy arrived, ahead of the project’s schedule.
After the storm, the project’s fate remains unclear. The Observer spent several days calling the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the project, but as of this writing, they have not responded to our requests for comment on this story.
Though the hurricane has led to federal emergency designations and increased awareness of the neighborhood’s plight, which might help expedite construction, it has also brought raised awareness that the New York area is in for increasingly powerful storms, for which the planned t-groins are no match.
As she stood among the wreckage, Ms. Garofalo wondered which would come first: adequate protections for Sea Gate or another Sandy.
“The homeowners can’t do it their own anymore,” she said. “The next time we get a bad storm, or even just high tide, the water is coming right over again. We have nothing to protect us.”