NYC Waterfront Recovery and Staten Island

A piece I wrote for work - found here - which I thought would be good to share around, still. I was back on Staten Island this Saturday. Inspiring, grim, and surprising, all at once.


Citywide Waterfront Recovery - Staten Island Still Matters
Photo by T L Miles

Like many this past weekend, I left the comfort of my own home – with its restored power and heat, and my thankfully untouched belongings – and traveled to Staten Island, to begin the slow, dirty job of cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy. The work to be done there is unpleasant and at times depressing. The people, however, are warm, welcoming and endlessly inspiring. It’s not often that Americans living on the affluent East Coast – especially near New York City – find themselves faced with the destruction of their lifetime possessions. This, though, is the reality for thousands in the wake of the “storm of the century.”

More than two weeks after Superstorm Sandy brought devastation to much of the East Coast, the recovery is well underway – but the final cost and impact of the storm is only just becoming clear. The latest figures related to loss of property, revenue, life, and government cleanup, suggest a figure between $83 and $87 billion. The final cost, in the years to come, may well surpass $100 billion. How does the local and state economy recover from such a hit? And what is the future of the affected waterfront areas?


The cost of the September 11th World Trade Center Attacks ($83 billion, according to The Partnership for New York City) and how the city has recovered from that tragedy offer some insight into the resolve of New Yorkers and the NYC economy’s ability to recover. Though the effects of the storm will be felt in the city over the coming months and years, stability and financial recovery are guaranteed. However, the issue of physical recovery  is more complicated. The site of the Freedom Tower was flooded by Sandy making it worth noting that even more than a decade after the Twin Towers fell, rebuilding has not yet finished. Cleanup and rebuilding take time.

New York City’s waterfront has only two viable options: abandonment, or a sustained, long-term commitment to rebuilding, fortifying, and investing. Of these, only the latter is truly a possibility.

That NYC’s 520 miles of waterfront are some of the most attractive development sites in an already crowded city and have attracted attention of developers and investors adds an extra urgency and tragedy to its current state. After this disaster, will the waterfront still become a place where people want to work, live, and invest?

The full scale of the damage to much of the New York City shore is yet to become apparent. Beyond the obvious physical destruction – the houses, cars, businesses and lives – already covered by the media, the ongoing recovery efforts are facing increasingly insurmountable difficulties. Delicate electrical systems in basements and subway stations are easily damaged by salt water – we now can see how probable such a situation is as the water from Superstorm Sandy so successfully flooded such large areas of the city. The contamination from sewage, chemical-tainted waters, and mold, along with the overwhelming amount of debris still to be cleared, has rendered many areas uninhabitable, and the damage to essential infrastructure is yet to be fully understood.

The economic toll of Sandy is complicated to define. The loss of power to downtown Manhattan forced many businesses to close, relocate, or simply improvise for days. For certain areas of flooded downtown, the wait may extend to weeks. At the same time, New York City has recovered before, and the nature of the startup and entrepreneur industries – defined by their flexibility and energy – means that for many, working from home will do little to damage output. The influx of donations and government aid, and the simple fact that in a city of such limited space, rebuilding is a necessity, will no doubt result in an invigorated waterfront, complete – one hopes – with an infrastructure and flood defenses capable of withstanding any repeat of Superstorm Sandy.


Still, it may be too soon to look to the future and hope. The day to day reality for thousands is one of grim work and uncertain prospects. Staten Island, especially, has been hit hard by the storm, and the understandable habit of economists to focus on Manhattan must give way to pragmatism and a city-wide focus on recovery. Staten Island has sometimes been called "the forgotten borough" he recent controversy over the ING New York Marathon divided SI from Manhattan like never before, and Mayor Bloomberg’s final decision may well have prevented full scale riots in the borough.

For the last two weekends I have visited Staten Island alongside thousands of other volunteers to work with those who have lost their homes and begin the cleanup operation. It is not hyperbole to say that many have lost everything. Houses still standing may nevertheless be destroyed, the contents lost to the flood waters, and the buildings condemned by the Department of Buildings. It is not only basements that were underwater. In Oakwood and New Dorp Beach, blocks of houses have been left uninhabitable and full of the broken and still sodden belongings of the families who once lived there. The real needs of those on Staten Island have not been fixed by returning power to Manhattan. Investment in waterfront development for business and investor use must go hand in hand with a firm commitment to restore normalcy to these communities. Staten Island is New York City, and the genuine anger felt by some there towards the marathon, and the perceived resource drain, is understandable once you’ve witnessed and comprehended just how much they have lost. Far from a “them and us” mentality being allowed to develop, however, the city must unite, focus on its citizens, and then look to the future.

Crain’s New York Business on Tuesday suggested that plans for the waterfront’s future must include traffic congestion control, telecom protection, and a willingness to move certain essential features out of nature’s way. Superstorm Sandy has, perhaps, given NYC one gift: an awareness of the dangers of its current situation, and a focus, driven by real grief and renewed vigor, on what needs to be done to ensure Staten Island, and the entire city, is saved from similar future calamity.

For now, though, every day, every weekend, and every evening, we will see volunteers – often from out of state, sometimes from out of country – slowly but surely help put back together the lives that the storm tore apart.

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