How will Roosevelt Island be protected against the next 100-year storm?
That was the subject of a meeting Tuesday evening, last week, between members of the RIOC Board and New York City representatives, and it barely dented the surface of a 100-year problem.
Executives from various City agencies face the question of how to protect Coler Hospital, the long-term chronic care facility at the north end of the Island. It was hit hard during Hurricane Sandy (October 2012), losing power and suffering serious flooding that affected infrastructure located in the structure’s basement. But New York City only “owns” the facility’s footprint plus a mere five feet out from its outer walls. The rest is leased to New York State and is under State control (the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, or RIOC).
The NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, the NYC Economic Development Corporation, and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency would prefer not to erect a high wall in that five-foot perimeter. It would box the building in, look more than slightly ridiculous, and would require complex openings for truck deliveries, the comings and goings of people, and would probably be a mistaken use of money available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG).
Because the lease between New York City and New York State gives the state control over most of the Island, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation must be involved in whatever flood mitigation measures are implemented by the City.
Setting aside the possibility of the wall close by Coler’s outer shell, there appear to be two other possibilities: Raising the Island at the seawall surrounding Coler to create a kind of levee that would lift the promenade several feet higher than its present height. That’s one. The other is creation of a berm – essentially a pile of fortified earth that would hold back the water – somewhere in the space between the hospital and the seawall.
There will probably be $60-80 million involved.
There’s no time limit on the available FEMA money, but there is a limit on the CDBG money. That means a specification has to be developed in the next two years. The City hopes RIOC will cooperate. The RIOC Board faces the question of what to do for the rest of the Island, except for the Cornell property, for which plans have already been made by Cornell.
In effect, much of the Island needs to be shored up in preparation for the next “one percent” storm – a designation that means that, in any given year, there’s a one percent chance of a Big One. (There are also 500-year storms, but nobody’s facing that possibility just yet.) Nobody should be fooled by the notion that 100 years should now pass before the next Sandy. No. Every year, there’s a one percent chance, and it could happen this year or next, or in five years – after which the City hopes protection will be in place – RIOC permitting.
The challenge for RIOC, since it controls the land beyond five feet from Coler walls, is to figure out just what should be done around and near the Coler property, but also to make some decisions about the rest of the Island, for which it remains responsible until 2068, when the City-to-State lease ends and the whole Island once again becomes the City’s responsibility.
Joe Musso of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which was created by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014, says Roosevelt Island is not as vulnerable to flooding as many other areas of the City, particularly those “facing” the ocean. But given the damage to Coler during Sandy, something must be done to protect it. On Tuesday night, Musso showed some renderings of designs for the Coler area that might be considered by RIOC, and he expressed an eagerness, on behalf of the other City agencies involved, to work with RIOC within the limits of the rules on use of the FEMA money, which are fairly loose, “as long as the facility is protected.” A representative of the Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) said, “We don’t think building a wall is a good solution... We want to work with RIOC to elevate the shoreline in a respectful, therapeutic way” – meaning one that preserves a kind of “country living” circumstance for Coler’s residents.
RIOC President Charlene Indelicato observed, “There’s no question that there’s a lot of questions,” as discussions ranged over what might be done for the rest of the Island (no specific suggestions so far, but a realization that something must be done). “There are programming options when you go out to the edge,” said another representative brought to the meeting by the City, “or you could explore something in the middle” – meaning the idea of a berm somewhere between the hospital and the seawall. Another said, “Before bringing a designer aboard, we need to know where we’re going,” again a comment indicating that the City is quite willing to work with RIOC for the best solution for both Coler and the rest of the Island.
A possible timeline for the project would have the new protections in place in four to five years. Meantime, steps have been taken at Coler to protect electrical infrastructure and building facilities positioned below the surface of the surrounding land.
In the end, one City administrator said, “All the City wants is RIOC to OK use of the land.”