Tuesday, June 02, 2009

What Would Happen To The Polluted Gowanus Canal In Case Of A Hurricane?

From the Office Of Emergency Management





From City Hurricane Preparedness Web Site:
In Case Of Hurricane, Cross The Gowanus Canal To Get To Nearest Evacuation Center

Waves striking a seawall, 1938
(NWS Historic Collection)

So, yesterday was the beginning of the 2009 hurricane season. Which got me thinking... 
Hurricanes are rare in New York City, but they do occur. Over the last decade, storms have become stronger, more unpredictable and more frequent. If a Category 3 hurricane were to hit the metropolitan area, it would be a disaster. There is no way to evacuate all inhabitants. 

Scientists Cynthia Rosenzweig and Vivien Gornitz, part of a team at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and New York's Columbia University determined that "rising sea levels combined with the storm surge of a category three hurricane would leave much of a 2050s New York underwater and the city's entire metropolitan transportation system shut down.

Obviously, New York City is taking this seriously. A while back, the Office of Emergency Management sent out a brochure to every household in the city, indicating flood zones, evacuation routes and detailing steps to take in the event of a hurricane. 

Why am I bringing this up? Well, after looking at the city flood map, I am more than uneasy about what would happen to the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal in case of a hurricane. 
Because flooding, which already occurs regularly in the area, may be the least of our problems. 
You see, the toxic sludge at the bottom of the Gowanus would be churned around in the waters of the canal and would be dumped on land. Which, well, would be an incredibly dangerous situation. Even without storm, "there is a constant flux of movement between the water and the sediment" Walter Mugden of the EPA mentioned at a meeting last week. So imagine that same body of water during a category three hurricane. 
As a dear friend always says, that would be "like Love Canal and Hurricane Katrina all in one." 

Though we cannot significantly reduce the dangers associated with natural disasters, we can support the EPA's listing of the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund site. As part of their clean-up, the EPA would dredge the toxic sludge from the bottom of the canal, which would control the damage which would result from a hurricane. 
That, however, is not something that Mayor Bloomberg and our own Councilmember Bill de Blasio are willing to support. No, they were fully willing to have developers build condos in a flood zone, on the banks of a poisoned body of water. 
Those against the Superfund complain that the designation could affect house prices in the area. I would venture to say that having toxic sludge on our streets and in our houses after a hurricane would make any building uninhabitable and unsalable for much longer. 

So lets hope that the 2009 hurricane season passes without unleashing a major storm over our area, because otherwise, we will all have toxic sludge in our houses. 

Oh, and just one last thing: 
Why would the hurricane evacuation route indicated by the Office of Emergency Management take someone from Carroll Gardens over the Gowanus Canal to an Evacuation Center on 4th Avenue? 
That is exactly what their web site indicated when I played around with different addresses. (I used number 357 Carroll Street as an example.
That doesn't make a whole lot of sense now does it? 

Hurricanes are a rare occurrence in New York City, so it is understandable that most New York City residents have no idea how vulnerable our coastal city is to the storm surge flooding which follows these massive storms. Here are just a few facts:

Scary New York Moments
Some of the worst hurricane-related effects in New York's history:

1821: The only hurricane in modern times known to pass directly over parts of New York City pushed the tide up 13 feet in one hour and inundated wharves, causing the East River and the Hudson River to merge across lower Manhattan as far north as Canal Street. Deaths were limited since few lived there at the time.

1893: A category 1 hurricane destroyed Hog Island, a resort island off the Rockaways in southern Queens.

1960: Hurricane Donna created an 11-foot storm tide in the New York Harbor that caused extensive pier damage. Forced 300 families to evacuate Long Island.

1999: Floyd, weakened to a tropical storm, brought sustained 60 mph winds and dumped 10-15 inches of rain on upstate New Jersey and New York State.

2004: The remains of Hurricane Frances in September flooded city subways, stranding some passengers aboard trains that had to be stopped by flooded tracks.

SOURCE: New York City Office of Emergency Management, LiveScience reporting

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Margaret said...

Thank you for your amazing, clear presentation, Katia. Gowanus is a very complex, sensitive area. Flood zone, hurricane evacuation zone, watershed, estuary, IN ADDITION to the toxins. This was ALL brought up to City Planning when Toll sought its spot rezoning. It really isn't a place for dense residential development. And then there is this idea of putting elderly people on Public Place site, some home - wasn't that one of the ideas? People who can't move quickly in case of natural disaster. We need responsible, common sense planning taking hard cold science into consideration.

Anonymous said...

Katrina was a wake up call.

Any "sludge" that reaches the neighborhood will eventually evaporate or drain and potentially release air-borne contaminants. The area will subsequently be a hazmat zone.

This is a risk many fail to understand. Like most things, those empowered to prevent these risks often make decisions against those odds.

Still, the city has said, "...there is no need to rush" the timeline to clean the Gowanus. At least the city cares enough to give you a map.

Anonymous said...

I have extreme chemical sensitivities. Didn't know that if all hell breaks loose with a hurricane I am supposed to cross the Gowanus to get to "safety". This City of New York's "scheme". Scheme is a word NY City has used to describe their "plan" in meetings). This is ridiculous!

The Gowanus flows into New York Harbor, which as the EPA has said, is a national treasure. New York Harbor belongs to everyone in the country. Glad to see the Times finally woke up and ran a supportive editorial on Sunday. Figure that President Obama reads every Sunday Times editorial page. It's very important to contact our Federal representatives, including the President, because no doubt that developers' lobbyists are working hard for their keep and our voices must be heard.

(sidenote to lobbyists: do you bill by the hour or by the job?)

Isn't there anyone from the national media who's paying attention to this? Time for real muckracking investigative journalism. Where are you guys? Get going. There's plenty of muck to rack.

Anonymous said...

I believe that we are instructed to cross the canal because that is higher ground and therefore safer