On Thursday, October 4 and Wednesday, October 10, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) came to Rockaway to hold public information sessions on its latest report for their coastal protection plan. The Rockaway Times was on site at the October 4 meeting, held at the RISE Center on Beach 58th Street, to catch the action and provide a rundown.
In August, USACE released its Revised Draft Integrated Hurricane Sandy General Re-evaluation Report/Environmental Impact Statement. That mouthful essentially means an updated version of its draft report of its coastal protection study, released in 2016, that incorporated some changes from the public comments made on the previous draft. Its revised version is now undergoing a public comment period that will end on October 22. Part of this process includes public meetings to explain the project and to give the community a chance to provide feedback.
The meeting at the RISE Center began with guests having the opportunity to browse informational posters. USACE Planning Division Chief Cliff Jones then began the meeting, giving hope that the project may move forward soon. “We’re writing this report with your help to move it forward and actually see construction in the future. It’s six years after Sandy and people say they want to see construction. I think we’re really close to coming to that in this area,” Jones said.
Local elected officials like Councilman Donovan Richards, Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato, a representative from Congressman Gregory Meeks’ office, Democratic District Leader Lew Simon and others spoke briefly before USACE Project Manager Daniel Falt spoke more about the urgency to move this latest report ahead.
“We’re really getting to this critical point in the study where finally we have a draft report and after October 22, we’re going to start finalizing the comments and our response to the comments, and our goal is to get the report up to headquarters to begin the approval process, hopefully by Christmas. We have money appropriated, but don’t have permission until the Assistant Secretary for the Army signs off on it,” Falt said. “We’re going to try to accelerate as quickly as we can, and as soon as we have the signature, we’re gonna put shovels in the ground. We’re committed to start work here in 2019. By this time next year, we want people to be arguing about trucks going through the neighborhood and stuff like that. We’ve never been this close and we’re looking to move this project up and start the approval process.”
Project Biologist Daria Mazey then gave a presentation on the current report, first recapping some of the work USACE has already done since Sandy, such as placing 3.5 million cubic yards of sand on the beach and creating an emergency dune system. “This is much more protection than the beach ever had, so the notion that there’s no protection is wrong. There is protection, but it’s interim, and our recommended plan would add greatly to that,” she explained.
Besides wanting to bring protection to the peninsula as quickly as possible, another reason for urgency is to make sure the money for this project is locked in. “This study is 100 percent federally funded by the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, aka the Sandy Bill, but it’s just until the money runs out. Part of why we’ve expedited the schedule is because we’re trying to push this. We’re aware of the vulnerabilities you feel and money needs to be locked in before it goes to anything else.”
Mazey explained that as far as the bay portion of the plan goes, this study now incorporates less. The previous report included storm surge barriers across Jamaica Bay and a sea wall and other elements, but since this portion of the project included heavy feedback and a high cost, it was instead incorporated into a separate study, the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries (NYNJHAT) Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study. It was moved to that study instead so that it can be further explored, while this study that includes shorefront protection and some bay elements, can move forward quickly.
A major concern from the last study was that additional new groins on the beachside, would be installed no further west than Beach 122nd Street, leaving Belle Harbor and Neponsit vulnerable. The new draft shows that hasn’t changed. Mazey explained that those concerns are being heard, but can be explored down the line. “We received a lot of comments about groins in Belle Harbor and Neponsit, but it’s not something that needs to be discussed now. It can be discussed during the engineering and design phase. We want you to know we hear you and we’re working on it and those groins can be incorporated,” she said.
In a phone call to The Rockaway Times, Falt further explained this, saying, “When this plan goes up to approval, we’ll start the detailed design phase, which is where most of these details are finalized. When it comes to the actual configuration of the groins, we’re going to take another look at that and that can include how wide they are and how separated they are. We know we need a tapered groin field toward the west of this project, we just don’t know exactly where they should be, but when we get into the design phase, we’ll do more research. The last thing we want to do is induce another erosional hotspot,” Falt said.
The entire shorefront plan will include a reinforced vegetative dune and beachfill from Beach 9th to Beach 149th Street, the construction of 12 new dunes from Beach 90th to Beach 122nd Street, the enhancement of the existing groin field from Beach 36th to Beach 49th Streets, and another new groin on Beach 34th Street. The new, reinforced dune will be 18 feet high and the initial beachfill will include nearly 1.6 million cubic yards of sand, plus renourishment every four years, of a little more than a million cubic yards of sand.
With some of the massive bay features out of the picture as far as this study is concerned, there is now more focus on the “back bay” area, which includes the bayside in the Hammels, Arverne and Edgemere neighborhoods. “We have almost a quarter of a billion dollar plan to protect against frequent flooding that occurs here. These features (including floodwalls, bulkheads and berms) will overtop with huge storms, but we will have pump stations and interior drainage that will help improve the resiliency of the drainage system for those neighborhoods,” Mazey said. These back bay areas will also include “nature-based features where the wetlands control erosion and wave action, making these features more sustainable in the long-term.”
Following the presentation, the floor was open to some comments and questions, many of which included questions about areas not included in the plan, like the area before Beach 9th, the western tip of the peninsula and other areas of the bay.