Waiting On The Army

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We’d like to take a victory lap. We’d like to say Rockaway is back, better than ever. We’d like to celebrate and say the worst is behind us. But we can’t. We can’t because Rockaway is still vulnerable.

There’s no doubt that the boardwalk is spectacular and does offer protection that was not in place before. But the boardwalk does half the job, literally. The boardwalk is five-and-a half miles long and the peninsula is 11 miles. 

And that’s not to say the neighborhoods tucked in behind the boardwalk are safe.  Eroded beaches allow the ocean to edge ever closer.  The boardwalk is the front door but these communities are also vulnerable to the open side and backdoors as water could spill in from east and west and, of course, from the bay.

And those communities not protected by the boardwalk are particularly at risk and can only hope a half-grown dune system will hold (it won’t). 

Jetties and other measures are urgently needed. The Army Corps of Engineers has said so. But the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t seem to get the urgent part. And that’s what we have to realize. We have an Army Corps problem.

Politicians have zero clout. Senator Chuck Schumer represents New York. He used to represent Rockaway as a Congressman. He still bikes through Rockaway in the summer. He has often spoken about his love for the area. Like him or not, he also happens to be about as powerful as a senator can be in his position as Democratic Minority Leader. What’s he been able to get done? He demands action. He wants the jetties. But so far? Nothing.

What we have is an Army Corps problem. Can you name who’s in charge of the Army Corps? Of course, you can’t. It’s a faceless bureaucracy and worse – it has catastrophic failures in its portfolio.

Although the Army Corps seems to have a cloak of profound expertise and the public (and politicians) reflexively defer to their positions, it’s worth remembering a federal judge held the Army Corps accountable for the levee failures that lead to so much death and destruction during Hurricane Katrina.

The judge delivered the brutal truth: “The bureaucratic behemoth that is the Army Corps of Engineers is virtually unaccountable to the citizens it protects….

The Flood Control Act of 1928 as interpreted over the years gives the United States Army Corps of Engineers virtually absolute immunity.”

That immunity feeds a bureaucracy.

It wasn’t just a judge who found the agency at fault. An independent peer review found the Army Corps at fault as well.

A spokesman for the Army Corps did not dispute the review and said:  "The Army Corps is first and foremost a learning organization."

There’s a rally on Saturday to bring attention to Rockaway’s need for coastal protection. We don’t have confidence the Army Corps will hear us but we do hope the rest of New York City does. The chorus needs to grow. New Yorkers must appreciate that if Rockaway is better protected, so too, will they be.

This is not a Rockaway problem. It’s a city and regional challenge. If Rockaway is left unprotected, the ocean and bay waters will roll past right into Brooklyn and Queens. If more and more New Yorkers join the chorus, the sound might get loud enough for someone at the Army Corps to hear.

We had a hard time trying figure out who the someone is. The Army Corps is massive and has regional offices and both military and civilian leadership. 

Lieutenant General Todd Semonite might be the guy in charge. He surfaced in Puerto Rico after the recent hurricane there. But there are districts and divisions throughout the U.S. and there are Brigadier Generals and then there’s the Assistant Secretary of the Army who is below the Secretary of the Army who reports to the President.

Projects can get stuck anywhere.

Many locals have pointed to the jetties now being installed in Long Beach and sensibly ask, why not us?

Well, the Long Beach project, was authorized in 1996.

We have an Army Corps of Engineers problem.

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