As the sun began to set one recent Sunday, saltwater poured off Jamaica Bay onto West 12th Road, one of the lowest-lying areas in New York City.
Residents bolted out of their front doors to move their cars, which are often damaged by tidal flooding that occurs about twice a month.
Some older residents were all but imprisoned in their homes until as much as three feet of water receded. Children splashed around, oblivious to the looming threat.
"We do not care about budgets; we are taxpaying people," said John Heaphy, 69, a lifelong resident of the area, Broad Channel, Queens, which is built on a marsh that juts into the bay. "From the lowest politician to the governor's office, we've been begging, please help us."
Now, the city is doing just that, budgeting $22 million to try to save the neighborhood by installing bulkheads and by raising streets and sidewalks by three feet.
The Broad Channel project offers a preview of the infrastructure outlays that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is envisioning as part of a new $20 billion plan to protect the city's 520 miles of coast over the next decade from rising sea levels.
But the project also raises fundamental questions about whether, in an era of extreme weather, the government should come to the aid of neighborhoods that are trying to fend off inevitably rising waters.
Broad Channel's vulnerability was exposed in October during Hurricane Sandy, which toppled homes into the bay, some of which still lie in ruins along the beach. Yet the situation here is far worse than in some other neighborhoods damaged in the hurricane because Broad Channel suffers flooding from the tides and heavy rain, not just from storm surges.
Pay to relocate?
Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said he was sympathetic to Broad Channel and understood why residents have been lobbying hard for aid.
"The problem is, they have picked a spectacularly beautiful but increasingly impractical and dangerous place to live," Goldstein said.
"If sea levels rise and storm-level projections are accurate, this community may be surviving on borrowed time," he said. He added that the city faced hard questions, one being: "How much sense does it make to keep reinvesting taxpayer dollars in a community that is directly in harm's way?"
Goldstein said the city should also consider allocating money to those who wanted to relocate.
Other experts pointed out that these projects were not only costly but also difficult to carry out, and based on techniques that might not always work well over time. They must overcome a phalanx of obstacles before being approved, from reviews by government agencies to a lack of consensus among residents.
The one in Broad Channel has already been held up because officials have not yet been able to obtain consent from some residents, which is required because they technically own the sidewalks.
The Bloomberg administration also has expressed concern about the difficulties of protecting this part of the Queens coast.
When Bloomberg unveiled his $US20 billion plan, he vowed that the city would not abandon the waterfront. But the plan notes that major flood protection along Jamaica Bay would be "extremely expensive, and disruptive, and in some cases nearly impossible."
As a result, the city wants to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop a storm-surge barrier across the Rockaway Inlet to protect neighborhoods from Sheepshead Bay to Howard Beach, as well as Broad Channel.
As far as the street-raising, Caswell F. Holloway IV, the deputy mayor for operations, acknowledged that such projects were also challenging.
"It is literally a block-by-block issue, especially older neighborhoods, where the neighborhood grew up much faster than the infrastructure to support it," Holloway said. "You're basically going back, in some cases over the course of many years, to do modern drainage. It's highly disruptive, it's expensive, because it's being laid out after the fact."
Asked whether the Broad Channel project would only forestall the inevitable, he said, "We focused on a solution that was affordable and would alleviate the flooding situation for a while."
Residents describe Broad Channel as an oasis with glorious water views. About 3,000 people live here, including many police officers and firefighters.
It is a place where residents cling to tide clocks and, some joke, every child gets wading boots for Christmas. Neighbours will honk a car horn in the middle of the night to warn others of an approaching tide, and some have made pencil markings on their homes to show water levels from storms past.
Proposals to safeguard Broad Channel have been debated for years, but gained momentum only after a major storm in 2010.
New York Times