REPORT: New York City Seawall Breaks
NEWS 10/06/2039 6:05 AM ET
REPORT: New York City Seawall Breaks
Krista Brennerman
Senior Reporter, Huntington Courier

CC BY-SA 4.0 - image changes released under same license Seawall at sunset by Ryan Steele | Writer image: CC BY 4.0 Crystal Henrickson Headshot Square for Net2van by Elijah van der Glessen | Images were cropped. Images used for illustration purposes only.
Marine Titan during its construction phase near Coney Island. The wall on the left side of the image heads toward Queens' Breezy Point.
Part of New York City's vaunted Marine Titan seawall failed in spectacular fashion today.

Visitors watching from Coney Island's famous boardwalk were left astonished as two 30 feet-long sections of the wall buckled, and then collapsed, tipping southward into the sea approximately 300 feet from shore.

Authorities scrambled to respond, and within three hours had patched the 60 feet-long gap, but not before millions of liters of water had rushed through. It inundated the shoreline and temporarily recreated a small tidal effect.

The Bill de Blasio Boardwalk was immediately closed for two kilometers east due to the risk of Sequential Cascade Collapse (SCC). No one was atop the sections which collapsed.

At a press conference today, Mayor Lynette Gloucester said engineers speculated scouring as the cause of the failure. Scouring is damage that occurs to the seabed at the toe of the wall, as large waves impact the structure, rising and then falling. The downward pressure "scours" the seabed, leaving a hole.

A large enough hole can affect the integrity of the structure, causing it to topple.

Proposals were advanced during the tendering process which advocated sloping walls, but these were rejected in favor of the vertical design suggested by engineering firm Hamilton Fisher. Sloping walls are believed to break waves more effectively, leading to a dissipation of wave energy which greatly decreases the chances of scouring at the toe.

Even with a vertical design, such serious damage so soon was entirely unexpected. But repeated superstorms in the past few years have clearly taken a toll. As each of the two sections buckled, their steel joints were wrenched out of place and twisted dramatically.

The seawall complex, completed four years ago, has been subjected to the full force of superstorms Barry and Pablo (2031), Fay and Epsilon (2032), Claudette, Odette, Gamma and Zeta (2033) and this year's superstorms Earl, Karl and Beta.

Authorities have hailed the wall's performance during these events as a "trial by fire" and have been effusive in praise. The greater New York and northern coastal New Jersey areas have been largely spared the enormous damage of prior storms.


The History


2012's Hurricane Sandy set the stage for the necessity of a serious infrastructural response to major weather events. But while it spurred conversation, a systemic plan was lacking; across the breadth of the New York City/New Jersey coastlines (including rivers) ad hoc seawalls, pumps and levees were constructed to stem the rising water and hold off storm surges.

In September 2018 Hurricane Rafael hit, devastating the Atlantic from Puerto Rico to Boston. It left 24,000 people dead and approximately $90bn of damage in New York and the surrounding metropolitan area alone. Approximately 6 million people were left without power for up to three weeks, adding to the chaos caused by fires and a broad telecommunications blackout. Logistics were interrupted for weeks, and the National Guard had to be called in to deal with sometimes violent unrest caused by the lack of basic necessities. It took a month before order was mostly restored.

Marine Titan was the result of a 2019 Congressional investigation into Rafael and its after effects. Recognizing the enormous financial damage inflicted by Rafael and Sandy alone, it recommended a seawall be constructed to seal New York off from future storm surges, whilst also dealing with the effect of a creeping sea level rise.

Pushed publicly by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and President Clinton, Congress quickly passed the New York Emergency Seawall Act, authorizing $165bn to be spent on what quickly became known as 'the Wonderwall'. The state legislatures of New York and New Jersey contributed another $35bn to reach the proposal's budget.

The New York/New Jersey Sea Defense Corporation (NYSDC) was formed, and construction began March 2020.


The Wonderwall


Marine Titan is not one wall but a varied collection of barriers shielding most of the New York City metropolitan area and southern Long Island.

From Staten Island's Midland Beach, a series of one hundred locks stand as links in an unbroken chain of concrete fencing extending eastward, and ending at the western end of Coney Island's famous boardwalk. Named the Starbucks Staten Sentinels, all sea traffic heading north into New York Harbor must travel through the locks.

The "Sentinels" were built to three sizes in order to transport smaller and medium-sized vessels as quickly as possible.

They were heavily criticized initially as being unnecessary and a possible bottleneck for the many commercial vessels which pass through the harbor every day. And when news broke that lock tolls would help fund Marine Titan, industry representatives and union leaders objected with such force that another Congressional investigation was nearly launched.

Mayor de Blasio pushed for calm, gathering all parties in late 2020, and explaining the need for locks. Because of the projected sea level rise over the coming decades (most analysts predict a conservative estimate of 2 - 3 feet) a system was needed to keep excess water out as it rose, whilst maintaining New York's then-current sea level inside the wall.

It is believed that Mayor de Blasio suggested to parties in the dispute, that if Marine Titan were abandoned, much of the cost of securing all of New York's coastlines individually would fall through taxation on the shipping industry.

From Coney Island, the second section of the wall continues 6 kilometers southeast, touching land at Breezy Point, on Queens' southern stretch of coastline. Named the Kellogg's Coney Island Gates, the wall features a further 25 locks of standard size, mainly for pleasure craft.

The Bill de Blasio Boardwalk begins along this section. Coney Island's Boardwalk was extended in a gentle curve southward, rising to the level of the wall. At 20 feet in width, the boardwalk is wide enough to accomodate foot and bicycle traffic and in many areas has been turned into greenspace for public enjoyment. People walking along this section of the wall marvel as the bridge over a lock raises when a vessel approaches, then lowers, allowing further pedestrian access.

From Breezy Point Marine Titan continues in a gentle northeast direction along the southern coast of Long Island. Standing 150 feet offshore, it contains locks at Silver Point, Jones Inlet, Democrat Point, Old Inlet, Moriches Inlet and Shinnecock Inlet, as well as at regular intervals to allow for pleasure craft access. Various corporate partners were allocated to the 190 kilometer-stretch of wall, with advertising rights granted in prominent local spots.

Marine Titan makes landfall on Montauk's southern coast, pushing approximately 400 feet into Camp Hero State Park.

Additional walls were constructed in order to hermetically seal the New York area's water level: the 2.6 kilometer Wrigley Raritan Wall spans the Raritan River Cutoff, protecting Staten Island's west coast and New Jersey's coastline north and west of South Amboy. It features a further fifty locks.

Northeast of The Bronx, the Bank of America Bronx Gates comprise seventy-five locks and the northern section of the Bill de Blasio Boardwalk, for approximately 4.6 kilometers.


Operating The World's Largest Seawall


Marine Titan stands 21 feet above Mean Sea Level (MSL). It was originally 19 feet until 2032's Hurricane Epsilon bore down, producing a 14 feet storm surge. Its storm tide of 20.5 feet washed over the wall, causing significant damage, especially in vulnerable southern Long Island.

By the end of 2033, most of the wall had been upgraded to its current height, at a cost of a further $25bn. It is designed to be height-expandable, as sea levels continue to rise.

4500 pumps have been built into the fencing network, to cope with any overflow or damage issues, such as that which occurred today at Coney Island. They artificially keep the water at roughly 1990's level.

The network of fencing is managed by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. At one kilometer intervals there is a station with a permanent staff, to observe weather and wave activity and co-ordinate maintenance of the wall. At every ten kilometer juncture, helipads are built-in to larger stations.

Long Island's 190 kilometer long wall also serves a different purpose: energy collection. Embedded in the front of its wall are horizontal cylinders designed to harness the up-down motion of the waves during periods of inclement weather. As the sea rises and falls in front of the wall, the cylinders rotate, generating electrical energy for use onshore.


Recouping Costs


Clean energy is not the only way federal and state authorities are trying to make their money back: the aforementioned corporate partnership brings in $3bn per year and 2033 toll receipts amounted to $10.5bn, from the more than 200,000 vessels which transited.

A special "wall levy" was negotiated with some Suffolk County (Long Island) municipalities in late 2019, after a New York Times article suggested that parts of Marine Titan were frivolously protecting richer New Yorkers who could afford to contribute to their own defense. The 37 kilometer section of the wall guarding Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and The Bronx was set to guard 8.3 million people (in 2020) or approximately 224,000 people per kilometer of fencing.

In Long Island's wealthier southeastern areas, that number dropped to around 15,000 (in 2020) along a 65 kilometer stretch or approximately 230 people per kilometer of fencing. Though some initial opposition to the idea of a levy was voiced among local residents, a threat to end the wall at Moriches (west of The Hamptons) ended the furore. An extra $500m in taxes was collected last year by municipalities.

The most controversial revenue source however, was destined to be the Great South Bay Reclamation (GSBR). In mid 2020 New York state Governor Vincent Balakocic announced a bipartisan commission to investigate reclaiming up to 75% of the bay extending from East Massapequa in the west, to Mastic Beach in the east. At nearly 400 square kilometers, it was estimated that the land's total value may exceed $40bn.

Environmental activists were livid, claiming that such a drastic move would wipe out many species of flora and fauna. They spoke in terms of deep betrayal by a governor who had openly courted the environmental vote during the 2018 election.

However, despite a sometimes vicious campaign against Balakocic and his Democratic backers in the state legislature, activists were unsuccessful in persuading the public, who quickly tired of violent protests on TV and were fearful of significant tax hikes to pay for Marine Titan.

Legislation was passed in 2022; drainage began after Marine Titan's completion in 2031.


Backlash


Another source of significant anger during the public debates over Marine Titan was the exclusion of certain sections of the coastline from protection.

The fenceline terminates at Staten Island's Midland Beach and picks up at the island's southern tip at Tottenville, crossing to New Jersey's South Amboy. The path of the wall leaves Staten Island's southeastern shores exposed.

Residents, as well as New Jersey residents, of the Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay regions, advocated for an alternative plan: building a wall which extended from Breezy Point to New Jersey's Sandy Hook. This one section of the wall, they claimed, would protect all of New Jersey's bay coastline, as well as the entirety of Staten Island's shores, whilst still meeting the original requirement of shielding the greater New York City metropolitan area. And, it would be one seawall instead of three, they argued.

Critics however, pointed out that a seawall could not terminate at Sandy Hook, due to its low elevation; most of Sandy Hook lies less than four feet above sea level, as does much of the coastline heading south, giving Marine Titan no obvious terminus. And, they said, the astronomical costs associated with the project could hardly bear further expansion of the wall.

The other issue with this alternative design was the water depth. Much of the current structure in New York Harbor sits in water less than twenty feet deep. The residents' plan placed the structure further out to sea, in much deeper water. Deeper water means more concrete, and more concrete means greater expense.

Despite months of protests and negotiations the alternate proposal was ultimately rejected. New York and New Jersey are developing plans which suit local needs in the areas not protected by Marine Titan.

Other critics across the breadth of the New York area have pinpointed the ugliness of the wall. Coney Island, which was devastated by Rafael, raised no objections to Marine Titan when it was proposed in its current incarnation. But during construction, visitors objected to the massive grey monoliths rising out of the sea and obstructing their view of the harbor.

The wall approaches the western tip of the Boardwalk at an angle from Breezy Point; the NYSDC pointed out the more favorable view of the sea from further east, from which the entrance to Jamaica Bay is still unobscured.

The NYSDC wisely placed before/after posters of the destruction caused by Rafael around Coney Island, largely quelling the disquiet. Locals have also been largely pleased by the Bill de Blasio Boardwalk atop the structure, which continues for 195 kilometers from Coney Island to Montauk and is dotted with grassy areas, trees and public seating. It is one of the longest artificial walking trails in the world.


What now?


Today's stunning failure of part of the massive wall opens the Port Authority up to multiple questions: was the toppling of two sections of the Kellogg's Coney Island Gates an isolated incident? Was the cause really something as innocuous as scouring? Or is there a systemic problem, requiring a systemic solution (and more funding)?

Taxpayers will be unhappy to hear if the latter is necessary. Though the wall has performed very well in the three years since its completion, their patience for endlessly funding the same infrastructure project may be wearing thin.

The authorities are busy pumping millions of liters of water back into the sea. When queried today about the possibility of a long-term problem, Mayor Gloucester could only offer a two word response:

"We'll see."
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