When morning broke after Hurricane Sandy swept through New York City last October, the IKEA parking lot on the Brooklyn waterfront was filled with maritime debris. The storm surge had pushed ropes, nets and various other flotsam and jetsam from the Erie Basin, in the Red Hook neighborhood, into the store’s huge parking area, which consists of both a surface lot and a covered garage on the building’s ground level.
Heavy wooden benches from a nearby park, constructed by the Swedish furniture giant on the site of a shipyard where nearly 20,000 people worked during World War II, were scattered about like matchsticks. Down the block, a stranded pleasure boat attracted a steady stream of camera-wielding disaster tourists.
But the IKEA itself was remarkably unscathed. Within a couple of days, it was serving as a help center for FEMA and the Small Business Administration, the hub where people from around the devastated neighborhood came to start the road back to normalcy. It turns out that this big-box store, which opened in 2008, is one of several places that may provide models for how to build smarter and more resilient infrastructure, housing and green space on the city’s vulnerable shoreline.
IKEA managed to shrug off Sandy’s effects thanks to a design that elevated most of the building’s vital parts and merchandise. That ground-floor level parking lot let water slosh through the structure without damaging anything essential. The store also had a generator, allowing IKEA to reopen for business on November 1 and quickly assume an important role as a nerve center in Red Hook’s recovery. In Sandy’s wake, the company gave more than $450,000 worth of in-kind goods to the Red Cross and donated furniture to damaged local businesses.
Meanwhile, the Fairway supermarket down the street emptied its insides out into its parking lot and was gutted for a renovation that took several months. Residents of the area’s vast public housing projects, a bit further inland but still in the flood zone, huddled in a seemingly endless nightmare of cold and dark. Some of those buildings are still running on emergency generators. IKEA was one of the Red Hook waterfront’s few and welcome bright spots.
Down in the Rockaways, another of the hardest-hit parts of the city, many sections of the 117-acre Arverne by the Sea housing complex — although not all of it — sustained only minimal damage in the storm. The complex, a beachfront New Urbanist–style development that has been the target of many local haters since it broke ground in 2004, is home to about 1,000 families, and still being built out.
The project’s developers credit buffering infrastructure (including the now-splintered boardwalk), as well as an extensive stormwater management system, with protecting the streets of Arverne by the Sea. “Even back in the planning phases, there was talk of global warming and rising sea levels and all that,” Gerry Romski, the project’s development executive, told the New York Times. “We knew we’d have to engineer it specifically, and go above and beyond the building requirements, to make it hurricane-proof.” That meant burying utility lines and installing submersible transformers, as well as raising the entire site several feet with half a million cubic yards of fill.
According to commenters on the Times report, some sections of Arverne by the Sea were indeed damaged. Still, considering the widespread devastation across the Rockaways, the fact that much of the complex withstood the storm was remarkable. It provides a potentially useful test case for just how high buildings must reach to sustain a storm of Sandy’s size.
In Staten Island, it was some new green infrastructure that performed well during the storm. The still-unopened Freshkills Park, a 2,200-acre site now in the process of being reclaimed from what was the world’s largest landfill, took the brunt of the storm surge and protected the neighborhood immediately inland. “Freshkills Park is a very good example of what resilience should look like,” Eloise Hirsh, the park’s administrator, told Next City back in September.
The reclaimed wetlands and estuaries of Freshkills Park, whose cleaning and restoration will take decades, could serve as a model for more of the city’s shoreline. The state of New York wants to encourage homeowners in the most vulnerable, low-lying coastal areas to move out, thus freeing up land that will only flood repeatedly to be put back in its natural state. Experts disagree about the extent to which healthy wetlands can reduce storm surges, but most believe that they can play an important role in mitigating the impact of coastal storms.
Neither the Red Hook IKEA, nor Arverne by the Sea, nor Freshkills is a perfect model for how to prepare coastal cities for massive storms in the future. But each demonstrates that things can be done better with the knowledge and technology we already have.
Watermark is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.