Hurricane Sandy Impacts on Newtown Creek

This week is a week of extremes for our region, and for us on Newtown Creek. While the G train tunnel under the creek remains flooded and impassable for commuters and residents, this weekend, 50,000 participants in the ING New York City Marathon will tromp over the Pulaski Bridge from Greenpoint to Long island City (UPDATE: the Mayor cancelled the race). While life seems normal in many upland neighborhoods, on the industrial waterfront there are businesses facing serious flood damage and cleanup for some will take weeks.

During Hurricane Sandy, Newtown Creek experienced extensive flooding. By Monday at high tide before the storm landed, some companies already had their bulkhead underwater, and there was flooding in certain low streets. The industrial zone of Newtown Creek is separately sewered, and storm drains lack tide gates, allowing the creek water to creep up behind properties, no matter how prepared they might be. During the storm surge, flooding extended several blocks back from the creek.

For some, the creek receded Tuesday, and that was that. For others, it is not so simple.

The stories from around the creek during Sandy are astonishing.  Some companies had their inventory, offices and vehicles flooded, and their regional operations are on hold. Several properties had feet of standing water at low points and loading bays and for three consecutive high tides. Others for even longer. Companies reported sewer backups mixing with floodwater, making cleanup even more…complex. Basement and ground floor electrical systems were destroyed. Entire pallets of inventory simply floated away.

During the peak of the storm, the raised foundation of the Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant had become an island, with floodwaters several feet deep on all surrounding streets up to McGuinness Ave. We owe a debt of gratitude to the DEP staff who kept the plant online under these stressful circumstance, and have been working all week to restore service to the full 15K+ acre area (which includes Lower Manhattan) that drains to the plant.

In the days since the storm, an energy crunch is being felt in the area.  Electric service in the industrial zone has been spotty, and so companies are using generators.  The gas shortage being felt by drivers is also felt by Newtown Creek companies operating on generators.  The harbor was opened yesterday to traffic, including the fuel barges that bring fuel to distributors on the Creek, but it is unclear if suppliers on the NJ coast are fully operating to supply our distributors. As of yesterday, navigational access to the upper tributaries of Newtown Creek was still limited due to an out-of-service bridge that was flooded during the storm.

The environmental impacts of potentially contaminated floodwater is a concern to companies engaged in cleanup as well as area residents. Sandy was made mostly of storm surge, and only minimally of rain (our rain gauges picked up less that a half of an inch of precipitation throughout the storm). NCA’s CSO alert system indicated that sewer overflows probably began in the afternoon on Monday, subsiding the following day. One of our more intrepid members did visually confirm sewer overflowing in the upper tributaries. But pollution from sewer overflows is only a fraction of the concern.

The industrial zone along the creek is home to dozens of brownfield sites, toxic release inventory sites, state superfund sites and known groundwater plumes of oil and solvents. The creek itself is a Federal Superfund site currently being extensively sampled and analyzed by consultants working with the EPA.

The hard truth is we don’t fully understand nor are we fully prepared for the area-wide effects of flooding on contaminated sites and sites that store hazardous materials. This is true for Newtown Creek, and it is true for other Significant Maritime Industrial Areas throughout the city. After the flood, we observed oil sheens in the street and on the water, plus lots of gloopy material left behind in the flood plain. Gas stations, fuel depots, oil-based heating systems and parked vehicles were flooded. How can we even begin to attribute an oil sheen to its source?

Oil sheen in the flood zone.

Staff from EWVIDCO and the Maspeth Industrial Business Association put boots on the ground to check in with their waterfront business partners, providing support on accessing FEMA and filing insurance claims. Questions surrounding how to handle murky floodwaters were answered Thursday afternoon, when Governor Cuomo and then the NYC Department of Environmental Protection announced that regulations restricting water discharges would be temporarily suspended, allowing folks to pump out floodwater back to the creek. The NYSDEC and NYSDOH provided links about recovery from flooding and spill.

It’s simply not enough. We need to hear from our local EPA team that they are on the job and are looking at the composition of the floodwater and residue. We need to know what DEC Spill Response learned this week. We need to hear from waterfront businesses exactly where and how the flood moved. We need the message from our elected officials that Newtown Creek is an important resource that provides essential services in this city, and that the environmental vulnerability that we saw here during Sandy will be addressed. This is our backyard.

Never have environmental, economic and equity concerns been so clearly aligned for Newtown Creek and New York City. It will take equal parts planning, investment and leadership to better prepare for extreme weather and storm surge on Newtown Creek.  As EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck stated Wednesday, “…multi-year improvements need to be made. The situation illustrated the need to clean up urban waters and the benefits of a comprehensive Superfund cleanup.”

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