NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - New York, the “concrete jungle,” wouldn’t seem a serene sanctuary for wildlife. Yet since 1972, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, near John F. Kennedy Airport, has been home to a unique marshland ecosystem in the heart of the busy metropolis.
Now the refuge has become a flashpoint in efforts to restore the area, devastated last year by Superstorm Sandy. With both local and federal governments rushing to fund restoration projects, some argue spending money to restore and protect the refuge is a way to maintain wildlife habitat, create a natural barrier to storm surges and limit the damage from future extreme storms.
Some residents, however, are resentful of that spending, particularly as they struggle to access funds to repair their own damage homes.
When Sandy hit New York last October, causing tens of billions of dollars in damage, Jamaica Bay and the adjoining Rockaways were among the areas hardest hit. Neighborhoods on Jamaica Bay saw serious damage, and residents have since struggled to repair their homes.
In the wake of Sandy, there has been a push for sustainable restoration and development in the area, including restoration of the bay, by both state and federal authorities.
New York State recently granted $645,000 to the bay restoration project, which is spearheaded by the American Littoral Society and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Department of Interior invested $475 million in Sandy Recovery Funds on several projects in the Jamaica Bay area.
The aim, experts say, is to build New York’s natural defenses against flooding and extreme storms, so that damage next time is not as severe. The marshes also offer other benefits to the surrounding area such as keeping the bay clean, according to Don Riepe, Northeast Chapter Director of the American Littoral Society.
Hilarie Williams, a client advocate for the Flood Direct National Insurance Program, agrees. “A large part of sustainable design is restoration of wildlife preserves for natural flood protection, which provides more immediate and lasting protection from storms,” she said.
Located between the Rockaway Peninsula and John F. Kennedy Airport, Jamaica Bay is divided equally between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. The refuge includes a variety of habitats, such as salt marshes, and supports over 330 species of migratory birds. Its value to residents is both as a buffer against storm surges and for the opportunities for recreation and tourism it provides.
For over a decade, non-profits including the American Littoral Society and Ecowatchers have been working to maintain the integrity of the wetlands. These organizations rely on volunteers and environmental activists to plant spartina, a cordgrass that literally holds the marshlands together.
Despite these efforts and its importance to the surrounding community, the refuge – even before Sandy - has been deteriorating from coastal erosion, sea level rise, and water contamination.
And some experts question its value as a breakwater for storm surges, saying the reserve is simply too small. To hold back Sandy’s 4-meter storm surge, they say, nearly 23 kilometers of waterfront wetlands would have been needed, roughly the length of the island of Manhattan.
As restoration projects at Jamaica Bay get underway, using volunteer help and outside funding, they are stirring feelings of resentment among some local residents.
They say they have more pressing concerns than restoring the bay and protecting against future storm surges. Private homes and commercial buildings in the area remain damaged. Some residents are struggling to meet new Federal Emergency Management Agency building codes, access money for repairs and even determine if their home is up to code. Private inspections “can cost $500-600 or more for a single family dwelling,” Williams said.
For community members, the convoluted process to access funds feeds confusion and resentment about the bay restoration project. While most community members are looking for compensation for their losses, they see money going instead to the restoration of the bay.
Williams noted that while city governments make requests to the federal government for projects such as the Jamaica Bay Restoration Project, “individuals are responsible for applying for [local government] loans to repair the damage to their property.” Unfortunately, very few Rockaway residents are aware of these opportunities.
‘NOT A GREAT SURPRISE’
Some residents, however, support the restoration of the reserve, and take an active role. Don Riepe has lived on Broad Channel, has lived on Broad Channel, a neighborhood on the only inhabited island in the bay, for over 3 decades and is one of those involved.
“I was always aware that [a storm like Sandy had the ] potential of happening,” he said. “It wasn’t a great surprise to me.” In four or five previous storms he lost heat or power “but nothing like Sandy. I lost the heat, the electricity, all the furniture” this time, he said.
Riepe sees his neighbors responding in a variety of ways – jacking up small houses in some cases, rebuilding and hoping for the rest or simply leaving for good.
But the story of Broad Channel and other communities in the area should be a wakeup call to other vulnerable coastal regions, he says.
“We’ve built in areas we shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have a house on the bay, or if I do I should be prepared to lose it,” Riepe says.”You’re living on the bay, you take the risks.”
“Everyone wants to live by the water. It’s nice - but these are the consequences,” he said.
Leah Newman and Nadav Gazit are graduate students in the Climate and Society Program at Columbia University's The Earth Institute. Yan Gu helped to research this story.