Storm Barrier Blues: Can the Government Save Sea Gate From the Next Big Storm?

A Brooklyn neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Sandy has spent over two decades waiting for storm protection.

Destroyed homes in Sea Gate after Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Hunter Walker)

Two days after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, Barbara Garofalo, a lifelong Sea Gate resident, stood in front of the community’s chapel, which had been turned into a makeshift headquarters for emergency personnel.

She watched bulldozers work their way through the ruins of the neighborhood’s private beach club, surveying the piles of rubble and twisted metal and the uprooted cabanas that littered the streets after the storm sent waves crashing through the neighborhood’s beachfront homes, ripping several off their foundations. Eyeing the damage, Ms. Garofalo couldn’t help but wonder whether some of the houses could have been saved if a planned government project to reinforce the community’s beaches had started sooner.

“They have the money in process, but they haven’t started it yet,” said Ms. Garofalo. “Maybe we would have had water damage, but maybe would have—could have saved the homes. Every home on the beach is gone. It breaks my heart.” 

For at least two decades, there has been an effort to reinforce Sea Gate’s beach with a multimillion-dollar array of what is known in the parlance of coastal engineers as “heavy armoring”: walls, jetties and rock barriers known as “t-groins” built to stop and absorb energy from waves before they batter the shore.

In April, after a long series of delays due to bureaucratic and political factors, more than $26 million in federal, city and state funds was finally secured to install a storm protection system in Sea Gate. Construction was slated to begin late this year, but it clearly wasn’t fast enough to fight the hurricane.

Even if the storm protection planned for Sea Gate had been in place before the waves crashed through the neighborhood last month, it probably wouldn’t have been sufficient to withstand a storm of Sandy’s magnitude. But with growing acknowledgment that climate change is leading to fiercer weather patterns, the decades-long saga to shore up Sea Gate is a dramatic illustration of how potentially lifesaving civil engineering measures are being outpaced by the forces of nature.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler was elected in 1992 to represent a seat that includes parts of Manhattan as well as Sea Gate and Coney Island on the southwestern tip of Brooklyn. Less than two weeks after he arrived in Washington for Congress’s freshman orientation, Sea Gate was hit hard by a nor’easter, and Mr. Nadler received a call from an aide who said, “Congressman, I think you better get back, your district is being washed to sea.”

Storm Barrier Blues: Can the Government Save Sea Gate From the Next Big Storm?