Thursday, May 14, 2020

Opinion: COVID-19 + Storm Surge = Catastrophe for the Lower East Side and East Village

[Photo by East Village resident Amy Berkov]

Op-Ed by Pat Arnow

An especially dangerous hurricane season starts this June. “With top hurricane forecasters predicting 16 named storms and warning of potentially up to four major Category 3, 4, or 5 storms this year, a hurricane hit in the midst of a pandemic is likely,” writes Craig Hooper in Forbes.

A storm flooding the Lower East Side and East Village would be even worse than Superstorm Sandy that devastated our neighborhood in 2012. Besides facing damage to our homes, we could be forced into shelters, exposed to the potential spread of coronavirus. “There is no plan in place to support virus-safe social distancing for hurricane evacuees,” says Hooper.

Seeking protection now

Months ago, the Mayor and City Council promised to study interim protection for our Lower East Side and East Village neighborhood. We have nothing. Our lives are at stake. We need flood barriers now.

This is not a new demand by neighborhood residents. It has been one of the reasons for widespread community opposition to the $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) plan. The project will take at least three years (and likely much longer) to build flood protection.

This badly conceived flood control project would be a disaster for our neighborhood under normal circumstances. During this pandemic, the flaws in the plan are even more stark.

Demolishing a park during a pandemic

Sixty percent of the 1.2-mile park will be closed and bulldozed this fall. That’s a problem. It’s the only place in the neighborhood to go for fresh air and exercise with room enough for social distancing. We should keep 100 percent of the park open for the duration of the pandemic.

That’s especially true now that so many of the NYCHA campuses in our area have been torn up and surrounded by chain-link fences. Hundreds of large trees have already been felled. Twelve playgrounds have been closed. This is construction for a flood control project.

However, protection is for the buildings and utilities only. Residents will still have to evacuate during a storm surge. How can those who are displaced be protected from COVID-19?

Demolishing more than half of the park will cause even more damage during this pandemic. “The majority of conditions that increase risk of death from COVID-19 are also affected by long-term exposure to air pollution,” reports The New York Times. The park eases the effects of our city’s pollution. If dust-raising construction begins during the pandemic, we can anticipate additional fatalities, because “even a small increase in exposure to fine particulate matter leads to a significant increase in the Covid-19 death rate.”

This is a neighborhood that already suffers higher rates of asthma and other upper respiratory diseases, due to emissions from traffic on the adjacent FDR Drive.

The pandemic just adds to the arguments the community has been making all along about the mental and physical health effects on our community from the ESCR, and why it is important to redirect the plan.

“I was so pleased to see how the entire path from 34th Street all the way south was so frequented the last few days in particular. Bikers, runners, walkers, dogs, baby strollers — just how it should be. I couldn’t help thinking if the pandemic came one year later [when the park is torn up], we would have no refuge,” says Lauren Pohl, a local resident.

“Perhaps the city can reallocate the funds from destroying our green space to trying to provide food to so many in need and help with rent and the like,” Pohl suggests.

The densely populated neighborhood along the park could use it. This is the unwealthy side of the Lower East Side and East Village. Residents are suffering now from the economic impact of New York’s shutdown — and from high rates of infection from Covid-19.

Seeking a green recovery

Now New York City is facing a potential shortfall of $9.7 billion in tax revenue in 2020 and 2021. The economy is free falling into a depression era-disaster. Does it make sense for the government to invest $1.45 billion in a flood control project that does not provide flood protection for years and that will destroy a park that is vital to the health of the community?

Legislators must revisit the poorly conceived ESCR project and come up with a better plan that provides immediate flood protection, saves the open green space of East River Park and does not endanger the health of our community and that includes community input and oversight. We need a truly green recovery.


Pat Arnow is the founder of the grassroots community group, East River Park ACTION, which advocates for flood protection with minimal destruction of the park.

The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the the editorial position of this website.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this summary of the situation. We must save the park, now more than ever.

Anonymous said...

To be prepared to handle a disaster of any kind is not an overnight process. It takes years of planning to deal with any type of major disaster such as Sandy or Covid....neither of which our community, city, state or federal government were prepared to deal with at all. This just points out how badly our governments are run. To think that they have any idea of how to implement a new plan is just, well unthinkable. The truth is that no matter how much you prepare, now matter how deep your paranoia runs, there is nothing you can actually do to prevent the event from ever happening. At best all we can do is to cope when it arrives.

Gojira said...

What happened to the lawsuit filed to stop this insane project? I know the courts are closed, so does that mean the city can just forge ahead with the plan since there are no legal measures to slow or block it?

ed anger said...

I still don’t understand why they changed from the previous plan with flood walls under/next to the FDR, rather than ripping the park up.

Anonymous said...

It is inhumane to close this park during this pandemic - it is the only green space for kids to run around - not everyone on the lower east side has a country house - some of us are stuck here and squeezed into tiny apartments with our families.

Pat Arnow said...

In answer to the question by Gojira about the alienation lawsuit: the court date for filing papers is May 18. Stay tuned.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this editorial. I hope it ends up being published in multiple places so that it gets even more exposure.

Anonymous said...

The lawsuit will be heard May 18th

Anonymous said...

I am 100% in joining everyone in stopping this plan. But what so many people seem to ignore is that this is earmarked federal funds, not city $$ that can be redirected. Not sure if there is an expiration date on the use of these funds.

Anonymous said...

I hope this letter is/was sent to the big media outlets as well as the Mayor and City Council. Demolishing the park at this point is so incredibly wrong and unethical.

Jon said...

Anon 1107- Only a small portion of the funds are Federal $. Most of the cost will be covered by City funds.

Anonymous said...

There is something quite fishy about this project on the east river. I can't put my finger on it, but I would bet money Bill DeBlassio has his hands on the pot and is behind the spearheading of this, not to mention Carolina R. Also, can't they redistribute federal funds from this to assist with the COVID 19 crisis? The latter is more important until there is a vaccine or treatment. I am seething with anger towards our corrupt officials whom made pledges to protect our community. Most educated, intelligent people know there are other alternatives to combat flooding which doesn't involve billions of tax payer dollars being funneled to ensure this goes through. And, yes, the closure of this park, especially now is a detriment to all citizens, especially those of whom are low income and take respite in being close to water and fresh air. All of us need somewhere to go if we are going to be self isolating at home.

Anonymous said...

Carolina R.? How about learning your city council representatives name correctly first?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great editorial!! I have been going to East River Park almost every day since the pandemic began and I cannot imagine not having this incredible resource available. It breaks my heart to think of the city bulldozing all the beautiful shade-providing, air-giving, life-saving trees (especially those big old oak trees near the ampitheatre where I saw a scarlet tanager just yesterday!) for such a dumb plan that will increase pollution and reduce biodiversity. There is NO other comparable green space anywhere nearby. Seward Park has been chained shut most days; Corlears Hook Park is nice, but small--I walk one end to another in about five minutes; Tompkins Square is a 45-minute walk from me and overcrowded with barely any lawn space; the community gardens are closed, and so on. The plan as is MAKES NO SENSE for the community, but I guess somehow it makes sense for rich realtors (perhaps the plan is to drive all current inhabitants out of the neighborhood)!

Carmine said...

Thank You, as ever for this article -- things that have to be discussed and shared NOW before the worst of the hurricane season -- I'm very disappointed (as a resident of the LES) with what they're planning to proceed with. The original plan was more than adequate and not nearly as destructive -- to trees, various structures and the Park itself. What I have not seen mentioned (although I could be wrong) is the fact that with the plan they want to proceed with they're going to be removing and disturbing large portions of land that has been intact for countless years and the ensuing vermin (specifically rats) that it's going to provoke is beyond disturbing and FAR from necessary. This could represent a potential problem and, trust me, I'm no fear monger. Hoping everyone is and stays well . . . please take care and thank you.

Anonymous said...

I just learned that the city still plans to demolish East River Park beginning in September. Despite all the budget woes, there is still somehow money to destroy our park. The fact they are pushing ahead with this during a pandemic when we need the outdoor space the most is despicable and outrageous. Not to mention the destruction will take years and will directly affect residents who are already underserved and vulnerable.

Unfortunately, I missed the update from the Department of Design and Construction, which was an online meeting yesterday. Did anyone catch that or know of a report?