[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.