On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy made history as the largest Atlantic hurricane on record when it made landfall near Brigantine, N.J. With wind gusts in excess of 75 miles per hour and storm surge that inundated much of the New York and New Jersey coasts, the storm killed more than 100 Americans and caused more than $50 billion in damages.
In the five years since the storm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has supported repair and recovery efforts throughout the Northeast. Those efforts have taken place in phases as USACE first supported immediate life and safety missions on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the days, weeks, and months following the storm. Then, work shifted to repairing and restoring existing projects. Today, the focus is on constructing projects that were not yet built when the storm struck, as well as longer-term efforts to reduce risk for coastal communities.
In January 2013, Congress passed the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, which provided more than $5 billion to USACE for restoration and construction of federal projects in impacted areas. Most of the Army Corps’ recovery program lies within the North Atlantic Division, particularly in New York and New Jersey.
Joseph Forcina leads the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Management Division, overseeing a program of 158 projects.
“To date, we’ve accomplished a tremendous amount of work in partnership with our sponsors and private industry,” said Forcina. “But we still have a sense of urgency — we want to finish projects as quickly as possible because it means we’re lowering storm risk for those communities.”
Forcina explained that the overall recovery program has several categories of projects and studies. The restoration of 25 existing Coastal Storm Risk Management projects has been fully completed. The vast majority of Operations and Maintenance projects — most of which involve clearing waterways for navigation — have been completed. Numerous studies and smaller projects have moved forward.
Building out the blueprint
The largest category within the recovery program involves constructing Coastal Storm Risk Management projects that were authorized by Congress, but not yet built when the storm struck — in most cases due to insufficient funding or a lack of real estate easements. This work represents $3.3 billion of the $4.6 billion program.
Most of the projects involve constructing engineered dune and berm systems to reduce risk to the infrastructure behind them while some projects include features such as seawalls, tide gates, floodwalls, levees, and pump stations. The Army Corps’ New York and Philadelphia Districts have the lion’s share of this work.
New York District has fully completed two projects; has finished contracts for another four; and is working through approval processes and interagency coordination on the massive Fire Island to Montauk Point Project in New York and three projects in northern New Jersey.
“There have been challenges, but we’ve worked to prioritize actions such as reviews and advancing the design for some of the projects — this has been helpful to line everything up to go to construction,” said Anthony Ciorra, chief of New York District’s Coastal Restoration and Special Projects Branch. “Many of the hurdles in terms of approvals are behind us; once we’re in construction, things move forward pretty quickly.”
Ciorra highlighted a study — the South Shore of Staten Island — that has been completed and is now in the design phase.
“That’s an important milestone as this area was so impacted by the storm — 24 people lost their lives there,” said Ciorra. “We anticipate awarding the first contract for this project in 2019.”
For neighboring Philadelphia District, three of the so-called “authorized, but not yet constructed” projects have been completed in New Jersey and two more are currently under construction, including the 14-mile dune-and-berm beachfill between Manasquan Inlet and Barnegat Inlet. This stretch of coastline includes the community of Mantoloking, whose access to the mainland was breached during Hurricane Sandy.
The Norfolk District’s Willoughby Spit dredge and sand placement project was completed in May 2017, bringing the total number of completed “authorized but not yet constructed projects” to six. Between these six projects and the initial restoration of other projects, the work has been non-stop within the North Atlantic Division.
“Since the spring of 2013, we’ve been dredging and pumping sand onto beaches pretty much continuously,” said Jeff Gebert, a Hurricane Sandy Coastal Planning Expert with the Philadelphia District. “That amount of work is certainly unprecedented for us.”
The concentration of so much dredging has required coordination with private industry and other USACE Districts to balance the workload. “One of our biggest concerns was whether private industry would be able to support the program over a number of years,” said Forcina. “We’ve had challenges, but to date, we’ve worked very successfully with the dredging industry to implement projects on time and on budget.”
Seeking future solutions
While construction continues along the coastline, USACE has also undertaken studies aimed at making communities more resilient. Congress directed USACE to conduct the North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study, an interagency endeavor that developed shared tools to assess coastal flood risks and identify potential solutions to reduce those risks across the region.
The study that wrapped up in early 2015 identified nine focus areas that needed further evaluation. USACE has worked with states and localities to sign agreements and begin analyses for the following areas: New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries; Nassau County Back Bays, N.Y.; New Jersey Back Bays; Washington, D.C. and Metropolitan Area; and the City of Norfolk, Va. Two other studies — Delaware Inland Bays and Delaware Bay Coast and the City of Baltimore — are expected to have agreements in place soon.
The studies are analyzing various solutions to flood risks in bay environments, along rivers and tributaries, and behind barrier islands. From an engineering standpoint, this can prove difficult.
“The technical solution on the oceanfront is fairly simple from an engineering standpoint — typically, we rebuild and replicate a dune and a berm in front of development to reduce risk from coastal storms,” said Gebert. “But on the bay, there is often no single, simple technical solution.”
Gebert explained that in New Jersey bay environments, the problem is tied to storm surge pushing water into bays through coastal inlets and elevating the water surface elevation of the bay.
“You can treat the problem regionally by building barriers at coastal inlets or you have to deal with it locally,” he said.
In our nation’s capital, the study area contains a convergence of critical infrastructure that the region’s local governments, businesses, institutions, and communities depend upon, including water, energy, and communication utilities; transportation hubs; federal buildings and military installations; as well as significant national monuments and cultural treasures. The Washington, D.C. and Metropolitan Area Study looks at how to protect these important shared resources from flood damages.
USACE teams will be looking at a suite of solutions as part of the multi-year studies, including systematic measures such as storm-surge barriers; structural measures such as seawalls and bulkheads; non-structural measures such as elevating homes; and nature-based features such as restoring marshes (see Figure 1). While the size and shape of future solutions is still to be determined, what has already been put in place is clear and considerable.
“This is a $5 billion program — that’s approximately the same size as the national USACE Civil Works budget in a given year,” said Forcina. “The Districts have performed extraordinarily throughout this process with few additional resources. And we have also been greatly helped by the efforts of the states, municipalities, and private industry.”
Information provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To learn more about the North Atlantic Division’s Sandy recovery progress and future plan, visit http://www.nad.usace.army.mil/Sandy.
To learn more about the North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study, visit http://www.nad.usace.army.mil/CompStudy.