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10 years after Hurricane Sandy, New York City's infrastructure is more resilient

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ten years ago, Hurricane Sandy slammed the mid-Atlantic region. The storm killed 43 people in New York City. It caused $19 billion in damages. And over the past decade, state and federal officials committed billions of dollars to build seawalls, barriers and other protections against future storms. Photojournalist Nathan Kensinger documented these projects for WNYC and its Gothamist website. He joins us now. Nathan, thanks so much for being with us.

NATHAN KENSINGER: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What are some of these coastal defense projects, and what do they cost?

KENSINGER: Yeah, you know, right now there's more than $4 billion of coastal defense projects that are underway in New York City or that are going to break ground in the near future. And the projects are pretty enormous. They're going to protect several different parts of the city that were impacted by Sandy. And the ones that are furthest along are something called the Living Breakwaters project off the coast of Staten Island, the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project in Manhattan and a whole series of new jetties and reinforced sand dunes that are being built along the coast of the Rockaway Peninsula.

SIMON: A lot of us still remember the photos of subway stations flooding and lower parts of Manhattan that lost power. What's being done there?

KENSINGER: The biggest plan for lower Manhattan is something called the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project, which is a whole collection of several different coastal defense systems. Some of those are going to break ground soon in Battery Park City and underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. But the project that's really furthest along in Lower Manhattan is something called - that you said Coastal Resiliency Project, and it's made pretty significant progress over the last two years. It's basically a project that will cost $1.4 billion and that's constructing a 2 1/2-mile-long coastal defense along the East River that is a seawall and 18 massive storm surge gates. And they've actually completed two of those storm surge gates already, as well as a section of the seawall in Stuyvesant Cove Park.

SIMON: Tell us, if you can, about East River Park. I gather there's been some controversy.

KENSINGER: Yeah. The largest section of this East Side Coastal Resiliency Project is going to demolish this park, East River Park, and replace it with a massive seawall. Construction is already underway there, but the destruction of the park has been pretty contentious here in New York City. It's a really beloved 82-year-old green space where generations of families have grown up. And to build the seawall there, the city has decided to basically destroy the entire park and cut down almost a thousand trees.

SIMON: Climate change almost guarantees that there's going to be more intense hurricanes in the future that might strike New York. Is it clear to people in the know that all of these projects will help protect the city against the next big storm?

KENSINGER: You know, New York City has 520 miles of coastline, and these projects are just going to protect, like, a small portion of that. There's a lot of other neighborhoods that flooded during Hurricane Sandy that don't have a plan yet and that are going to be left unprotected during the next storm. You know, in the article, I spoke with Kizzy Charles-Guzman, who's the director of the mayor's Office of Climate and Environmental Justice. And she said that walls are not enough alone to protect the city. We need a really multilayered approach to climate change and sea level rise, and the walls are just one part of that. There's definitely a healthy skepticism amongst New Yorkers about whether these barriers are going to be effective. People living along the coast told me that the walls will probably buy their neighborhoods maybe a few more decades of time, but the flooding will happen again. It's inevitable.

SIMON: Photojournalist Nathan Kensinger in New York, thanks so much.

KENSINGER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.