By Karen Savage
When New York City announced its lawsuit against five major oil companies to hold them accountable for the impacts of climate change, the television cameras and microphones gathered in lower Manhattan to record the announcement.
But it struck a chord far and wide in the city, particularly in the neighborhoods along the shorelines most vulnerable to those impacts. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy—fueled by high sea surface temperatures—caused $19 billion in damage across the city’s five boroughs and unleashed a 14-foot storm surge that slammed ashore with a vengeance, inundating large swaths of South Brooklyn.
Pat Singer, 78, rode out the storm in her third-floor apartment, watching in horror as the storm unleashed its fury on her Brighton Beach neighborhood.
“All I can remember is my daughter and I looking out the window and seeing like nine feet of water outside the building and cars floating down and that stayed like that for about 24 hours until the water receded,” said Singer, who said her community is no better protected now than it was six years ago.
Home to a large Russian population, she said many storekeepers had no insurance and were forced to rebuild on their own.
“If it happened again tomorrow, this neighborhood would be dead. I don’t think we could come back again from something like this—I don’t know how we came back already, but we did,” said Singer, founder of the Brighton Beach Neighborhood Association.
New York City has more people living in high-risk flood zones than any other city and a recent study found that due to climate change, New York could experience Sandy-like flooding every five years by 2030.
“We are definitely a lot safer than when Sandy hit, but still we have a lot more to do as well,” said Dan Zarrilli, New York City’s senior director of climate policy and programs. “What’s important here is we’re taking a step back and looking at what is the root cause of some of our climate challenges and it is very clearly the decades-long campaign of deception and denial that was pursued by the big oil companies.
“Ultimately we expect to be able to collect for the damages that they have caused, both already, as well as what is to come—and that will help us pursue even more projects to help protect even more New Yorkers,” he said, adding that $2 billion is in the process of being spent to repair and protect public housing, hospitals and other coastal infrastructure on South Brooklyn’s Coney Island peninsula.
To the north, Gravesend Bay breached Belt Parkway, submerging homes in the low-lying neighborhoods of Gravesend and Bensonhurst.
“You had a situation where the water surged up affected tens of thousands, we had schools that were totally flooded—the children had to be relocated for long periods of time,” said New York State Assemblyman William Colton, who represents the Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Bath Beach, Dyker Heights and Midwood neighborhoods of South Brooklyn.
“Even before we finish repairing what needs to be done from Sandy itself, we may be faced with another storm which is going to undo even the repairs we have started to make,” he said, adding that many residents have still not recovered.
“Clearly with the issue of climate change, we’re facing an emergency. Those who continue to cause it by ignoring it should have to pay for the damages that they caused by their own business practices,” said Colton.
To that end, in January, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the suit against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell, seeking billions to pay for damage already done by climate change and for climate resiliency projects needed to protect South Brooklyn and the rest of the city from rising seas and an increase in extreme weather.
Zarrilli said holding oil companies accountable is only one part of a multi-prong effort by the city to stem climate change and to protect its residents from the impacts.
“We have a very broad-based, comprehensive program to deal with the sources of emissions here in New York City—buildings and transportation and our waste stream—and we’re pursuing initiatives in each of those,” he said.
A report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change, (NPCC) an independent body that advises the city on climate risks and resilience, shows that sea levels in New York City have risen 1.2 inches per decade since 1900, nearly twice the global rate. The trend is expected to continue and according to the report, “projections for sea level rise in New York City are 11 to 21 inches by the 2050s, 18 to 39 inches by the 2080s, and could reach as high as 6 feet by 2100.”
The NPCC also found that climate change is causing increased shoreline erosion, increased flooding of low-lying areas and higher threats of catastrophic flooding, possibly more severe than Sandy’s storm surge.
In 2015, the city began implementing a $20 billion climate resiliency plan to protect city infrastructure from rising seas and extreme weather, but much of the work has yet to begin.
“Nobody seems to know where the funding’s going to come from on these plans,” said Coney Island resident Ida Sanoff, who is the executive director of the National Resources Protective Association.
Surrounded by water on three sides, Sanoff’s Coney Island neighborhood was inundated when Sandy’s storm surge raced in, causing Coney Island Creek to overflow its banks and sweep in from the north. Creek water converged with water surging in from Gravesend Bay to the west and the ocean to the south, stranding residents without power, transportation or communication.
A study of the creek come up with several flood protection options, including closing off a portion of the creek entirely, building tidal barriers, floodwalls and levees.
Sanoff said despite the study—which prompted countless public meetings and presentations—Coney Island and the city are still not adequately protected
“The bottom line is that absolutely nothing tangible has been done to protect this city from the next flood. We’ve had a million meetings, a million seminars, a million presentations, a million consultants, but absolutely nothing tangible has been done and that’s where we still are five years later,” said Sanoff, who said she is skeptical that proceeds from the suit will reach her Coney Island community in time.
“To me, it’s all feel good stuff, maybe five years from now or ten years from now, they’ll be a settlement, but if a storm hits between now and then, it’s all moot,” she said.
Zarrilli acknowledged there is a lot left to do, but said important updates have been made to the city’s electrical grid and other infrastructure.
“A lot of those things are underground and buried, but they’re better protected. They’ll keep the lights on next time and we’re working with partners both public and private to advance a number of things that are helping New Yorkers be safer in the event of future climate disasters,” he said.
Colton said some crucial projects are underway—including work to protect Coney Island Hospital, where patients had to be evacuated during the storm—but many projects exist only on paper.
“There just is not enough money and time to be able to do it before the threat of a future storm,” said Colton.
“More and more, we’re seeing extreme weather conditions—and it’s not just in New York City and on the waterfronts of southern Brooklyn, but it’s all over the world,” said Colton. “Climate change is a real threat to civilization as we know it if we don’t reverse it. I think the lawsuit is a technique by the city to attempt to reverse the policies that have resulted in climate change. We have to get away from fossil fuel reliance.”
Singer, whose father was a sea captain for Exxon, said such a large corporation should be “leading the parade” when it comes to protecting the planet.
“My dad was very proud of that company, he was with Exxon a long time and he left us all a little bit of stock,” said Singer, adding that she recently saw an Exxon commercial that gave her hope that the company will turn to alternate forms of energy.
“I heard they were trying to evolve and that commercial made me feel good that they have scientists aboard trying to do right,” she said, adding that she wasn’t aware of Exxon’s history of climate change deception.
“I don’t know what they did and didn’t do, but if they didn’t do things, they have to do it right,” said Singer. “I don’t like when they profit off peoples’ backs.”
“They’re looking for new ways to keep the company alive, but at the same time, right now, it’s my priority to say ‘what the hell are you going to do about the future storms?”