As Hurricane Florence takes aim at the South Atlantic this week, we can (hopefully) breathe a sigh of relief in our region and hope for the best for residents in Virginia, the Carolinas and other threatened states. At the same time, this close call is all too familiar a reminder of just how much our region is at risk and how underprepared our communities remain. RPA renews it’s call for a Coastal Commission as a more proactive approach to planning and adaptation to protect residents, businesses and the vital infrastructure along our coasts. Sea level rise, which is accelerating in our region, will make the surges associated with storms worse, while presenting a longer-term threat of permanent flooding to hundreds of municipalities in the tri-state region. One such community that has been thinking about this threat is Piermont, New York, along the banks of the Hudson River. Friend and frequent collaborator, Bennett Brooks from the Consensus Building Institute, penned a blog earlier this summer detailing efforts to plan for a more resilient Piermont. As the threat of rising seas and storm surge take the stage this week, we thought Bennett’s piece deserved a read.
Imagine you live along the Hudson River. In the quiet mornings and evenings, you can gaze at the marsh across the street, watch the birds move through the tall grasses, or simply sit and enjoy the beautiful sunrises. It’s a quiet block in a peaceful corner of the village.
Now imagine in that same place there’s a raging storm sending a surge of water up the river. The water from the Hudson pours up into your street, into your backyard, onto your first floor. It used to be that such events happened only when a passing hurricane or Nor’easter made a direct hit, often many years apart. But these days, even seasonal high tides can encroach on your home. Several times a year, it’s impossible to leave for work in the morning without hip waders. A well-informed neighbor sends out alerts about periodic floods, reminding you to park your car on higher, drier ground, but there’s little you can do to keep the salty waters from slowly poisoning your garden or seeping into your basement. You feel helpless knowing full well this flooding is only going to worsen over the coming decades.
This is the existential threat confronting residents, businesses, and local leaders in Piermont, NY, a small riverfront community just 20 miles north of New York City. But unlike many, Piermont is tackling the problem head on. Over the past few years, CBI has been supporting Piermont’s efforts. In our eyes, the approach this village has taken offers a model for many communities tackling similar challenges.
Our work with Piermont started in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the devastating 2012 storm that ravaged the New York metropolitan area and caused upwards of $20 million in damage in Piermont. Our efforts in Piermont have been varied – from facilitating a Sea Level Rise Task Force to fostering collaboration between Piermont and other like-minded riverfront communities working to develop coastal resilience plans. Our most recent work – still ongoing – has centered on bringing residents together in small neighborhood groups to begin talk about how, or even whether, their neighborhoods can remain habitable in the coming decades.
Our work suggests some lessons to consider when facing sea level rise:
- Understand the risk. Piermont has taken the time to understand the risk it faces. Starting with a small task force supported by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation Hudson River Estuary Program and the local nonprofit Scenic Hudson, the village has grappled with studies that suggest the Hudson River may rise as much as 6 feet by 2100. These lessons have been shared with the broader community through public meetings, publications, and most recently on a newly launched village website.
- Engage all levels. The work in Piermont is neither top-down nor bottom-up. It’s both. Village leaders appointed the Waterfront Resilience Commission to map out risks and possible solutions. They are supporting efforts that bring the community into dialogue – no small risk when the conversation may surface controversial topics such as whether some areas close to the river will have to be rezoned so that no new building can occur—and even whether some homes will have to be condemned. Residents are also engaged. Last summer, for example, with the support of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, CBI facilitated a series of “living room” conversations in three neighborhoods. In the year ahead, CBI, with the support of the American Arbitration Association, will be training residents on facilitation so they can host peer-to-peer dialogues with neighbors.
- Address immediate needs without losing sight of the long-term challenge. It’s not enough to simply plan for near-term threats. Nor can you just think about the risks decades away. As Piermont has learned, you need to do both. In some of the village’s earliest discussions, the message from residents and businesses was loud and clear: If we don’t talk about and plan for the “next storm,” no one will be willing to talk about the longer-term threat. Piermont has succeeded in keeping both dialogues front and center.
- Dream big but start with small steps. With the help of Cornell University landscape architecture students and the state’s Hudson River Estuary Program, the village reimagined their waterfront with flood-resilient design. The visions don’t offer an immediate path forward, and some call for yielding discrete parts of the village to the rising waters, but they do help the community imagine a sustainable future that draws on and preserves the village’s unique character. At the same time, the village is taking the small steps that make a difference today, from strengthening its emergency response to floods to hiring a new staffer to spearhead resilience planning.
- Keep the conversation personal. Talk about flood risk can quickly get bogged down in science, with good reason. The topic is complex, and people need to understand the risks. But for a family trying to figure out whether their neighborhood will be uninhabitable in the next twenty years or so, these talks can trigger deep emotions. Conversations need to make space for the personal. In the “living room” conversations, thanks to the small size, intimate locations, and personal connections, residents felt safe enough to talk about their fears. These conversations are tough, but as residents said, better to connect with others than lie awake, worrying alone, at 4 a.m.
- Tap into any and all resources possible. Most governments are not stowing away money to fix the Piermonts of the world. But there are resources out there – both public and private – that can help communities begin to understand the problem and chart a way forward. By its willingness to confront its challenges head on, Piermont has been able to tap into a series of small grants that are making it possible to start the conversations and planning efforts needed to shape future options.
- Keep all options on the table. Village leaders have been very deliberate in diving into discussions without a preconceived notion of what a solution might look like. This open-ended approach, while unnerving, is essential. For residents and businesses to engage productively, they need to be partners in identifying and testing possible options.
- Find peers to work with. Fortunately for Piermont, there are other forward-thinking communities in the region like Kingston, Catskill and others equally willing to take on long-term resilience planning. These communities are wisely choosing to coordinate their efforts, from swapping stories and sharing strategies to jointly pursuing outside resources (from grant funding to staffing). This collaboration helps each community maintain focus and energy in the face of an unavoidably uphill climb.
To be sure, Piermont’s path forward is unclear and many challenges remain: understanding the varying risks in its differing riverfront neighborhoods; hammering out a viable long-term plan; finding money to sustain ongoing planning and eventually make the necessary changes; keeping the conversation positive for residents in the face of emotional and financial challenges and the very real possibility of abandoning properties close to the water. But to the village, starting the conversation – as tough as it may feel and as tough as it may be – is the key to building a resilient future.