The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Administration freezes a study that considered a NYC sea wall that Trump called ‘foolish’

Army Corps decision could derail study on protecting New York and New Jersey coastlines in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

The streets under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn are flooded as Hurricane Sandy hit the city on Oct. 29, 2012. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

The Trump administration has frozen a major study aimed at preparing the New York and New Jersey waterfront from storm surges, sea-level rise and other climate impacts, a month after the president had called one of its proposals “foolish.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been overseeing a six-year, $19 million analysis of what steps New York and New Jersey residents living along the Atlantic Ocean’s coast can take to avert the kind of damage that Hurricane Sandy wreaked in 2012. Scientists predict coastal storms will intensify in coming years and that their impact will be exacerbated by sea-level rise linked to climate change.

In an email Friday, the agency announced the “indefinite postponement” of a public meeting planned for Thursday in Rockaway Park because the New York New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study “did not receive federal appropriation funding” in the agency’s work plan this year. It did not elaborate on why the agency chose not to fund the initiative, which began in 2016.

The New York-based Newsday first reported the freeze in funding on Monday. The Corps of Engineers did not respond to a request Tuesday for comment about the matter.

“The administration is being penny-wise and pound-foolish by not funding the studies that allow New York to prepare for the next superstorm,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “There was no reason given for these cuts — because there is no answer.”

Federal, state and city officials have been analyzing a range of possible measures aimed at blunting the impact of more powerful storms and extensive flooding. The Corps of Engineers has outlined five barrier plans, four of which include retractable sea walls. One of those is a gigantic storm surge barrier that would cost roughly $110 billion and stretch from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to the Rockaways in New York.

On Jan. 18, after the New York Times published a front-page piece about the prospect of a sea wall, Trump tweeted that it “is a costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly idea that, when needed, probably won’t work anyway.”

Robert Freudenberg, the Regional Plan Association vice president for energy and environment, who has worked on the study, said in an interview that freezing funding at this point is a major setback.

“There are real questions about whether this is a fatal blow to this important study,” said Freudenberg, whose group conducts urban research and advocacy and operates in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. “It matches a pattern of political retribution against the Northeast.”

Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geoscience and international affairs at Princeton University, said that “from a nonpolitical perspective, it’s totally counterproductive” to freeze spending on the coastal project.

“Depending on how high sea level eventually rises, some very large-scale measures might be needed to protect the [New York-New Jersey] region, including building surge barriers and planning to relocate some residents,” said Oppenheimer, who lives in New York and had been planning on attending the meeting Thursday. “These are not projects that can be planned, financed, and implemented overnight.”

He said “surge barriers, even the best of the large-scale ones, take decades to go from conception to completion.”

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued a statement saying it “continues to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and our local partners to advance a number of projects to improve New York’s coastal resiliency to sea level rise and more intense and frequent storms.”