I found myself going out to stand on my front stoop a lot on the night of October 29, 2012. We lived in a flood zone but chose not to evacuate, like many of our neighbors. Around nine o’clock we were pretty much stranded — surrounded by floodwaters on all sides. If I looked down for a few seconds to fix my faulty flashlight, I would have missed the water rise about 2 feet. But why would we evacuate if Hurricane Irene caused little to no damage the year before?
Two months before Sandy, I entered my thesis year at NYIT. It was my last year in architecture school. I wanted to focus my year-long research and design project on something meaningful. I chose to study the deteriorating coastal built and natural ecosystems of the Newtown Creek industrial waterway in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY.
My research and analysis of the site was going fairly well for a while, then all of a sudden Superstorm Sandy happened. My project — and my life for that matter — totally changed in one night. For several months I relied on the kindness of my friends from school and extended family. They gave me a warm place to stay and food to eat. One night here, two nights there, really overstaying my welcome as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t really focus on my work as much as I wanted to during this time. Life was pretty chaotic.
Our family had a game plan. We went back to our home every day and called FEMA, obtained rental cars, hauled debris out of our basement and garage, helped my grandfather (who lived a block south of us) take possessions out of his flooded crawl space and helped friends move saturated debris out of their homes. My car was (luckily) stranded near my college in Old Westbury, NY a couple days before Sandy came. That car gave me nothing but trouble for years, and just when I thought it could finally be taken away in a flood, it was safely nestled in an autobody garage 30 miles away from the coast. Turns out that I needed that car now more than ever.
It was a very humbling experience. I got to know my neighbors very well during that time. They threw us extension cords before we could get a generator to plug in our refrigerator and phone chargers. I learned how to siphon gas from flooded cars. I learned everything there is to know about sump pumps, admittedly after the fact. We used our grill to heat up water to make coffee and tea. My parents seemed to be on the phone with FEMA for hours every day, mostly on hold, to try and get our flood damage claim submitted and processed. We reluctantly waited for the Red Cross mobile recovery vehicles occasionally to come by so we could get warm blankets and food. I worked harder in those few months than I ever had before, just trying to get to a normal state of mind again.
My thesis project was in limbo for about a month. As soon as school opened up again I didn’t even want to go back. All I could think of was staying in my town to help those who needed it the most. I just felt so weird going back into studio knowing that I could be so much more useful helping my family and friends recover.
In terms of my project, I guess you could say that Sandy was a wake-up call. It brought into mind a totally new line of research that I hadn’t even thought about prior to the storm — the issue of flooding from storm surges on the Creek. I found every book I could dealing with flooding, climate change, surface runoff, flood-resistant architecture, you name it. The list of materials I drew information from became endless. I drew a lot of information from the Dutch and how they dealt with flooding for hundreds of years. They used hard-infrastructure to prevent flooding. Storm surge barriers, canal locks, dikes, levees, polders, and so on.
At the same time I was on a roll with my research, a group of students including myself started thinking of what our larger action could become in the aftermath of the storm. With the help from faculty, we organized a bus tour of Long Beach, one of the hardest hit communities on Long Island. We started a student-led committee called Operation Resilient Long Island with the intent of helping these communities think of longer term strategies for recovery and reconstruction.
The problem became that each individual homeowner had a critical decision to make in how they want to rebuild. The towns they live in don’t have any plan on keeping local community character intact. Homes will be raised while others remain on the ground. That’s why we started the 3C Competition. We wanted to engage the global community to focus on this problem. We defined this problem in our competition brief but kept it open ended as to receive varied entries and then find patterns within them that could correspond to any number of towns in the tri-state area and beyond. We were successful. With over 60 submissions received we went straight to work and came up with this playbook for towns and residents to use as a guide to keep their community character intact for generations to come.
I’ll never forget standing on my front stoop that night. I looked to the sky and for some reason there wasn’t a cloud in sight. Instead, a full moon was staring at me. Its glow on the floodwater in the street was sort of beautiful — a surreal moment during a night I will never forget.