The crew of the Mary A. Whalen started storm preparations four days before Hurricane Sandy was expected to strike last October. An elementary school class had just finished its visit when the crew began clearing the deck and securing dock lines.
“The Red Hook waterfront Thursday was in full mobilization,” said Carolina Salguero, founding director of PortSide, a nonprofit that operates from the Mary A. Whalen. Salguero lives on the boat, a 75-year-old oil tanker she bought in 2006. Without those preparations, Salguero said, the storm surge might have lifted the 172-foot-long tanker on to the pier.
Also along the Red Hook waterfront before the storm, David Sharps was securing the Lehigh Valley No. 79. The railroad barge, which celebrates its centennial next year, is home to the Waterfront Museum, of which Sharps is president.
“It was like Noah’s Ark. It went way up in the air and it went way down,” Sharps said about his boat during the storm. He purchased the barge for $500 in 1986 and raised his family on its lower level. Because of preparations, Sharps said, boats like his and Salguero’s weathered the storm with minimal damage.
Those on shore were less fortunate. In Red Hook, the owners of approximately 1,388 homes sought repair help from the group Red Hook Volunteers.
If people on land had some of the knowledge boaters have, said Salguero, they would have been better prepared. “The inland community is not preparing the same way,” she said. “People don’t understand the information.”
Now PortSide is planning to teach people that knowledge. “We want to be explaining to them tides, flood surge and wind,” said Salguero. The organization is developing events like talks conducted by boat captains. Salguero said PortSide will seek community feedback in planning these events.
Brooklyn had a vibrant commercial port until the mid-20th century when shipping practices changed, leaving areas like Red Hook largely abandoned. Gentrification, however, has brought new residents to the waterfront, some of whom have little knowledge of what to do when those waters rise.
According to Phillip Lopate, author of the book “Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan” and professor at Columbia University School of the Arts, non-maritime waterfront development is a modern phenomenon. “In the past, people used the waterfront in a much more functional way, not just for leisure,” he said. Today’s waterfront, he added, “becomes a zone of contemplation, a backdrop.”
“People feel protected by the infrastructure, but sometimes Mother Nature and the water are big and powerful,” said Julie Nadel, who serves on the boards of the North River Historic Ship Society and the Tug Pegasus Preservation Project. The Project’s 96-year-old tugboat was docked near TriBeCa during the storm and sustained little damage.
Although Nadel lives one mile inland, sea water still flooded her Jersey City home, she said. Now she checks tide tables to monitor high tide and potential storms. “It’s very helpful to be aware of some of these maritime issues if you live anywhere near the river,” she said.
But Lopate said that some mariner knowledge is irrelevant to people on land. “It's like teaching urbanites to respond to the seasons as if they are farmers,” he said.
Jonathan Boulware, interim president of the South Street Seaport Museum, said programs like the one PortSide is planning are useful in a different way. “Rarely are those programs designed to turn the people in them into mariners,” he said. “The real benefit is connecting people with the water.”
“There has been a loss in public collective consciousness of the waterway, but I wouldn’t say that causes a direct link to vulnerability,” Boulware added. That vulnerability, he said, is due to infrastructure. “In the early 1800s there were floodwaters in Lower Manhattan that were at or near Hurricane Sandy levels. But the Financial District wasn’t here with fiber-optic cables and buried vaults and underground elevator machinery.”
According to Boulware, the Sandy storm surge brought more than six feet of water to the Seaport Museum’s door, which flooded the museum’s basement and lobby and destroyed elevators, escalators and electric and climate control systems. Much of the museum remains closed one year after the storm. “We still have an untold number of millions to spend on repairs before the galleries can be put into play again,” he said.
Boulware has been a licensed boat captain for 18 years, and it is unlikely that his knowledge could have prevented those damages. But when people connect with the water, he said, they can better impact public policy and effect change.
“It’s just about being aware of the power of the water,” said Nadel. “The storm of the century,” she added, “is happening like every year.”