Risk of flooding rapidly increasing in Ithaca
You can’t think of Ithaca without thinking of water. Whether it’s the water that fills Cayuga Lake, runs along Cascadilla Creek or falls into the city’s trademark gorges. The environment not only feeds the local economy, but also offers a cultural identity. But of course, water isn’t sentimental. It’s a force of nature. Plenty of Ithacans know all too well the damage that can happen when those waters rise too high. Just last year, Ithaca residents had to dry out their basements after water heights rose to levels not seen in years.
This experience with water reminded me of my home in Central New Jersey. I grew up in an area known semi-colloquially as Bayshore (the shore of Raritan Bay). Towns like Hazlet, Middletown, Keyport, Keansburg and Union Beach were once small farming communities, with a vibrant shore economy that was later settled in the post-war era. It was the go-to destination for city dwellers looking for a fun day at the beach or on the boardwalk. Now, things aren’t too different. Many of the same families reside in the area as did in the 1950s, the beaches are still there, if a little less pristine, and the boardwalks are still crammed every summer. But what’s also clear is that this community has been scarred. Ten years ago, Superstorm Sandy barreled through New Jersey and New York. No part of Bayshore was spared from this storm, but Union Beach got hit the worst. Homes were left desolate with people’s whole lives carried away by the rising tide. Not to mention the impact on the local economy with whole businesses destroyed. The only solution was to rise above it, literally. Driving around Union Beach, and other shore communities, you’ll find homes sitting several feet above the ground, raised after the waters receded.
Ithaca is very different, with a different history, different economy and different people. But I fear the people of Ithaca could soon face scarring much like what Union Beach and Bayshore faced.
In February, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a draft of an updated flood map for the city of Ithaca that showed a large swath of the city at risk of serious flooding. Not only would the city risk flooding from Cayuga Lake, but also the various creeks that flow throughout the community. The risk of catastrophic flooding is one percent every year, or a “once in a century flood.” That’s not to say the city doesn’t face challenges from non-catastrophic floods. Note that this map is still preliminary, but could be an early warning sign for the Ithaca community.
This is not only concerning because of its direct effect on the homes and livelihoods of Ithaca’s residents, but it will also have a substantial impact on Ithaca’s already problematic housing market. The city has had consistent problems with a shortage of affordable housing. With the additional costs of mandated flood insurance, the cost of housing will continue to rise for both homeowners and renters.
But Ithaca isn’t without recourse. In early 2020, a “Local Flood Hazard Analysis” was prepared for the city. This report offered numerous recommendations for the city to mitigate both the economic and human risks of severe flooding. The recommendations include several infrastructural improvements such as “dredging” the Cascadilla Creek and the Cayuga Inlet. Dredging is a process where sediment is removed from rivers and creeks, creating more capacity for water, and less risk of flooding. The report goes on to recommend the erection of floodwalls along with a number of other infrastructural improvements. The report also suggests various institutional measures including an investigation of the “Community Rating System participation.” This is a program by FEMA that allows communities which enforce flood mitigation systems to benefit from discounted Flood Insurance plans. This could assist the Ithaca community in mitigating the effect on housing prices. The report also encourages the City of Ithaca to review local laws and regulations to optimize water management and maintenance of the flood control systems.
According to the report, all of this will require cooperation between the City of Ithaca and the Tompkins County Government, the State of New York, the Army Corps of Engineers and Cornell University.
You may think this concern is unfounded especially considering the risk of one percent every year. But let’s look back to Union Beach. You see, a number of years ago, a group of Union Beach residents encouraged their mayor and Borough Council to pursue a project called the Bayshore Erosion Project. The goal was to mitigate the flooding the community had seen years earlier during a hurricane. It involved multiple local governments in the Bayshore area. The Union Beach government decided not to pursue the project for a number of reasons including the project’s cost, and the belief the money could be better spent elsewhere.
This didn’t happen two years ago, or three years ago: it happened in 1966. The hurricane they were responding to wasn’t Sandy, it was Hurricane Donna that slammed Bayshore in 1960. The project was ultimately completed in 1973 providing protection to Keansburg, Hazlet and Middletown. Not Union Beach.
In a February 11th edition of the local Daily Register newspaper, local residents explained why they were so upset that their town government wasn’t pursuing this project. “We are convinced floodwaters will be twice as high when the proposed bulkheads and levees are completed. Most people here, except the mayor and council, it seems, feel that a future Hurricane ‘Donna’ will wipe out large portions of Union Beach and involve human lives.”
It took nearly 50 years, but they were right.
That once in a century flood will happen. Hopefully, not for a very long time. Long enough for the community to prepare and survive. Ithaca’s elected officials must learn from the mistakes of Union Beach’s elected officials. The city must pursue these measures with haste to protect the Ithaca community so many have come to love. The last thing Ithacans must do is allow the “once in a century” moniker to be an excuse for inaction.
George Christopher is a third-year journalism major currently lifting Garden Apartments up on stilts. They can be reached at [email protected]