New way to fight hurricanes
Stevens prof wants funding to build islands off NJ, NY
by Dean DeChiaro
Reporter staff writer
Mar 09, 2014 | 3582 views | 0 0 comments | 64 64 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WEATHER WIZARD -- Dr. Alan Blumberg, who runs the Center for Maritime Systems at Stevens Institute of Technology, has developed a plan to build islands around the Tri-State area. He used data from past hurricanes that he analyzed using technology he created.
WEATHER WIZARD -- Dr. Alan Blumberg, who runs the Center for Maritime Systems at Stevens Institute of Technology, has developed a plan to build islands around the Tri-State area. He used data from past hurricanes that he analyzed using technology he created.
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A scientist at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken has applied for federal funding to build a series of islands off the coast of New York and New Jersey in an effort to head off, and lessen the intensity of, future Hurricane Sandy-like storms, which he believes will only get worse with each strike.

Dr. Alan Blumberg, who runs Stevens’ distinguished Center for Maritime Systems, is a finalist in the Rebuild by Design competition, the same contest for federally funded storm resiliency projects for which the city of Hoboken is also a finalist. The contest is run by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Development, which will dispense up to $4 billion for up to 10 projects next month.

The plan, which Blumberg developed with the urban design firms WXY and West8, is to build three sets of islands along the southern shore of Long Island, at the mouth of New York Bay near Hoboken, and along the Jersey Shore to Long Beach Island. The islands would be constructed by naval engineers using sand from 5,000-year-old glacial deposits further offshore. They’d be about 10 to 12 miles from the coast, well out of sight.
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“The major advantage to this project is that it’s a regional approach to a regional problem.” -- Dr. Alan Blumberg
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The islands have other benefits as well, Blumberg says. In addition to bearing the brunt of any oncoming storm surge, the islands would create a calmer beach region, offer new ecosystems, and lessen the need for individual towns, like Hoboken, to take on costly projects of their own. They’re expensive, Blumberg admits, costing between $5.6 and $12.2 billion to build, but according to his estimates, could save the region $12 billion in damage on one storm alone.

“The major advantage to this project is that it’s a regional approach to a regional problem,” he said in an interview last week. “We understand that if we win it won’t mean someone is going to throw the whole $10 billion we need at us, but it would give us a chance to get going and get money from the governors, the federal government, and philanthropists.”

Currents, undercurrents, and storms past

Blumberg is the developer of the New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System (NYHOPS), which uses buoys positioned throughout the region to measure the speed and direction of currents, undercurrents, water salinity, and other factors. It can provide a fairly accurate weather forecast for up to 72 hours in the future, making it useful to everyone from NY Waterways to the U.S. Coast Guard to the average Hoboken kayakers. But it also predicts hypothetical situations, like a future Sandy, and provided crucial information to Blumberg as he decided where to construct his islands.

“Storms come from different directions, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build a plan based solely on what happened with Sandy,” he said. “We ran models from Hurricane Donna in 1961, the nor’easter of 1992, and Sandy through a certain configuration to come up with the positions of the islands.”

Right at the mouth of New York Bay, Blumberg noted, there would be a small opening but no island, which to some might seem as if the plan leaves the most vulnerable point of penetration undefended. But nearly all major hurricanes make landfall parallel to a coastline, not head on, said Blumberg, hence the islands’ concave position along the shoreline.

There are some drawbacks to the plan, besides the pricetag. There could be unforeseen effects on the nutrients in the region’s water, which would affect commercial and recreational fishing, and there are other ecological concerns. The plan also does not address rising sea levels, though Blumberg noted that so far, there are no proven strategies that do.

‘When bad things happen’

Blumberg is no stranger to high-profile projects such as this one. Using naval engineering technology that he helped develop, he correctly predicted the exact effects of Hurricane Sandy on Hoboken 72 hours prior to the storm. He once located the body of a drowned policeman in the Hackensack River after a multiday search by emergency services failed to find the person, and he advised rescue workers on current patterns when US Airways Flight 1459 landed in the Hudson River.

“I’m the guy that gets involved when bad things happen,” he said. “Hopefully this plan can prevent those things from happening. We can’t stop storms, but we can take the edge off.”

Blumberg acknowledged two other Stevens scientists, Sergey Vinogradov, his research associate, and Larry Yin, a second-year graduate student, for their help on the project.

Dean DeChiaro may be reached at deand@hudsonreporter.com

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