NEW YORK (PIX11) — Ten years after Sandy, experts worry future coastal flooding could be worse and although plans are being considered for storm surge barriers around New York and New Jersey, some have turned to other forms of protection. 

The U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Design kicked off a competition designed around resilience after the superstorm slammed the tri-state area in 2012. The Living Breakwaters Project, designed by SCAPE, came out of the competition with a focus on the south and east shore of Staten Island. 

The borough was one of the most impacted by Sandy. More than half of the deaths associated with the storm in New York City happened in Staten Island, where water reached to 14 feet above ground in Tottenville, according to an impact report

Tottenville, historically known as the Town the Oyster Built, used to be protected by oyster reefs, Pippa Brashear, a resilience principal at SCAPE, explained. They served as wave attenuators, reducing the impact of incoming waves. 

“Over the years since then, with over-harvesting, pollution in the water and dredging that caused sediment, we’ve really lost the oyster reefs across the harbor,” Brashear said. “With that, we’ve lost those other performative benefits. While we’ve lost the habitat and species there, we’ve also seen progressive erosion along the shore.”

The erosion is now compounded by sea level rise. By 2050, seas lapping against the U.S. shore will be 10 to 12 inches higher, according to a 2022 report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and six other federal agencies.

The $107 million Living Breakwaters Project involves submerging stone and concrete structures in the water around Staten Island. The structures have been designed to reduce storm risk and combat erosion in a way similar to what oyster reefs did centuries ago.

Living Breakwaters under construction in Sept. 2022 (Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery)

“Living Breakwaters are a different infrastructure entirely that’s designed to mimic many of the ecosystems and to provide ecosystem services that the oyster reefs did by knocking down waves, but also integrating features of habitat complexities that those oyster reefs once provided,” Brashear said.

Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery Executive Director Katie Brennan described the project as the “next generation of blue-green infrastructure projects designed for enhanced resiliency and climate adaptation.”

“This innovative approach to resiliency demonstrates our state is leading the way on adapting to climate change and protecting New Yorkers,” Brennan said. “The project is the first of its kind and has the potential to serve as a catalyst for future projects like it throughout the world.”

Part of the future of Living Breakwaters involves the installation of oysters. Nonprofit organization Billion Oyster Project will later help bring oysters into the Living Breakwaters. Those oysters will aid in stabilizing eroding shorelines. They’ll also help filter the water and foster biodiversity.

Tottenville isn’t the only location benefiting from reefs. The Billion Oyster Project has restored oysters at 15 reef sites across the five boroughs. They’re also being used to stabilize New Jersey’s shoreline. Living shorelines have also been built around the southwestern tip of Long Island, using oysters, shells and native plants.

Billion Oyster Project workers place oysters in the water from a pier at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City on Friday, August 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

The Hudson River Park Trust, working together with the Billion Oyster Project, installed more than 30 million oysters in the past year, Tina Walsh, assistant vice president of education and outreach for the organization, said. While a lot of their focus is on creating diverse habitats for local fish, the bivalves also aid in shoreline resilience there. 

“Oysters are really ecosystem engineers,” Walsh said. “They cluster and reef together to create reefs and this not only creates habitats for fish, crabs and other organisms, but it also creates shoreline resilience because reefs decrease storm energy and they decrease wave energy during storms.”

It’s important to remember that New York City is a coastal city, Walsh said. There’s 520 miles of shorelines around the five boroughs, Sandy and other storm events can seriously impact the region. The Hudson River Park Trust and other organizations have worked on making positive ecological decisions to protect those shorelines.

“We’re always thinking of ways to incorporate ecological resources when we can,” Walsh said. “Rather than just create a physical barrier it was, well, let’s seed it with oysters and let’s create another feature that’s going to support in many ways.”