Hard defenses, such as levees or land berms, are often considered the most effective approach to reduce flood risk. This study reveals a potential increase in mortality when hard protections cannot defend a location against low-probability, extreme flood events. Staten Island, New York, suffered devastating damage from Hurricane Sandy, including 23 fatalities, of which 18 occurred in the neighborhoods along the island’s eastern shore. This study demonstrates that the elevated berm along the eastern shore may have contributed to the concentration of fatalities in the area by increasing the speed at which seawater rose, causing some people to be trapped in places where they could not escape rising waters. The study uses a hydrodynamic model to simulate Hurricane Sandy flood conditions, providing water depth, rise rate, and velocity. Statistical analyses show that water rise rate influences mortality, while other flood characteristics and several demographic and socioeconomic factors do not. A model experiment that qualitatively examines flood conditions in the presence of a lower discontinuous berm that historically existed at the location in Midland Beach finds that the increased height and continuity of the berm increased probability of mortality by worsening the water rise rate during Sandy by about 50%. The potential increase in mortality needs to be taken into account when designing coastal protections. If a protection strategy does not prevent low-probability, extreme floods, then there is a trade-off between protection against more frequent floods and increased risk of mortality during extreme floods.
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Tsuchiya and Kawata (1981) and Boyd et al. (2005) research on the relationship between water characteristics and mortalities. Water rise rate was found to have effect on flood mortality in the 1953 flood event in the Netherlands (Jonkman et al. 2008). Other studies investigate human instability in floodwater flows (Abt et al. 1989; Lind and Hartford 2000; Ramsbottom et al. 2004; Milanesi et al. 2016). The studies were based on experiments that simulate an outdoor environment, in which people were standing in flowing water facing a flood.
5 The focus on blocks that contain residences excludes parks and natural, wetland areas. The flooded parts of the East and South Shores are mainly residential, with businesses located on blocks that also contain residences. No deaths occurred in the parks or natural areas.
6 The high proportion of the resolved units with zero mortality reduces the applicability of linear regression. Instead of studying specific values of mortality or mortality fraction, logistic regression evaluates which factors influence a variable’s relationship with probability of mortality by building a binary dataset where zeros represent no death and ones represent at least one death in a given spatial unit (e.g. grid cell, census block).
The neighborhood of Midland Beach, the area behind the berm where most of the fatalities were concentrated, has the same or higher percentage of white residents as neighboring neighborhoods (see for example https://statisticalatlas.com/neighborhood/New-York/New-York/).
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We thank Hugh Roberts and Zachary Cobell (ARCADIS U.S., Inc., Highlands Ranch, CO) who provided their ADCIRC model grid and helped inform our model settings for the study.
This research was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office (Agreement NA15OAR4310147). Modeling was made possible by a grant of computer time from the City University of New York High Performance Computing Center under NSF Grants CNS-0855217, CNS-0958379 and ACI-1126113.
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Zhang, F., Orton, P.M., Madajewicz, M. et al. Mortality during Hurricane Sandy: the effects of waterfront flood protection on Staten Island, New York. Nat Hazards 103, 57–85 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-03959-0
- Flood risk
- Hard defense
- Hurricane Sandy
- Hydrodynamic modeling