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Anyone aware of the New York Bight can see that the wedge-shaped harbor opening will funnel storm surges directly up the Hudson and East Rivers and inundate the city.  London has suffered immense storm surges from the North Sea that have been recorded as far back as the Roman occupation.   Bridges and structures were destroyed with a huge loss of life.  Large surges occurred infrequently, and people have short memories, or considered it divine retribution.  It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the Brits began to consider that these surges were not inevitable, but could be defended against.  The Thames estuary is triangular, and funnels large water volumes upstream.   It took over 50 years, but the Thames Barrier finally became operational in 1982 and saved the city from the watery hand of fate.

So, what has this got to do with New York City?  City engineers were aware of the major threat of a huge storm surge moving up the Hudson estuary, and in the 1930’s began to consider construction of a tidal barrier running across The Narrows, from Brooklyn to Staten Island (current site of the Verrazano Bridge).  It would have been the largest barrier in existence, dwarfing some the structures seen in the Netherlands today.   The idea worked its way up the chain of command and was finally brought to the attention of Robert Moses, the most powerful man in the city (and state-read Robert Caro’s “the Power Broker” for more details).

I learned about this from a retired engineer, who was former head of the entire New York City water and sewage departments for decades.  He lived in my town and shared a number of insights into how the city actually ran.  He once contradicted Moses on an engineering point (Moses was wrong), but the next day he found himself exiled, counting trees in Van Cortland Park, 12 miles from City Hall.

Anyhow, my friend related the story of how he, and a number of other NYC engineers met with Robert Moses at Battery Park, the southernmost tip of Manhattan Island.  The engineers explained what they had in mind, and Moses stood with his arms crossed (or holding a staff, like his namesake) listening intently to their concerns about storm surges and the necessity of doing something to prevent a watery catastrophe from striking Manhattan and nearby Boroughs.

Robert Moses rendered his decision-  he liked the view out into the open harbor, and scuttled the idea on esthetic grounds.  It was never brought up again.  So if NYC is inundated, hundreds die, subways are flooded, and Wall Street comes to a grinding halt, paralyzing the economy of the country, thank Robert Moses and his sense of taste.

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