Around midnight on a frigid Wednesday in December, New York’s Hunts Point Market was charged with the kind of constant, kinetic energy one would expect from the largest food distribution center in the world. Across a loading dock, a young man pushed a hand truck piled high with boxes of Brazilian mangoes. In the other direction, a quarter-ton of Idaho potatoes zipped past on a forklift. A frenzy of boots and wheels pulverized spilled strawberries into a dark pool of liquid fruit. Under the bright fluorescent lights, giant towers of mandarin oranges from California, blueberries from Chile, and bell peppers from the Netherlands swiftly disappeared into nearby trucks. The scale of the vast refrigerated storerooms was otherworldly; one warehouse held enough onions seemingly to supply an entire civilization.
In the seafood terminal, fresh perch from Egypt, caught in the Nile, arrived on ice. Men in rubber pants and knee-high boots deftly hoisted the fish onto cutting tables with metal hooks, while restaurateurs and fishmongers roamed the stalls, making deals with fistfuls of cash. In a glass-windowed office overlooking the docks, five clean-shaven men in sweaters sipped mugs of coffee behind computer monitors, keeping tabs on the chaos.
All told, 8,000 people work inside this sprawling 329-acre campus. Each year, 3.3 billion pounds of produce from 49 states and 55 countries pass through Hunts Point Market. Twenty-four hours a day, a fleet of 13,000 trucks disperses this food across the New York region, serving upwards of 22 million people within a 50-mile radius. As much as half of New York’s produce, meat, and fish flows through Hunts Point before arriving at supermarkets, bodegas, food trucks, school cafeterias, restaurants, and soup kitchens across the five boroughs. “You hear people say New York is a melting pot, with world-class ethnic cuisine,” said Vincent Pacifico, the owner of Vista Food Exchange Inc., a large meat company at Hunts Point. “It all comes from the market.”
For half a century, Hunts Point has stood as a marvel of the modern global supply chain, a grand hub that allows New Yorkers to enjoy everything from dim sum to keftedes to bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, morning, noon, and night. At its ground-breaking in 1962, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner called the new market a “dream come true.” The New York Times heralded it as a “paradise of convenience.” But the market is also the thing that may ultimately grind the city to a halt.
As global temperatures rise and the Antarctic ice sheet melts, scientists predict sea levels could increase by as much as six to eight feet by the end of the century, submerging large swaths of lower Manhattan and the outer boroughs. Long before that, the warmer temperatures will continue to create stronger and more extreme weather events, like Hurricane Sandy, which pummeled New York in October 2012. Sandy was initially considered a 100-year storm. But for New York, the probability of another extreme flooding event increases every year. Under today’s conditions, a storm like Sandy will strike once every 25 years. By 2030, scientists expect an extreme storm to hit New York once every five years. With enough sea-level rise, the threat of the next hurricane raises the alarming possibility of a towering wall of water sweeping inland from the Atlantic Ocean, down the Long Island Sound, and toward the city.
Hunts Point Market will bear the brunt of this mammoth storm surge. Situated on a peninsula that juts out into the East River, the market is exposed to the water on three sides. When the next superstorm comes, giant waves of corrosive salt water will pound the market, knocking out its electrical system and making it impossible to keep food refrigerated and safe for human consumption. The hundreds of refrigerated trucks that hold up to half of the food in the market will be destroyed. The giant crates of avocados, pallets of tomatoes, and boxes of meat and fish will all be swept away, left to bob along aimlessly until the water deposits them elsewhere in the city, together with the rest of the debris.
A storm that cripples Hunts Point Market will sever New York’s food supply and dramatically alter life in the city. Approximately 17,000 restaurants and cafes and 10,000 bodegas and grocery stores rely on Hunts Point to keep their shelves and larders filled. In the aftermath of a superstorm, restaurants might create abridged post-disaster menus with whatever they have on hand or are able to procure from local retail stores. Soon even these limited supplies will dwindle, and restaurants will have to close temporarily. Unable to replenish their stocks, grocery stores, deli counters, and salad bars will quickly run out of food as well. Such disruptions will last for days or perhaps weeks, and certain businesses—particularly smaller, independent ones—might be forced to shutter their doors permanently.
It’s not hard to imagine such a scenario. In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy flooded New York’s subways, damaged 60 miles of city streets, and knocked out power to lower Manhattan, thousands of food delivery trucks couldn’t reach their destinations, leaving many stores empty. It took some grocers up to two weeks to restock their shelves. Meanwhile, New Yorkers—particularly low-income residents who couldn’t easily relocate to less affected areas of the city—were forced to scrounge for food. Residents of the Lower East Side rummaged through the dumpsters outside the Key Food Supermarket in search of items that had not yet completely spoiled. In Staten Island, a newly built restaurant was picked up by the floodwaters and washed out to sea.
Despite the $65 billion worth of damages caused by Hurricane Sandy, it could have been much worse. By the time Sandy made landfall, the storm had been downgraded by the National Hurricane Center to a post-tropical cyclone. As Nicholas Coch, a geologist at Queens College told the environmental news web site Grist, “Sandy was not the Big One.” He warned that New Yorkers weren’t prepared for what a full-scale hurricane would do to the city.
Indeed, by a stroke of luck, Hunts Point Market avoided serious damage during Sandy. The storm had made landfall during low tide, which resulted in a storm surge of only 13 feet in the Long Island Sound. If the storm had hit nine hours earlier, during high tide, oceanographers estimate that the storm surge would have risen as high as 18 feet above normal levels—more than enough to swamp the market, which sits at sea level, and devastate New York’s food supply completely.
The potential severity of Hurricane Sandy has served as a revelatory moment for New York and other major cities around the United States that have suddenly found themselves confronted with a new existential threat. Over the past century, America’s metropolises, from New York to Boston to San Francisco, have developed massive, complex, and centralized food systems in order to power their extraordinary growth. These food hubs, like San Francisco’s wholesale produce market in the Bayview commercial district and Boston’s produce market, north of the city in neighboring Chelsea and Everett, are situated in low-lying industrial zones along the water—on cheap, abundant land from which food can be distributed quickly and easily. The centralization of these food vendors has created economic advantages of scale for the suppliers, particularly as city centers have deindustrialized their ports and become more reliant on trucks delivering goods in containers.
For New York, there were additional reasons to push factories and warehouses to the city’s edge. Relocating industry to the least affluent borough, the Bronx, allowed for the rezoning of wealthier lower Manhattan neighborhoods for commercial and residential development. Like many large cities, New York aggressively remade its industrial footprint from the 1960s to the 1990s: For every two sections of the city rezoned for industry, three industrial zones were converted into other uses.
As neighborhoods like SoHo, Chelsea, and Williamsburg replaced factories and warehouses with boutiques and luxury condos, heavy industry became increasingly consolidated in the Bronx, pushing out residents and small businesses. Along with Hunts Point Market, the Bronx became home to dozens of waste-transfer stations—all of which increased truck traffic and exhaust fumes, as well as air contaminants—that were far removed from the city’s thriving downtown neighborhoods. In the 1960s and ’70s, when threats from sea-level rise were a foreign concept, the trend to relocate critical industrial facilities along the waterfront of New York’s poorest borough might have been seen by those who benefited from it as an entrepreneurially savvy move.
“Hurricane Sandy was a big wake-up call,” said Kim Zeuli, an economist who studies food systems at ICIC, an urban economic development group in Boston. “It was the unthinkable event, a near miss on our food supply. We suddenly realized there was something new and different out there that we hadn’t even thought of yet.” Now cities are scrambling to find ways to protect their food systems from the next disaster.
Before Hurricane Sandy, the only serious threat to Hunts Point Market had been the high rate of neighborhood crime that hit all levels of business. In the market’s offices on the second floor above the food stalls, clerks in the 1970s kept guns in their drawers, relying on bodyguards to deter cashbox robberies. Weekend watchmen were outwitted by thieves who drilled through the walls or otherwise broke into the storerooms to extricate prized crates of garlic worth thousands of dollars. Taller fences, razor wire, and tighter perimeter security helped tamp down nefarious activity, although the sex workers who serviced the truck drivers remained a perennial issue. Beyond that, the only other real concern about the market was the terribly high rate of asthma found in the neighborhood’s children. With the exhaust of 13,000 trucks moving through the area each day, the number of children in the Hunts Point section of the borough who are hospitalized for asthma is more than twice the city average.
Indeed, there was much to appreciate about the market’s location when it was initially built in 1962. Situated on what had been vacant lots and auto graveyards, the campus allowed easy access to bridges heading west and north of the city. And by designing it from the ground up with modern flourishes such as electric lights and climate-controlled facilities, the city, which owns and operates the campus today through the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), was able to attract and consolidate vendors from around New York.
The market was initially designed to replace the aging Washington Market in lower Manhattan, which Mayor Wagner said had “outlived its usefulness.” In 1974, a group of meat businesses also moved into a newly built terminal at Hunts Point, and in 2005, the Fulton Fish Market similarly left its home on the Manhattan waterfront for its own terminal on the campus. “In Hunts Point, they have everything together,” said Rae Zimmerman, a professor emerita of planning and public administration at New York University who studies infrastructure systems. For years, such consolidation offered convenience. The Bronx afforded proximity to major interstate highways, with nearly 50 percent of the Hunts Point Market truck traffic traveling over the George Washington Bridge. With all the trucks bringing their supplies to the vendors in the same place, the market businesses reaped the economic and supply chain benefits that lowered their expenses and made deliveries more predictable.
Certainly, when Hunts Point Market was originally built, it seemed like a godsend for a city that was struggling to keep up with its explosive growth. Big and bustling, the new market was christened the “Grand Central Station of broccoli” by one writer. By the middle of the twentieth century, the city’s population had swelled to a staggering 7.9 million, and Washington Market, founded in 1812 in what is now the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, was ill-equipped to satisfy the city’s voracious appetite. In 1929, 20 percent of the city’s food arrived by truck. But by 1958, trucks carried nearly 50 percent of the food entering New York—creating a nightmare of congestion. Trucks that were too long to turn onto the narrow downtown streets were forced to idle as close to the market as they could, while smaller trucks shuttled shipments the final distance. Some distributors gave up on driving into lower Manhattan altogether and instead loaded their wares onto barges on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. The market vendors scooped up the goods at Manhattan piers and hauled them the final few blocks to the market with hand trucks.
By getting the truck-intensive, overcrowded food markets out of downtown, the city was able to return the misused blocks and neighborhoods to a higher purpose. Not long after Washington Market was destined for the Bronx, the City Planning Commission began eyeing the aging Fulton Fish Market on the Lower East Side, hoping to reimagine the area as an “Old New York” neighborhood, where shops, a museum, and restored historic buildings could greet visitors who’d just finished their tour of the nineteenth- century ships docked permanently along the pier. Although it would take the city years to get the fish vendors up to Hunts Point, the attempt to sanitize the city of its industrial zones was a major urban planning priority for New York’s midcentury officials. In place of the gritty stalls of Washington Market, city planners envisioned office buildings, luxury housing, and landscaped walkways—which is essentially what stands there today.
It was with great fanfare, then, that the city finally announced that it was building a new market at Hunts Point. The city invested $330 million to convert the vacant lots strewn with junked cars into the clean and modern urban food hub of the future. No one gave much thought to the fact that the new market was a stone’s throw from the water.
To protect Hunts Point from the next superstorm, the city’s EDC has begun working with New York’s Office of Emergency Management and the newly formed Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR) on a $45 million project to fortify the campus. Launched in 2015, the project’s primary focus has been to protect the market’s energy supply. If the electricity can stay on—even if Con Edison, the electrical utility, is knocked offline—then at least some of the food can be safely stored on the top shelves of refrigerated storerooms and freezers, away from the threat of floodwaters. After funding the project, New York state Senator Jeff Klein called the energy plan a “critical step towards building back our city stronger than ever before.”
The plan consists of two major components: The first is the physical hardware to keep the electricity flowing to the market; the second is what the EDC, which leads the team, refers to as the plan’s “human capital,” or protocols for how market vendors and city agencies should respond to various disaster scenarios. But progress on both the hardware and the disaster planning has been sluggish.
The hardware includes a battery-powered generator dedicated to the fish market terminal, as well as a microgrid that can run independent of the Con Edison system and provide power to the meat and produce markets for at least three days. However, last year the multi-agency team missed a key deadline to complete the project’s conceptual design, and the EDC and the ORR have yet to identify sites for the generator and microgrid. Without the sites finalized, the EDC and ORR cannot finish the design and start building the actual components. Despite the delays, according to an EDC spokesperson, the project’s physical components are still on track to be completed by 2022. Until then, there is little to secure the market physically from another major storm. As of today, temporary stacks of sandbags serve to protect the refrigeration for the meat market alone—leaving the produce and fish markets as exposed as they were more than five years ago during Hurricane Sandy.
For the human capital component of the project plan, the EDC, under the direction of the Office of Emergency Management, is supposed to inform market managers of best practices in the event of a disaster—including the creation of backup supply chains and emergency delivery routes. So far, only the emergency protocols for the produce market have been finalized; the meat and fish vendors are still waiting. “All the security and emergency training we’ve done ourselves,” said Vincent Pacifico, the meat vendor. “If the EDC has worked on security planning, I’m not aware of it.”
Poor implementation aside, the EDC’s plan to protect Hunts Point fails to take into account the ways in which the broader food supply system might be affected when another disaster strikes. Ideally, in the days and hours before another superstorm, the thousands of trucks that pick up food from Hunts Point would be moved to lots protected from storm surges—a challenge in a city where every square foot comes at a premium. Backup fuel supplies should be ready and accessible in the event of a fuel shortage. And in order to keep the market itself running smoothly, vendors would need to have a reserve of standby workers on hand who could get to the market if closed bridges and flooded tunnels leave regular employees stranded at home.
“The city would be crippled if we lost the market,” said Pacifico. “I don’t like to cross my fingers and hope—I like to plan for the future. We’ve made many of our own arrangements.” These include planning how to reach his staff and relocate his fleet of trucks in an emergency. “But I don’t think a lot of business owners have been as diligent as us.”
The EDC is working with the meat and fish markets on their emergency plans now. But the fact that such plans have not yet been finalized by the city only underscores the difficulty in trying to prepare for a disaster that will involve competing agencies and jurisdictions.
“Food resiliency crosses entirely new lines,” Zeuli said, referring to the idea of how well a city can endure disaster or disruptions and continually source and distribute food to residents. In New York, as in most cities, the agency dedicated to the food system—the Office of Food Policy—focuses on food safety and benefit programs like SNAP. Resiliency, however, demands the attention not only of the city’s food office but of multiple departments, including those that oversee the water supply, allowing for food to be washed, and the electrical supply, so it can be refrigerated. And in a city like New York, these are large, independent bureaucracies that were never designed to share oversight of a single city resource. In a disaster scenario, the transportation department is particularly crucial for both the continual distribution of food supplies and the modes of transport that get drivers to their trucks and workers to the markets. But food and transportation are two offices that typically don’t coordinate with each other. “They have never talked to each other,” Zeuli said, “because, before, they never had a reason to.”
In a food system like New York’s, where the vast majority of the food is brought into the city from great distances, nearly everyone is dependent on everyone else being resilient. Managing to feed 8.5 million people daily, moving millions of pounds of fresh food down narrow streets to tens of thousands of stores and cafes—the complexity of this massive system is what makes it such an astonishing machine, its watchlike mechanisms of distribution, electricity, transportation, and food safety all independent parts that rely on each other to operate smoothly in sync. But despite the risks posed by our new era of climate change, no single agency ensures that all other city offices have active food resiliency measures in place—making the food system only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.
Today, America’s major cities are finally beginning to consider the stark realities of sea-level rise and extreme weather events, and how these phenomena threaten the security of their food systems. In San Francisco, for example, a 2014 study found “major gaps” in the city’s ability to distribute food in a disaster. The city’s primary fresh food distribution hub, the SF Market, sits in a low-lying neighborhood that will become increasingly vulnerable to flooding as the sea around San Francisco rises nearly four feet by the end of this century.
In Boston, the city’s planning council saw what could have happened to Hunts Point during Hurricane Sandy and embarked on a risk assessment of its own food system. Boston moved its major produce market from downtown to Chelsea and Everett in the 1960s. Today, the combined New England Produce Center and Boston Market Terminal generates $2.3 billion in economic output while distributing fresh produce to Boston, as well as throughout New England and Eastern Canada. But it is also located on a floodplain, built on a former salt marsh that was filled in the nineteenth century to accommodate the city’s growing development. By 2030, the risk assessment projects that the produce market will face a 5 percent chance of flooding in any given year. By 2070, the likelihood that the market will suffer intense flooding each year rises to 50 percent.
To address this risk, Chelsea’s planning office has developed a $14 million flood-mitigation project with berms and other landscaping designed to keep floodwaters at bay. Capable of being built in three to five years, the project is relatively quick and low-cost compared to what’s underway in Hunts Point. Even so, the project far exceeds Chelsea’s capital improvement budget, and to build it, the city requires funding assistance from the state of Massachusetts and the federal government—money that Chelsea officials have struggled to obtain. Alexander Train, Chelsea’s assistant director of planning and development, said he was frustrated by how difficult it has been to build financial support for the project. “To us,” he said, “it’s very clear that this is one of the most cost-effective investments that anyone can make to protect our food system.”
Still, by even acknowledging the need for a plan to protect their food supplies, Boston and New York are ahead of many other U.S. cities that will also need to face the challenges of a warming planet. Indeed, the two northeast cities are widely viewed as models in the field of climate resiliency—working to protect the fundamental infrastructure that sustains every citizen’s daily life. But if funding and rapid implementation are proving difficult for two of the nation’s most proactive cities, how will other communities prepare for the growing threat? It’s a question that many officials prefer not to answer.
Even as New York begins to fortify Hunts Point against the next superstorm, there is another, arguably better response to the threat that is not being considered: retreat. Initially an ecological term used to describe shorelines moving inland because of erosion, retreat has expanded to encompass an increasingly popular idea among a small but growing cadre of academics, environmental researchers, and urban planners. As climate change, sea-level rise, and extreme weather threaten to make certain communities uninhabitable, proponents of retreat see relocation to safer ground as a necessary tool for residents and businesses alike to adapt to the realities of tomorrow. But retreat is often derided by government officials as an anti-democratic and impractical, if not cowardly, approach in the fight against climate change, removing citizens, and the taxes they pay, from communities they say they can protect from rising seas. As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said not long after Sandy, New Yorkers “cannot and will not abandon our waterfront. It’s one of our greatest assets. We must protect it, not retreat from it.”
But the simple truth is that the market’s low-lying location in the Bronx—the very thing that made it so attractive as a centralized food hub back in 1962—is now its biggest liability. No manner of fortifications—sea walls, backup generators, solar arrays, and dedicated electrical grids—can fully protect the market from a major storm. Just as, 50 years ago, Washington Market needed to relocate from lower Manhattan in order to address the challenges of the time, today, the best way to ensure that Hunts Point Market continues to operate smoothly would be to move it somewhere other than Hunts Point.
“It’s the kind of thing that could protect the city 100 years from now,” said Philip Orton, an oceanographer at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Sea-level rise will make certain coastal areas increasingly dangerous to live in and work in, Orton noted, and so the best course of action would be to accept that fact now and start planning accordingly. “Otherwise you’re putting the problem on future generations.”
Where could Hunts Point Market potentially go? Even before Sandy, the vendors at the market were being courted by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office to move to new facilities in Newark and the Meadowlands. They promised bigger storerooms and better accommodations for truck congestion, which had started to drive up overtime as drivers got stuck waiting to make deliveries. But New York was protective of the thousands of local jobs and millions of dollars it collects each year in rent and negotiated the market vendors into an exclusive agreement that forbade talks to find other locations.
Vendors, too, are not so eager to relocate. Moving the market to New Jersey would saddle them with additional bridge tolls and fuel costs. And the fact that most vendors have also signed long-term leases at the Hunts Point location has sapped enthusiasm for relocating. “For years now, we’ve known we’re in a flood zone, but we’re in the middle of the lease,” said Vincent Pacifico. It’s the responsibility of New York officials, he said, to make sure the market is protected. “The city has to make us ready for another Sandy.”
Such economic calculations fail to take into account the long-term picture, argues Kim Zeuli. “Would New York find a place where it could do business as cost effectively as it does now? Probably not,” Zeuli said. “But if the food supply is for the public good, then maybe subsidies should support the relocation.” The government is currently spending $45 million to upgrade the energy system at Hunts Point—money that could arguably be better spent in service of moving the market elsewhere.
The idea of retreat is not something officials in New York—or anywhere else—want to acknowledge. The growing threat posed by rising seas and extreme weather events can be easily dismissed as unverified speculations about an uncertain future. In 2011, Rick Perry, then a presidential candidate and now the secretary of energy in the Trump administration, denied the core tenet of climate change research that says the planet’s warming is the result of fossil fuels and human activity. The scientists themselves, Perry said, had simply “manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Today, right now, Perry and other skeptics argue that life has to go on regardless of the risks that may or may not exist. But that comfort with the present prompts long-term commitments that continue to anchor us in places that might not be safe tomorrow.
“We’ve made a tremendous investment as a nation, as taxpayers over the years, building up the capacities of our agencies, of our federal scientists, to work effectively on these issues, and we’re walking away from that investment,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’ve got an EPA that’s under assault, along with a range of science-based agencies that are sort of in a siege mentality at this point, led by nonscientists, dismantling the climate resources that these agencies offered. It’s hard to study climate change and advance climate mitigation in that environment.”
Throughout New York, developers continue to build massive projects along the city’s waterfront. Highly touted and with financing from the city, the 28-acre, $25 billion Hudson Yards development in Manhattan and the $2 billion Cornell Campus on Roosevelt Island both sit in the city’s floodplain. Designed shortly after Sandy, the main entrance to the Cornell campus was set two feet above the 500-year flood level to accommodate potential inundation. Encouraging as that may seem, according to rapidly changing climate science models, the two-foot margin already appears insufficient. Daniel Huttenlocher, the dean of the Cornell campus, seems to agree. “Now, of course, with changing sea levels, those numbers are likely to change,” he told The New York Times. But, he added, it was at least higher than most buildings in lower Manhattan.
Hurricane Sandy may have been a wake-up call for New York. But in a certain sense, the storm may not have sparked enough alarm for the city to truly acknowledge what it must do to protect itself. “The primary driver of retreat is a disaster event,” said Robert Freudenberg, the vice president for energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, a research group in New York. “The disaster opens up a brief window of opportunity for the idea of retreat. But once the disaster has passed, people get focused on trying to get their lives back to normal. And the farther you get from a disaster, the less retreat becomes a desirable idea.”
Around the country, too, builders are developing residential and commercial projects in flood-prone areas. In Miami, where seawater flooding the streets has become almost a part of normal life, the real estate market is so flush that one company found it easier to take new condo buyers around on a tour bus to see all the locations for sale. In Charleston, where floods have increased more than 400 percent since the 1960s, with a record 50 days of flooding in 2016, the real estate market continues to grow, with Forbes recently ranking the city as one of the hottest markets to watch in the country.
The economics of retreat make it a difficult political move in a media environment that rewards officials who can be seen as swooping in quickly to spend public dollars to get communities back on their feet. Retreat requires much higher up-front costs to buy out and relocate residents, and the payoff won’t come until years—possibly decades—later.
“The United States has an incentive structure to subsidize residents to live in risky areas and rebuild,” said A.R. Siders, a climate scientist at Stanford. In Harris County in Houston, for example, a single home valued at $114,480 was rebuilt 16 times—at a cost of almost $1 million in federal funds. A better solution, Siders said, would be for the government simply to purchase such homes outright. “If I’m a federal taxpayer, I’m wondering why we didn’t do that a million dollars ago.”
Although there was a brief opportunity for New York to save Hunts Point from future risks, that time seems to have passed. So far removed from Sandy, the city has chosen inadequate protection, a decision that depends on the naïve hope that the market will once again be spared by the next disaster.
American culture is deeply rooted in the idea of continual expansion, of overcoming adversity by dint of our strength and cunning as we fulfill our collective destiny. The notion of retreat thus remains antithetical to the prevailing American method of reckoning with almost any challenge: Dig in and slug it out. In the case of climate change, that means we’re trying to fight the rising tides with feats of engineering and technological guile. If the water came once, build a wall; if more water is coming, build it taller. It’s the most American of approaches and, in certain instances, the most foolhardy. The difficulty, then, of keeping our most vital and basic systems intact, including how we distribute food from our fields to our tables, is not simply a matter of finding innovative solutions to the most pressing problems. It also requires a dramatic psychological shift. Americans must begin to think differently about the permanence of their homes and the way the country builds its cities.
After Sandy, New York was quick to allocate money to rebuild, Siders points out. “But there was never a discussion of retreat—it was always about how do we invest more to make sure the critical infrastructure is safe today.” We have an opportunity now to think about where our most vital systems should go, she said. “To do it in a purposeful manner. But that hasn’t happened yet.” Eventually, though, as extreme weather events damage major urban centers with increasing frequency, officials in New York and elsewhere are going to have to reckon with the possibility of retreat to protect their cities—whether they want to or not.
In limited instances, the idea of retreat has crept into the strategic thinking. In 2016, the federal government managed its first-ever retreat of an entire community threatened by floods and rising sea levels. With a $48 million grant, the government began relocating the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, a 320-acre stretch along the coast of Louisiana that used to be as large as 22,000 acres. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the local government has started using utility fees to fund the buyout of more than 350 buildings in flood-prone areas.
But it’s difficult to get city leaders—and the public—to accept the idea of retreat on a larger scale. “I know this is cynical, but people are going to have to experience the damage first,” said Siders. “Unfortunately, that’s what we’ve seen so far, and I’d expect that trend to continue.”
Walking around Hunts Point Market during the bustling overnight shift, one gets the sense that this great hub of activity that powers the city will never cease churning, day in and day out. The docks go on forever, seemingly endless paths of cement along an infinite supply of food. The produce boxes stand outside the storerooms like unoccupied watchtowers, the workers returning over and over again to retrieve unlimited pallets of fruits and vegetables. Here and there, people take breaks where and when they can—in the back of one truck, a flashlight shines from the lap of a man falling asleep on banana crates; in another, two men stand with their gloves in their pockets, the steam rising up around their faces as they spoon out noodles from hot cups of ramen. Butchers in their white, bloodstained coats look like ghosts as they float back and forth behind the plastic of the refrigerated storerooms. It’s easy to imagine that someone will always be here, keeping the city fed.