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Sandy Five Years Later: Coney Island Creek

Smell something funny? If you're standing near Coney Island Creek you probably do. The Creek has been plagued with oil spills and sewage dumping for years. During Hurricane Sandy this was the water that flooded into people's houses. But a local environmental advocate is working to change that. Pamela Pettyjohn is the founder of the Coney Island Beautification Project. Pettyjohn says residents here are a little too familiar with the Creek's water. 
"All of the raw sewage from the sewer lines and from this creek was in everyone's house," Pettyjohn said. "In my living room I had four feet seven inches [of water] in my living room."
Coney Island Beautification Project is a non-profit organization. It tries to clean up the beach, boardwalk, and the streets of Coney Island. It started 5 years ago to help people rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. Pettyjohn says the Beautification project transitioned from helping people rebuild to raising environmental awareness. As Pettyjohn was walking through the creek's small beach she told me how hard it is for people to stay interested in the environment. 
"People are concerned with things like whether they're going to lose their subsidy for housing. If they're elderly, are they going to lose their homes or be able to pay for their medication? So these are every day life events that people are consumed with," Pettyjohn said. 
After Hurricane Sandy, city officials conducted a resiliency study in hopes of preventing future flooding and lowering flood insurance rates for residents. One of the suggestions was to put floodgates between the Creek and the Atlantic Ocean, so it would act as a barrier and have the ability to be completely closed off during rough weather. Pettyjohn says this move would run the risk of killing all aquatic life in the creek. She also says the gates wouldn't even work the way city officials intend it to.
"They would not prevent these homes and stuff from being flooded," Pettyjohn said. "It's more of let's stop the water from flowing in and out and hold it. But you can't hold water back. It's like a bathtub, it'll overflow, and it'll still be in everyone's homes, but then there's no drain to let the water out."
Eddie Mark is the District Manager of Community Board 13. Mark says he's aware of the possible environmental repercussions that flood gates could bring to the creek. But he says there's an even more pressing matter. Flood insurance rates are expected to go through the roof. Mark says insurance rates are expected to rise from $7,000 to $14,000 a year. He's worried that the community simply won't be able to afford that price.  
"We're afraid of more insurance gentrification where they are forced out because they can't afford the flood insurance," Mark said. "Based on that, newer people are going to come in who can afford it, and that will change the whole community."
Mark says this situation is already happening. 
"People are selling their houses already, knowing that they can't afford [flood insurance.] Some people don't want to fix their houses so they left it to the new people who will do it."
Mark says if the state were to invest in floodgates insurance rates would go down and more people could stay in their homes. Caroline Nagy is the Deputy Director for Policy and Research at the Center for New York City Neighborhoods. She works with victims of Sandy to help them move back into their home or relocate. Nagy says she sees situations like these all the time. Particularly in lower income neighborhoods. Nagy says Sandy taught us many lessons, but the greatest one was to be prepared.
"A lot of people were really caught off guard. That's a situation that we don't want to repeat especially with sea level rise and climate change and we can expect more of these flooding circumstances to happen," Mark said.
Pamela Pettyjohn says that no matter what happens with the creek, Hurricane Sandy gave the community a blessing in disguise because it started a conversation about the environment. Pettyjohn says people are more open to the idea of climate change and what's happening to the environment. 
"It's starting to change. I know that I spoke to my neighbors after the flood and they thought this would never happen again," Pettyjohn said. "Now they see homes are being flooded. It's a really big concern here. So, people are starting to see this."
The fate of the Coney Island Creek seems to be uncertain. But Pettyjohn is optimistic that people will continue to care about the state of their backyard.