On Air: Community Flood Watch Project Engages Residents in Reporting and Mitigation
Jamaica Bay / NYC - News

Brooklyn, NY, October 27, 2020 - The latest episode of Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE)'s "Extension Out Loud" podcast explores a community science project aimed at mitigating the impacts of flooding in Jamaica Bay, NY.

Residents of Jamaica Bay, coastal neighborhoods located in Brooklyn (Kings County) and Queens (Queens County), are experiencing tidal flooding at increasing frequency—as often as twice a month. Tidal flooding is also called sunny-day flooding because it can occur in any weather, causing disruptions in the daily lives of residents. With the Community Flood Watch project, residents engage in data collection and decision making about flood mitigation measures. The project enables local lawmakers and researchers to work together with residents to design a more resilient community informed by local knowledge. 

"What's important about Flood Watch is that it gives people the tools to make the decisions that are important to them." - Katie Graziano, Coastal Resilience Specialist with New York Sea Grant 

In this episode of the “Extension Out Loud” podcast, Katie Graziano, coastal resilience specialist, and Paul C. Focazio, communications manager, with New York Sea Grant discuss the development and vision of the Flood Watch project.

For more on the Community Flood Watch Project, see SRIJB or NYSG's Web sites.

You can listen to the full conversation via CCE Extension Out Loud ...

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Tidal flooding, also called sunny day flooding, in Jamaica Bay, New York. Credit: Ryan Strother / New York Sea Grant.


Full Transcript:


PAUL TREADWELL: Welcome to Extension Out Loud, a podcast from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I'm Paul Treadwell.

KATIE BAILDON: And I'm Katie Baildon.

PAUL TREADWELL: Who are we talking to this time, Katie?

KATIE BAILDON: So we are talking to Katie Graziano, who's the Coastal Resilience Specialist in Jamaica Bay, or New York Sea Grant. And Paul Focazio, who is the Communications Manager for New York Sea Grant.

PAUL TREADWELL: Yeah. And it's a nice conversation about some of the work that's happening in New York City with Sea Grant and some of the interesting things people are doing to adapt to some of the changes that we're experiencing in our climate.

KATIE BAILDON: Particularly flooding and sunny day flooding, which I didn't know about before this conversation. So it's pretty educational and interesting.

KATIE GRAZIANO: My name is Katie Graziano. I'm the Coastal Resilience Specialist based at Jamaica Bay. And I work for New York Sea Grant. But my position is a partnership with the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay.

Before Sea Grant, I actually-- well, so I grew up in New Jersey, so very local to New York City. I went to college at Cornell University, did my undergrad in natural resources. And so in a way, it's full circle. For masters, I went to University of Washington, became more interested in the human dimensions of resilience.

I did some research in the Philippines about gender dimensions of climate change adaptation in fishing communities. And after that, I ended up working for three years in the Northern Mariana Islands, where I was the watershed coordinator for their local government, so really focused on community-based watershed management to improve water quality and the health of coral reefs.

And then after that, I thought it was time to not be a 45-hour plane ride away from my friends and family in New Jersey. And I missed New York. And I missed everything about being here and so came back and was very lucky to get a job working in Jamaica Bay.

PAUL FOCAZIO: And I'm Paul Focazio from New York Sea Grant, Communications Manager.

PAUL TREADWELL: OK. Well, it's nice to have you both here with us today. So just to start out, for folks that don't know, can you tell us in a couple sentences, what is Sea Grant?

PAUL FOCAZIO: So Sea Grant is a coastal science research and education program. Federally, we're funded by NOAA-- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-- in each of the coastal states of the 34 Sea Grant programs. We are supported by local institutions in New York. That is Cornell University, and that is the SUNY system.

We have a variety of specialists that are supported through Cornell Cooperating Extension, so that's where they sit. And then a lot of our administration is in the SUNY system, through Stony Brook University. Interestingly enough, we have a number of our CCE staffers who are on SUNY campuses, though. So it really is a symbiotic relationship.

PAUL TREADWELL: Before we narrow in and focus on Katie's ongoing project right now, what are some of the other things that Sea Grant does? What is the range of activities that Sea Grant is involved in in New York State?

PAUL FOCAZIO: There certainly is a wide variety. For example, October is National Seafood Month. So we do a lot of seafood safety education and extension work. There are other things like-- in terms of research, there has been lobster research, hard clam research.

We have specialists who deal, of course, then, with fisheries but also water quality, a variety of coastal issues that are impacting our local communities.

KATIE BAILDON: Excellent. Thanks for setting the stage for us, Paul. So Katie, tell us about Flood Watch.

KATIE GRAZIANO: The Community Flood Watch Project-- which I just recently started coordinating, but it's been ongoing for quite some time now-- it's essentially a citizen or community science program, where we are partnering with residents in low-lying neighborhoods of New York City to help us to report when they're seeing flooding, like sunny day high tide flooding in their neighborhood.

The residents are really important partners in that they're offering their local knowledge of what they're actually seeing on the ground. And then our role is to help connect that data and that community knowledge to resources that the city can offer and also connecting it to the latest academic research.

And so we take those flood reports, and with our academic and government partners, can help to improve forecasting so that we have a better sense of what to expect in the near future and also in the longer term.

PAUL TREADWELL: Katie, can you tell us a little bit about Jamaica Bay?

KATIE GRAZIANO: Jamaica Bay is an estuary located in New York City. The watershed of Jamaica Bay, meaning the area that drains into it, is composed of three counties, Brooklyn, Queens, and parts of Long Island.

It's actually a huge and beautiful and very natural space that people can access by the subway. There's opportunities to go fishing and kayaking. And it's also a refuge for really unique ecosystems that you don't find elsewhere in New York City. Bird watching is very popular.

There is a lot of different jurisdictions. There's actually National Park Service land. There's city parks. And then there's extremely diverse neighborhoods, all within a pretty small and densely populated area.

KATIE BAILDON: So why was the program started? What was the need for it?

KATIE GRAZIANO: It really came about quite organically. My predecessor was starting to hold workshops that she was calling "climate forums" to talk about, what are you experiencing in your neighborhood related to climate change and the coast?

And so something that came out of it was that a lot of these neighborhoods were experiencing flooding on perfectly sunny days, when it was high tide. They didn't necessarily even expect there to be flooding that day. It wasn't even necessarily forecasted.

But it was disrupting their lives. And there was no connection, really, between what they were seeing and what they were posting on Facebook in to a broader network of knowledge and communication about that.

And so Flood Watch was an opportunity to start taking all of this disparate information and putting it into a collective place, where people could communicate their stories and also raise those stories up to a higher level where there could be some action.

It started off as informal conversations and sending emails about like, oh, I saw a flood here or checking on Facebook and seeing where people were seeing floods. And it's turned into a more formal mechanism where there's an online survey forum.

It geolocates exactly where people can take photos of floods. And there's a bit more data control, in the sense that you have to put in how deep the flood is, exact time of day, and other information that helps provide researchers and the city with critical information about the floods that are happening.

PAUL TREADWELL: When you talk about a flood in Jamaica Bay, what is an average flood like?

KATIE GRAZIANO: An average flood-- or I guess I should say, it's not your storm surge floods. Minor flooding would be up to a foot, maybe two feet of floods in certain neighborhoods. And that's happening without the additional storm surge, where you would see those more severe floods.

And these are things that people are just experiencing on a regular basis. It's exacerbated by things like wind direction and offshore storms. It's not like a Hurricane Sandy event. This is just a very regular, even a monthly or bimonthly event.

PAUL TREADWELL: So it's part of normal life now in Jamaica Bay?

KATIE GRAZIANO: Exactly. People have learned how to live with the high tide flooding. And the folks who have been there for generations or even just they've been there for say, 30 years, they're definitely noticing that what used to happen pretty infrequently is happening more and more frequently.

PAUL TREADWELL: Can you tell us a little bit about how the community is adapting to these changes that they're seeing?

KATIE GRAZIANO: Right now, a lot of the adaptation that people are doing at a personal level are things like just daily changes in their behavior or their habits. For example, if they know it's going to flood, either parking your car somewhere more uphill or parking your car on cinder blocks to keep it out of the floodwaters.

Some residents have taken advantage of the opportunity to raise their houses. Especially after Hurricane Sandy, there were some programs that helped with that. The city has been raising some streets. That helps in certain ways with things like street parking but also comes with other consequences of, where does the water go? Once the street is higher up, the water has to go somewhere else.

KATIE BAILDON: What types of people are participating in the program? I think anyone can fill out the form with data, but are you seeing a lot of people taking advantage of that and sharing their data and information?

PAUL FOCAZIO: It is expanding. So we're hoping to basically open it up to anyone who's interested in participating. We would love to have them participate. We do get a lot of interest from student groups or from teachers who want to potentially incorporate it into their curriculum.

I often present to NGOs, community groups, civic associations, just people who are really invested in their community and are seeing issues and want to raise those issues and make a difference.

PAUL TREADWELL: When you get this sunny day flooding and it starts impacting roadways and things like that impact emergency services? What do citizens who are living in Jamaica Bay really-- what is the experience of that?

KATIE GRAZIANO: There is definitely impacts. We've done a pilot study of social impacts around Jamaica Bay of sunny day flooding. And that will be out pretty soon, in the next couple of months. And we're continuing to get funding for more social impacts data. We don't want to make assumptions about how people are experiencing flooding because this is something we can really learn from by doing this research.

But I will say, somewhat preliminary or anecdotally, there are impacts just to mental health and stress. There's impacts to the daily routines, to services like bus routes or being able to get kids to school on time, to being able to make doctor's appointments.

Because if the streets are flooded, they're literally trapped. You can't go about your normal routine. And there's so many ways that affects your life, in ways that you might not even think of.

PAUL FOCAZIO: I'll add that when you think about the fact that this Flood Watch Program-- it's supported by the governor. It's supported by the mayor. That's all well and good. But it wouldn't be nothing, if not for the communities themselves.

And when you think about how flooding is impacting people in their daily lives and the stress that it can put on you, it is comforting to know that with the data that the actual community members are providing through this online tool, it's making a difference. And it will continue to make a difference and hopefully grow this program.

So this is a perfect example of how some grant comes into communities and tries to not necessarily solve a problem-- because some of these problems are quite complicated-- but at least try to find ways that the community can grapple with these issues and create a discussion and hopefully, seriously, rise above them in some way.

When you think about people putting their cars on cinder blocks and doing all these other mitigation factors, it's a lot for these communities to be doing. But they're probably, unfortunately, so used to doing it that it's just second nature.

So other communities beyond these may have to deal with these kinds of issues in the future. So in a way, these communities are almost like a test study for what we might have to deal with as time goes on and as we deal with more of these issues. But it is good to know that the communities are providing value.

KATIE GRAZIANO: Thank you for adding that. And it is twofold because we are learning from the communities about what are the adaptation measures that people are turning to.

And by involving the New York City mayor's office or New York City Office of Emergency Management, they're learning a lot by the conversations that we have with communities. And they're thinking more about what they can do at the city level to support people in doing whatever they need to do to deal with what they're experiencing.

KATIE BAILDON: Is there a lack of awareness about some of the flooding issues among government officials?

KATIE GRAZIANO: I think so, yeah. My understanding is that when Flood Watch started, they were getting more and more photos. There were agencies that were shocked to see how bad it was and how frequently it was happening.

KATIE BAILDON: And there wasn't really data being collected on that by any other--


KATIE BAILDON: --organizations?

PAUL FOCAZIO: And that's the thing. When people hear the word "flooding," they usually think, there's this storm that comes in. There's all this water that gets pushed on to these communities. And then it dries up and goes away. These are not necessarily puddles that we're dealing with.

And when you talk about sunny day flooding, this is flooding that comes from out of nowhere, in terms of, it's unexpected. So it's a surprise. So being aware of where these situations can pop up, it's really important for a community and for the leaders of that community.

KATIE BAILDON: To follow up on what Paul said, being able to collect data and measure instances of sunny day flooding, does that mean that they can become more predictable? Can that help with forecasting?

KATIE GRAZIANO: That's exactly right. We actually partner with the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. And we use their model for predicting flooding. And it's quite accurate, but there's definitely plenty of room for improvement.

And so that's where the flood reports come in because there are definitely days where they predict that there will be flooding, and there's actually no flooding at all, or vice versa. And helping to close the gap between the expected and the observed flooding is really important. And that's exactly what the flood reports do.

PAUL TREADWELL: So I'm just curious. New York City has a lot of-- if my geography is working correctly and memory-- it has a lot of coastal areas. Is there an effort to expand Flood Watch to include some of those coastal areas?

KATIE GRAZIANO: Absolutely. We started off focusing around Jamaica Bay. And we recently got funding to expand to Coney Island and the Bronx. And so we are, as much as possible, expanding throughout New York City.

There is also an effort to expand it throughout New York State. So even in the Hudson Valley, they experience flooding. Great Lakes experiences flooding from different sources. And so we're expanding it throughout the state.

We're collaborating with other states. We're trying to scale it up, as much as it makes sense for us to do, which, right now, the more we can learn from other partners, the better.

PAUL TREADWELL: You've mentioned a couple of times the idea of community science. And I just wonder if you could talk about this, the concept of community science as an expansion, perhaps, of citizen science. Or what it means to call it community science versus citizen science?

KATIE GRAZIANO: That's a really good question. The reason we don't use citizen science is because it has implications for people's citizenship. We're not trying to restrict this in any way. We want to make sure everyone in the community is included in our work.

PAUL FOCAZIO: There's something to say about that because projects like this, the science is only as strong and accurate as the folks and helped make it that way. So it's really important to realize that by communities playing a part in programs like this, they're saying that they have faith in science and what it can provide them. So there's that back and forth relationship.

PAUL TREADWELL: When we think of science, we think of lab instruments and precise measurements and things like that. So how does the technologies of science-- how does that interface with the-- what do we want to say-- the technologies of community to ensure that you have both human reports and technological reports that reinforce and work together? Did that question make any sense?

KATIE GRAZIANO: Yeah. I think what you're touching on is the importance of-- it is science, social science. The importance of community networks and communication and knowledge exchange and storytelling and all of these things that we know contribute to resilience but are maybe a little bit less tangible than the hard data, physical science side.

And that's definitely something that I've always pushed for, is the importance of understanding the human elements of resilience and incorporating that into your management approach.

PAUL TREADWELL: You could easily imagine a system that was just a bunch of automated sensors that was reporting data. But that doesn't-- there's an element missing there. And I think, Katie, you identified it correctly as communities.

KATIE GRAZIANO: And having ownership over the data is so important. It's not-- well, it's funny that you mention that because we are piloting a sensor program. But the critical part is that we have included the community every step of the way, in, are you interested in this idea of sensors?

Would this be useful for you? Where should we put them? Who should we include when we present about them or when we get feedback?

Because of the way the program was born, we've consulted with the community all along the way. And so we're able to introduce sensors in a way that might be more supported than like you said. If we just came in and said, oh, we're going to just put this sensor in your neighborhood, and it's all opaque. And you don't really know what's going to happen with the data.

The data are still in the ownership of communities. And the hope is that it empowers them to advocate for what they want for their own community with the data that they've collected themselves.

PAUL FOCAZIO: A lot of times with data, we just think of zeros and ones. We think of-- and that can be the case with sensors and such. But a lot of data, in this project, also, with folks submitting through the tool, they're showing actual pictures. And their picture is worth a thousand words.

So a lot of times-- while it might not be so tangible to some folks, what's going on in these communities-- you look at some of these photos, and you can really see what's happening. And then you can say, OK, well, if this is what's happening, how can the science better help this community?

KATIE BAILDON: And so what kind of support or resources do community members have for collecting data?

KATIE GRAZIANO: The way it works is that I'll usually reach out to a leader of a community group, like a civic association, or someone will reach out to me. Or I'll find someone on Facebook who seems very active in posting photos.

And once I can connect with a community leader, then that's the way that I can get on the agenda for the next community board meeting, or something like that. And then that's where I'll present about the project, explain why we're doing it, and then give a really brief training about how to use this survey forum.

KATIE BAILDON: Local decision makers and lawmakers, are they interested in the more qualitative information like the storytelling and the particular resiliency measures and things like that? Are they also interested in that data for decision-making?

KATIE GRAZIANO: Absolutely. Our partners in the social impacts research are the mayor's office and the US Forest Service, that has a lab in New York City as well. And so they're definitely interested in the results and then how they can translate that information into positive adaptation.

PAUL FOCAZIO: One thing that I will say, just about flooding in communities in general is, if someone comes from a community and they don't experience flooding at all, if they were to look at a case study like this and say, well, why do people in that community stay if the flooding gets so bad? Why are they putting their cars up on cinder blocks? Why are they dealing with this?

We have to understand that humans are creatures of habit, and we have pride in the places that we live. It's very difficult to tell someone to just get up and move. Now, at some point, in some communities-- and I'm certainly not saying it for these communities-- decades down the road, maybe that happens in certain communities.

But in communities that can do their best to deal with these situations and still live in them somewhat comfortably, I mean, more times than not, you're going to find people who will opt to do that. So if a community knows that they can benefit from a program like this and it can help them to improve their quality of life, it's invaluable for people to be connected to a resource like this.

PAUL TREADWELL: It's funny you mention-- one of my notes earlier on was New Orleans, and what can you learn from New Orleans. I mean, there was a community where it's below sea level. But people stayed there. They go back. They deal with the issues they have to. And it's hard to imagine a world without New Orleans, without that unique community there.

So I would imagine-- I've never been to Jamaica Bay, I don't think-- but I would imagine it has its own vibrant-- its own identities that it would be a loss to our cultural fabric if Jamaica Bay suddenly was subsumed by water. So thank God they're out there putting their houses on stilts.

PAUL FOCAZIO: And the thing that I'll say about New Orleans-- and after Katrina, I went there with some sea granters, actually, and we did some habitat restoration. And we toured the communities. And we saw where the water came to and how everything was wiped out.

And that's when I started to get it. And I'm just like, OK, well, these people are rebuilding, knowing that this may and will likely happen again. But it's community pride. And there's nothing wrong in that. It's just that we need science to help us drive the decisions that we make.

KATIE GRAZIANO: And it all comes down to access to resources and access to decision-making. I think what's important about Flood Watch is that it gives people the tools to make the decisions that are important to them. And so it's not like the city comes in and says you have to move.

People have to have ownership over their own choices and their own future. And having the data and having a better understanding of what to expect in the next 30 to 50 years, that helps them make decisions about what is best for them and for their neighborhood.

PAUL TREADWELL: There's a lot in this whole conversation about this blending of science and community that I think is vitally important. Because when you look at crisis situations, communities are incredibly resilient and incredibly innovative in crafting solutions to challenges.

So if you can marry that innovation and that spirit with scientific data that can inform some of those choices, then there may be hope for the world.

KATIE GRAZIANO: Exactly. I can't stress enough the importance of community knowledge and listening and learning from what people are already doing. Because-- and like you said, it's not just New York City. It's New Orleans. It's internationally.

People have been having to deal with this-- and not just with climate change-- since forever. People figure out ways to adapt to things innovatively. And it's really important to learn from that.

PAUL FOCAZIO: I think that's the beauty of resiliency is that the folks in these communities, they're not waiting for someone to come into their community and tell them, OK, this is what we're going to do, or this is what you have to do. These people are taking action and saying, I want to be a part of this process. I want help make those decisions.

KATIE BAILDON: We've talked a lot about sunny day flooding. But I wonder if the data and the community that's mobilizing to report would also be useful in cases of more extreme disasters or storms?

KATIE GRAZIANO: Yeah, that would be the hope. I think one of the benefits of building this social network from the ground up is that it creates avenues of communication that didn't exist before. Hopefully, it could help give people access to resources like city emergency services that they didn't know existed.

And so, yeah, absolutely. Even though our focus is on sunny day high tide flooding, we hope that it will help people be more resilient and more connected in the time of extreme disaster.


PAUL TREADWELL: Thanks for listening to this episode. Extension Out Loud was produced and edited by Paul Treadwell, with help from Katie Baildon and RJ Anderson.

KATIE BAILDON: For more about this episode, including show notes, a listener survey, sign up for our mailing list and more, visit extensionoutloud.com. And be sure to subscribe to Extension Out Loud on your favorite podcast directory.


More Info: New York Sea Grant and SRIatJB

The Science and Resilience Institute @ Jamaica Bay (SRIJB) is a research center focused on enhancing environmental, social, and economic resilience in communities of Jamaica Bay funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the City of New York.

New York Sea Grant (NYSG), a cooperative program of Cornell University and the State University of New York (SUNY), is one of 34 university-based programs under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College Program.

Since 1971, NYSG has represented a statewide network of integrated research, education and extension services promoting coastal community economic vitality, environmental sustainability and citizen awareness and understanding about the State’s marine and Great Lakes resources.

Through NYSG’s efforts, the combined talents of university scientists and extension specialists help develop and transfer science-based information to many coastal user groups—businesses and industries, federal, state and local government decision-makers and agency managers, educators, the media and the interested public.

The program maintains Great Lakes offices at Cornell University, University at Buffalo, SUNY Oswego and the Wayne County Cooperative Extension office in Newark. In the State's marine waters, NYSG has offices at Stony Brook University in Long Island, Brooklyn College and Cornell Cooperative Extension in NYC and Kingston in the Hudson Valley.

For updates on Sea Grant activities: www.nyseagrant.org has RSS, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube links. NYSG offers a free e-list sign up via www.nyseagrant.org/nycoastlines for its flagship publication, NY Coastlines/Currents, which is published quarterly. Our program also produces an occasional e-newsletter,"NOAA Sea Grant's Social Media Review," via its blog, www.nyseagrant.org/blog.

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