Doc Searls

The sprawling Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, a 329-acre site owned by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) hosts 155 wholesalers, directly employs 8,500 people and handles 4.5 billion pounds of food each year.

At 1 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, the New Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point sits dim and dormant. If not for the slick floors and seafood scent, the facility might seem like a massive abandoned airplane hangar.

That all changes late at night when hundreds of workers and customers converge on the cavernous building to unload and distribute tons of seafood from all over the world. They are key members of the city’s vast and complex food distribution network, a system that relies on the sprawling Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, a 329-acre site owned by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) that hosts 155 wholesalers, directly employs 8,500 people and handles 4.5 billion pounds of food each year.

Along with the fish market, two other cooperative markets—the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market and the Hunts Point Cooperative Market, which deals with meat—supply much of the metropolitan area’s diet. Though the facilities are encased in razor wire, they are accessible to anyone willing to navigate a maze of tractor trailers and box trucks on the roads leading to Food Center Drive.

Inside the fish market administrative office, a photo pinned to the wall shows an emergency rescue worker carrying a woman and her sleeping baby through calf-deep flood water in Houston.

A similar scene might have taken place inside the market five years ago if not for some fortuitous tidal patterns.

In 2012, the East River surged above the shoreline at Hunts Point, rushed across a graded parking lot and lapped at the fish market walls before receding. Though Hurricane Sandy paralyzed parts of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, the storm struck when the Long Island Sound was at low tide, sparing Hunts Point and allowing business to proceed with little interruption throughout the Food Distribution Center

“When it comes to Hurricane Sandy, we really lucked out at Hunts Point,” NYCEDC Vice President Julie Stein told an audience at a panel discussion hosted by Hunter College’s Food Policy Center in 2016. “If the storm had hit several hours earlier or later, we would have been in a really different situation.”

But what would happen if that luck runs out?

Five years after Sandy, NYCEDC and the three cooperative markets that lease from the agency have begun addressing vulnerabilities throughout the sprawling Food Distribution Center, but it remains unclear how resilient the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center would be if forced to confront another natural disaster head-on.

A massive food operation, on the edge of a floodplain

The sheer scale of New York City’s food distribution system is staggering. Each year, roughly 42,000 point-of-sale outlets—including restaurants, bodegas and supermarkets—distribute 19 billion pounds of food, of which about 46 percent requires freezing or refrigeration. Ninety-nine percent of that food is delivered to point-of-sale outlets by truck.

Every day, about 13,000 of those trucks visit the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, the largest centralized food distribution site in the world. The three cooperative markets sublease to an array of smaller, independent companies, which serve as key waystations between manufacturers and customers. Minimal manufacturing and processing takes place inside the markets. In general, food arrives from all over the world and quickly goes out to satisfy the region’s diverse palates.

About half the food remains in New York City while the rest is transported to vendors across the Tri-State Area and other parts of the country. Overall, the market feeds 22 million people in the New York City area.

In addition to the three markets, six other large distributors—Krasdale, Baldor, Citarella, Anheuser-Busch, Sultana, the Chefs’ Warehouse—also lease land from NYCEDC.

About 25 percent of produce, 35 percent of meat and 45 percent of fish consumed in New York City comes through the Hunts Point markets before reaching deli cases or restaurant dishes, according to the NYCEDC. Other estimates place those numbers even higher. The city’s Special Initiative for Resiliency and Rebuilding (SIRR) report says 60 percent of the city’s produce and about half of the city’s meat and fish pass through Hunts Point.

Independent restaurants and cafes make up about half of the three markets’ customer base while bodegas comprise about 20 percent, NYCEDC reports.

The dense concentration of businesses enables economies of scale and fosters competition to keep prices low and enable more convenient pickups and deliveries.

“It’s not like we could have multiple markets all over the city, there’s economies of scale that have to happen at the terminal market that really affect the rest of the supply chain,” Stein said at the Food Policy Center panel.

But such centralization also fosters the market’s greatest vulnerability.

Nearly 28 percent of the Food Distribution Center—93 of the site’s 329 acres—sits within the current 100-year floodplain, an area with at least a 1 percent chance of flooding each year according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Preliminary Work Maps.

The current floodplain includes parts of the New Fulton Fish Market, Citarella, Anheuser Busch and Krasdale. As expected sea levels rise, the 100-year floodplain will extend further into the peninsula. By the 2020s, FEMA estimates the floodplain will consume much of the Cooperative meat market—which already sits inside FEMA’s 500-year floodplain—and by the 2050s it will extend to the produce market and consume much of the peninsula.

Construction has not started on any large-scale flood-protection projects because of ongoing efforts to meaningfully engage the Hunts Point community, a lack of information about the efficacy of major infrastructure projects and insufficient funding. Stakeholders say neighborhood residents near the industrial waterfront need a voice in any new development plans since the projects will directly affect them. They add that the city must carefully consider the outcomes and sustainability of any new, expensive projects.

Instead, the city and local community have focused on more modest, attainable goals, like developing a pilot project the NYCEDC says will test whether a microgrid could supply vital energy to the food distribution center and surrounding Hunts Point community in case of power outage—a concern that outweighs flooding among many Food Distribution Center stakeholders.

“I wouldn’t say flooding scares me, but it is something to monitor and prepare for,” says New Fulton Fish Market manager Lenny Guerra. “What’s most important is lighting because we’re all under one roof and it’s dark.”

Sustaining electrical power is the main priority to NYCEDC, market managers and individual businesses because a power outage would spoil millions of pounds of frozen or refrigerated food and complicate food distribution across the metropolitan area. Hurricane Sandy spared the market and the truck routes in and out of the facility, which enabled distribution to continue mostly unimpeded even as other parts of the region contended with power outage and damaged infrastructure.

“We were very fortunate here considering what could have happened,” Reingold says. “We sustained some roof damage to a few of the buildings as well as to our front entrance and canopy but never lost power at any point. Many of the local streets were flooded but never to the point where they became impassable.”

On Thursday, State Senator Jeff Klein announced a nearly $1 million investment in improving the meat and produce markets. Reingold says money allocated to the meat market will fund new front entrance with three new toll booths as well as a new security office.

NYCEDC says it has conducted walk-throughs to educate market staff about emergency management procedures, connected the cooperative markets with the New York City Office of Emergency Management and taken specific steps like providing two 800-megahertz radios to the produce market. The radios provide a direct line of communication to the city’s emergency management team.