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.
“Although Hunts Point was largely spared during Hurricane Sandy, the City realized the need for additional resiliency investments to safeguard it from future events,” NYCEDC President James Patchett told City Limits in an emailed statement. “That’s why we’re working with the local community on projects like flood prevention and strengthening the FDC’s power supply, to make sure we’re prepared for the next storm.”
During a conversation with NYCEDC representatives, NYCEDC acknowledged that it would send its operations “SWAT team” to rescue individuals, initiate an evacuation plan and protect the most valuable mechanical equipment and resources in an extreme environmental or manmade emergency. NYCEDC also says that it would share its fleet of generators with businesses.
However, NYCEDC says, it is the responsibility of individual businesses and the three cooperative markets to implement their own individual preparedness strategies.
Darkness is the bigger danger
In the absence of an overarching strategy, businesses and the markets have pursued various resiliency strategies on their own — some more thoroughly than others.
An army of laborers unload pallets of pork, poultry and pepperoni by the ton at the vast Hunts Point Cooperative Market, which handles millions of pounds of meat each day. The meat market contains six long loading docks labeled A through F as well as additional warehouses for large distributors like Nebraskaland. Union laborers dressed in heavy coats lug bulk packages of meat into refrigeration units as they arrive and pull them back out for buyers who flock to the facility from dusk to dawn.
The complexity of operations, the challenge of coordinating thousands of individual distributors who visit Hunts Point from around the world each day and specific federal regulations related to food storage all prevent the behemoth meat market from setting up temporary shop somewhere else in the event of an emergency, manager Bruce Reingold says. Individuals businesses can, however, develop their own contingency plans, such as storing their product in off-site freezers and distributing elsewhere.
From his office window overlooking loading docks B and C, Reingold points to the powerhouse station—a tan, windowless building located near the market entrance—and says the market awaits construction of a new cooling tower and back-up generator that will enable resiliency at the site. The market runs on the city’s grid and powerhouse substation contains a large cooling tower, two central boilers and four electrical feeders that manage the flow of electricity through the market.
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Reingold says he hopes the generators will be operational by Spring 2018. Meanwhile, the City has supplied large sand bags and inflatable dams to protect the existing powerhouse infrastructure in case of a flood.
“It’s a major priority here for us to have the generator,” Reingold says. “As soon as it’s here it’s here, but it’s been years for us trying to get the funding and finally we got that done and the city is on board.”
A power outage that lasts even ten hours would be a “big problem” for the market’s 700,000 square feet of refrigeration, Reingold says.
“As the main supplier of fresh meat in the Tri-State area, our customers would do the best they can to get product temporarily, but it would be a major disruption,” Reingold says. “If we ever lost total power without a backup system, we’d have nothing. A back-up generator here is absolutely critical.”
Elevated loading bays throughout the meat market mitigate the risk of flooding, but the electrical system running beneath the market remains vulnerable, Reingold says.
At the 2016 Food Center Policy panel, Benjamin Mosner, vice president of business development at Mosner Family Brands—an original Hunts Point tenant—also highlighted the potential for water to damage the electrical system.
“Most of our infrastructure is underground so [flood water] could have shut down the market for an unknown period of time,” Mosner said at the time. “When there’s an electrical outage [as there was during the 2003 blackout], we just have to keep our doors shut and hope refrigeration lasts as long as possible.”
NYCEDC says it has worked to seal vulnerable locations such as underground utility corridors and electrical equipment.
Varying degrees of preparedness
When contacted by City Limits, Mosner said that in his view, individual businesses at the Cooperative Market lack emergency preparedness plans.
“Out of all the businesses in the market, even established ones, I’m not sure if there are hard contingency plans [in case of disaster],” Mosner says. In 2016, Mosner said his company contracts with facilities in New Jersey to handle excess meat that will not fit in its Hunts Point location.
Reingold also says he is unaware of a meat market business that has established a model contingency plan.
Six Cooperative Market tenants contacted by City Limits say they do not have emergency plans in place for how to divert their products to other facilities or maintain operations in case of power outage or flood.
Inside the administrative office of one meat market wholesaler, an executive said his business has no plan aside from using “common sense” to evacuate staff from the area and “calling 911.”
“We’ve been in business 50 years, but we might have to pack it in if there’s no power,” he says.
Nearby, the Terminal Produce Market benefits from some of the same built-in protections—like elevated loading docks—and faces some of the same vulnerabilities as the meat market, though it is further from the current floodplain.
“Our markets are old, the cost of power is astronomical and refrigeration is ancient and needs to be redone,” Market Manager Myra Gordon said at the Hunter College event.
Some of the necessary renovations, like improved lighting, are already underway. The Food Distribution Center has also used $150 million it received from the City Council in 2015 to repair some aging facilities and conduct environmental remediation.
In addition, the NYCEDC has begun coordinating with the produce market to successfully navigate power outages.
“We are currently working with the produce market and we will be working with the other markets as well to update their continuity of operations plan,” Stein, the NYCEDC vice president, said at the Food Policy Center panel. “[We are] looking at what their plans are for different types of emergencies and thinking about how we integrate all our plans together.”
Stephanie Katzman, a manager at S. Katzman Produce—a fourth-generation produce distributor and original Hunts Point tenant that receives food from around the world and distributes to vendors from Massachusetts to Maryland—says she thinks her fellow wholesalers consider contingencies.
“Each company has its own plan set up,” Katzman told City Limits. “We have a couple different processes and plans off-site, in New York City and elsewhere.”
Though the New Fulton Fish Market sits much closer to the water than the other cooperative markets, existing coordination among businesses would benefit the market in case of flooding or power outage, says Guerra, the fish market manager.
Unlike the meat and produce markets, where individual businesses have their own loading docks for trucks, one unloading team handles all the seafood at the fish market and distributes among the businesses inside the warehouse, Guerra says. The businesses then distribute to buyers waiting with trucks or vans in the parking lot.
“I call it a Chinese abacus because of the way it flows,” Guerra says. “It’s hard to teach an abacus but the idea is that things work in a unique way that is not chaotic.”
Guerra says he has coordinated with local companies to procure back-up generators and lighting systems that could be operational “within hours” in the event of a power outage. He says he has shared information about these contingency measures with the businesses that rent space inside the market.
In addition, Guerra says, about 70 percent of seafood is sold the same day it arrives. He says such fluid turnover could enable the fish market to set up temporary operations elsewhere in case of a flood or disaster that renders the facility unusable. Food regulations that mandate fish be transported and distributed in the presence of ice—instead of specific refrigeration rooms—also make the fish market more nimble than the other markets.
Four days of food across the five boroughs
According to NYCEDC’s 2016 Five Borough Food Flow report, no single distributor—including the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center—managed more than 12 percent of the food distribution system. Thus, they concluded, no specific outage would cripple the city’s entire system.
Major supermarket chains, for example, would rely on their own vertical supply lines and a network of regional distribution facilities able to pick up the slack. According to a manager at the Red Hook Fairway, the supermarket used to get produce from Hunts Point before switching to a Fairway-specific distribution center. The manager of a nearby Associated supermarket says his store receives deliveries from a C&S Wholesale Grocers facility in Pennsylvania.
Problems at the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center would, however, significantly affect independent businesses like bodegas and small grocery stores in underserved communities around the city.
“Because Hunts Point supplies a disproportionate share of the food wholesaling needs of low-income neighborhoods in New York, the impacts of damage in that area would be felt most dramatically in the communities with the fewest retail food alternatives,” the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency states.
Limited storage space at most point-of-sale facilities around the city means that most food vendors depend on “just-in-time” delivery—regular truck deliveries that enable them to restock their supplies. Experts estimate the city’s food system has enough food to last about four days.
The NYCEDC breaks down the average amount of food at various food distribution settings in its Food Flow report. City jails tend to have seven-to-ten days’ worth of food. Chain supermarkets, drugstores, hotels and hospitals have enough food to last about a week.
Chain convenience stores and bodegas stock up to five days’ worth of food while independent restaurants, coffee shops and fast food restaurants store enough food to last up to four days.
Though a problem at Hunts Point would pose a serious inconvenience for many New Yorkers, the city would not run out of food, NYCEDC says.
But Hunter College’s Food Policy Center Director Charles Platkin says he worries the city has not planned sufficiently for a crisis at Hunts Point and that he wants agencies, like NYCEDC and the Office of Emergency Management, to share more information about their contingencies plans.
“Certainly there should be transparency around what to do if the Hunts Point [Food Distribution Center] were to disappear tomorrow,” Platkin says. “It seems obvious given the circumstances after Sandy and the circumstances that recently occurred in Puerto Rico, Houston and the Florida Keys.”
Platkin says he would like to see NYCEDC take a greater role in coordinating emergency preparedness efforts among the market wholesalers.
“You don’t want to wait until a crisis hits to figure out what you’re going to do about the Hunts Point markets,” he says. “EDC says ‘We leave it to tenants to decide,’ but there is a responsibility to ensuring [the center] is secure and that we’ve thought through different potential hazards and solutions that will continue a strong flow of food supply to New York City residents.”
The deliberate pace of rebuilding
On Monday morning, Hunts Point began preparing for a new threat: Hurricane Jesse. Local business owners, nonprofit staff, city workers and building superintendents quickly reached out to senior citizens, tenant associations and other vulnerable residents to alert them. One local resident decided to go door-to-door inside her apartment building.
“Pay attention. This is happening. Keep your eyes on it,” she said.
By noon the next day, Jesse was a category 3 storm set to make landfall in 36 hours. Scientists predicted it would initiate a 13- to 18- foot storm surge somewhere in the New York City-area. Mayor de Blasio closed schools and issued an evacuation order for some hurricane zones. The MTA announced a full shut-down, which worried Hunts Point residents who said they felt isolated from evacuation centers.
Jesse struck 20 miles south of the city at around 11 a.m., packing 127 mph winds, 16-foot storm surges and up to eight inches of rain.
In Hunts Point, problems multiplied as residents lost power and sought ice to keep medications safe.
“This is stuff that really needed to have happened the first or second day,” a resident observed. It felt like maybe, as the storm bore down, it was too late for new ideas.
Fortunately, Jesse never happened. It was a storm simulation conjured for a table-top planning exercise on October 23 at The Point, a community based organization that champions economic development and opportunities for Hunts Point’s young residents. New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, Nos Quedamos, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Mothers on the Move and Sustainable South Bronx were among the organizers and participants.
The exercise highlighted how climate-related natural disaster poses the latest threat to a neighborhood long-plagued by hazardous industrial practices and community disinvestment. The peninsula is laced with contaminants left over from a ConEdison coal station and thousands of idling trucks have contributed to one of the highest rates of asthma in the country.
Therefore, Hunts Point residents have taken an active role in planning the resiliency projects that will affect the community and potentially mediate some of the environmental hazards. The City has encouraged such involvement, facilitating regular meetings with community activists.
“People talk about resiliency, but for us, it’s not only about physical infrastructure,” says Angela Tovar, director of community development at The Point. “It’s ensuring that people in Hunts Point, where there are public health issues like asthma, diabetes and heart disease, are protected.”
In 2014, the federal government allocated $20 million in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBGDR) funds to specifically pay for resiliency efforts at Hunts Point. The City then pledged an additional $25 million from its multi-billion dollar CDBGDR pool.
The $45 million has been used to fund two feasibility studies, to organize community engagement sessions with Hunts Point residents and to begin the development of an energy resiliency pilot project based on recommendations by an architectural firm selected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The funding expires in 2022 so NYCEDC says it plans to break ground on the pilot project by 2020 after completing environmental assessments, a request for proposals process and other requirements. A timeline included in an April 2017 action plan by the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency—approved by HUD in August— lists a Summer 2022 completion date.
In late-2013, HUD funded 10 projects collectively titled “Rebuild by Design” to improve resiliency measures at coastal locations vulnerable to flooding, including Hunts Point. HUD then commissioned an architectural firm to develop strategies for securing the Hunts Point peninsula against flood.
The firm unveiled four ideal, comprehensive strategies, which they called Hunts Point Lifelines. The Lifelines include building levees along the coastline and integrating the flood barriers into a long-imagined plan for a South Bronx Greenway that would provide residents with access to the shoreline. They also proposed building a microgrid to supply power to the food distribution center and called for hiring local community members to develop the new infrastructure. The firm estimated the first phase of development—including building levees around 3.1 miles of the city-owned Hunts Point shoreline—would cost more than $800 million.
NYCEDC says the goal of these resiliency efforts is to develop a system for storing three-days worth of power to the food distribution center because food, on average, moves in and out of the markets within three days.
The action plan proposes the installation of solar panels and storage batteries on the roofs of two local public schools —P.S. 48 and M.S. 424. When contacted earlier this month, the principal at PS 48 told City Limits he did not know about solar panels on the building roof. A woman who answered the phone at MS 424’s administrative office also said she has never heard of a solar panel project at the school.
Tovar says the city has not yet held a public information session since the plan’s approval in August.
As planning proceeds, Tovar says she would like to see continued efforts to secure the shoreline and create energy sustainability in addition to the modest pilot project.
“I understand that a lot of the emphasis on resiliency went to neighborhoods that were impacted first and rightfully so,” she says. “Those communities endured a lot of damage and heartache and suffered greatly because of Sandy.
“It’s important to understand the next storm is not going to have the same trajectory,” she continues. It could hit other vulnerable low-lying areas and the city needs to think about how it can fast track some of these projects in a way that’s meaningful and thinks of community as a whole.”