If you look at the map of evacuation zones New York City is sharing with New Yorkers to let them know which of the city’s coastal areas are most at risk should Hurricane Irene live up to the hype and deliver a disaster on Saturday and Sunday, you might not notice right away that only one of the large islands in the city’s waterways is uncoded: A rather substantial white form, like a little Greenland, sitting in the place where the East River and Long Island Sound blend, just northwest of LaGuardia Airport in the bay between the Bronx and Queens.
West of that large shape are a couple of tiny ones, also uncoded. Those are uninhabited. The large white shape, however, is home to about 12,000 people, though that number fluctuates. That shape is Rikers Island, site of five of the city’s prisons. (To find it more easily on the Times map linked to above, enter “Rikers Island, Bronx, NY 10474” in the “Go to Your Address” form in the legend.)
Even as I write this, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ordered the evacuation of 370,000 city residents in Zone A (most at risk from a hurricane of any strength), including Battery Park City in Manhattan, Red Hook in Brooklyn, and Long Island City in Queens. Many of those people will be spending the next night or three in evacuation centers around the city. Some areas of Brooklyn and Queens on the south shore in Zone B (at flood risk from Category 2 hurricanes) are also thoughtfully being moved this evening, though Manhattan and Bronx residents in Zone B are being left alone for now.
Is it possible that Rikers is of sufficient elevation, like most of the Upper West Side (where I live), to be safe from the flooding expected in the city’s Evacuation Zones A, B or C (at flood risk from Category 3 hurricanes)? Not likely. Rikers, like Battery Park City (Category A) and LaGuardia Airport (Category B) sits on landfill.
So what’s going on here? Did the city forget to zone for Rikers Island? Did they decide prisoners were too much trouble (and expense) to be considered, or that not many people–and no powerful people certainly–would care enough about what happens to Rikers’ population if Irene is as dangerous as advertised? Or is it really just that the city’s Department of Corrections, as Jean Casella and James Ridgeway of Solitary Watch note, has never taken the trouble to devise an evacuation plan, even as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, date zero in the era of evacuation planning, and the sixth of Katrina?
Whatever the reason, Bloomberg made clear at a news conference today that “We are not evacuating Rikers Island.” From Casella and Ridgeway’s report:
Bloomberg annouced a host of extreme measures being taken by New York City in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Irene, including a shutdown of the public transit system and the unprecedented mandatory evacuation of some 250,000 people from low-lying areas. But in response to a reporter’s question, the mayor stated in no uncertain terms (and with more than a hint of annoyance) that one group of New Yorkers on vulnerable ground will be staying put….
According to the New York City Department of Corrections’ own website, more than three-quarters of Rikers Island’s 400 acres are built on landfill–which is generally thought to be more vulnerable to natural disasters. Its ten jails have a capacity of close to 17,000 inmates, and normally house at least 12,000, including juveniles and large numbers of prisoners with mental illness–not to mention pre-trial detainees who have yet to be convicted of any crime.
The Times speculates on its home page today that the Bloomberg administration’s proactive response to Irene is an attempt to make up for its slow response to last December’s Christmas week blizzard, in which case, all these heroic measures may very well be just a publicly expensive political advertisement for Bloomberg and whoever he picks as heir to his dynasty in the next election. In which case, the fate of the Rikers population is, like the rest of the city’s fate, a moot point.
But it’s difficult, from my perspective, to look at that map and not see that white form of Rikers as a statement about something missing in the hearts and minds of the planners and mapmakers who so painstakingly drew it up.