Long Island’s South Shore barrier islands bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating storm surge and winds causing significant damage and in some areas decades’ worth of erosion in just a few days.
Now, officials from across the region are warning that if the barrier islands are not repaired soon, flooding during the next storm could be worse and have a greater impact on mainland South Shore communities.
“If by the next storm we don’t have dunes and the ocean just has its way, it will come up over the barrier beaches and go into the bay,” said John Cochrane, an Islip Town Councilman. “That’s millions and millions of gallons that the bay will assume and be pushed up over the mainland.”
Cochrane said that in order to protect the mainland communities, Fire Island’s 40-year-old dunes that were flattened in many areas during Sandy, need to be back in working order, and fast.
“Fire Island, and all of the barrier islands, function as a garage door—you want that big door to work so it can protect your car,” he said. “Fire Island is the mainland’s garage door and is the protection for the south shore of Long Island—it’s the initial line of defense for the mainland against storms.”
Dune Plans in Long Beach
In Long Beach, repairs to the beaches are needed not only to shore up protection for residents in Nassau County’s many bayfront communities, but also to protect the thousands living in the city working to recover from Sandy.
Morris Kramer, long-time advocate of a dune project on Long Beach, is again urging officials to move forward and build a dune system to protect the barrier island.
“Unless they do something to build dunes and replenish Long Beach, there is no sense in rebuilding the city,” said Kramer, who has been advocating for the dunes since 1986. “The storms are going to keep coming and coming and continue to do incredible damage.”
On Dec. 4, the Long Beach City Council voted to revisit a dune project that was previously rejected. Six years ago, the United States Army Corps of Engineers recommended that Long Beach build 25-foot dunes to help protect its 35,000 residents.
The proposal, known as The Long Beach Island Storm Damage Reduction Project, would have cost an estimated $98 million and stretched along the island’s six-mile shoreline.
The Long Beach City Council voted against it, some said because the project would have compromised ocean views, others, like surfers, worried most about waves.
Today, Sandy-related damage estimates in Long Beach are $200 million.
While Long Beach suffered catastrophic damage in part because of a lack of dune system, areas of Westhampton were able to better weather Sandy.
“We had zero infrastructure damage,” Aram Terchunian, who is a coastal geologist with First Coastal Corporation in Westhampton Beach, said of the aftermath of the late October storm.
He said the dunes suffered a handful of over-washes and a limited amount of sand was pushed onto roadways. But ultimately the dunes did their job in protecting the community.
“In 48 hours, we were ready to go,” Terchunian said.
He believes the reason why Westhampton had almost no damage from Sandy was because the community took the Army Corps of Engineers up on its proposal to build dunes years earlier.
In 1996, four years after the 1992 Nor’easter caused severe damage to 190 homes and $25 million in flood insurance claims, the Army Corps of Engineers, New York State and Suffolk County began to build dunes on Westhampton Beach. The coastal protection project was completed in 1999.
“I don’t even think there was a broken window,” Terchunian said of Westhampton following Sandy. “The Army Corps of Engineers had a similar project for Long Beach that was locked, loaded and ready to fire in 2006.”
While many view beach replenishment as vital in protecting Long Island, others also feel simply replacing the sand alone is not enough.
Kevin McAllister, a coastal biologist, says beach-and-dune restoration is a necessity to keep area beaches healthy. But, he also sees it as a Band-Aid that will only buy a few years before having to spend more money to protect the homes being jeopardized by encroaching tides.
“We have to be ready to abandon and walk away. If we walk away—I know its not an easy pill to swallow—let’s say on Fire Island, the loss of those homes will let nature take its course and there will always be a barrier island,” he said. “But if we start to fortify it and try to stay, all of the ecological benefits from a barrier island for the mainland will be lost.”
Funding For Repairs
While there is agreement that repairs to the barrier islands are needed, what remains unclear is how to cover the cost. Many local governments are struggling to keep tax hikes to a minimum while providing necessary services to local residents.
During a recent press conference, Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray called on state and federal agencies to help get the plan moving for Long Beach Island.
Currently, the town is using their own construction equipment to pump sand from the Jones Beach Inlet to repair the area’s badly eroded beaches.
In Long Beach, City Council President Len Torres, said before Sandy left the city with $200 million in damages, its budget was already suffering with a $10 million deficit.
Islip Town officials, who recently approved a 28 percent tax increase to close a budget shortfall, said they are also seeking funding from the state and federal government to help pay for Fire Island’s dune and beach repair.
“We are aggressively going after funding from FEMA and the state,” Cochrane said.
He added that the town would not only receive money from the state and federal levels, but also from its taxpayers within Fire Island’s “erosion districts.”
Islip’s erosion districts, set up after the “Perfect Storm” of 1991, all pay a tax each year strictly set aside for scrapping beaches and building up dunes.
“I’ve heard everything from $20 million to $100 million to rebuild the beaches and dunes, I don’t have a real handle for the Town of Islip on how much money it is actually going to take to rebuild to the right protection size,” Cochrane said. “But we will enhance the aid we expect from FEMA and the state with the erosion districts.”
As local governments work to get money from Albany and Washington, some money for repairs is beginning to flow.
Initial funding from New York, for example, is heading to communities such as Long Beach. But those dollars are earmarked for removal of debris and construction and demolition costs, not for beach replenishment and repairs.
This is leaving some in Long Beach feeling vulnerable with no coastal protection.
“On the street, people are nervous,” said Rich Hoffman, President of West End Neighbors Civic Association, a supporter of dunes for Long Beach. “All we need is a storm and we’ll be putting everything back out on the sidewalk. Right now we are sitting on the cliff of further damage. It’s imperative that we get the Corps in and protect ourselves fully.”
And what if the dunes aren’t built?
“If the city is not protected by dunes, there is really no sense in rebuilding,” Kramer said.