It will be costly and require unprecedented cooperation, but it's possible to better protect Long Island from natural disasters like superstorm Sandy, experts said Saturday at a Hofstra University conference.
The conference, delayed for months because of the storm, included discussions on climate change and the challenge of gaining consensus in a fragmented region.
Panelists suggested that it may take economic incentives, such as massive federal grants, to persuade "fiefdoms" to work together.
Ken Spaeth, a physician and assistant professor at Hofstra, likened the aftereffects of the storm to the 9/11 terror attacks. In both cases, responders did not always wear the proper gear -- including face masks -- to protect themselves from contaminants while removing debris, he said.
Asbestos, mold, lead, carbon monoxide and sewage all pose dangers, he said. So do the solvents, paint thinners, pesticides, gasoline, oil and kerosene many Long Islanders were exposed to during and after the storm.
Even after the flood debris is hauled away, stress lingers, Spaeth said.
"While an event is traumatic, the consequences don't go away even when we really don't want to think about it anymore," he said.
The cleanup, too, has extended beyond what many had imagined.
"You can clear the beach one day and go back a week later and the debris has reappeared," she said. "It's an ongoing task of cleaning up."
Tourism is critical for many coastal communities, she said, and it's not clear how many out-of-state visitors will return this summer.
The three-day conference, which also focused heavily on suburbs and sustainability, was hosted by the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra, the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University and the Center for the Sustainable Built Environment at New York University.
Some panelists said shoreline residents should reconsider where they live.
"If I had my way -- and I won't -- we'd retreat from the shore and give it back to the ocean," Holcomb said.
Sarah Doolittle, 19, a Hofstra freshman majoring in geology, told panelists she was disappointed by decision-makers' lack of innovation on future storm-protection measures.
"I haven't heard anything that is taking a risk," she said. "We are taking such baby steps to say, 'This will help for next time.' "