Opinion: Sandy shows Long Island must get serious about coordination

Sandy mocked Long Island's political jurisdictions and will Sandy mocked Long Island's political jurisdictions and will haunt those who think they can return to business as usual. Photo Credit: Martin Kozlowski

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It's believed that 2 billion people around the world took the opportunity to see firsthand the destruction created by superstorm Sandy during the benefit concert televised last week. But for the nearly 3 million of us living on Long Island, the devastation remains real, raw and immediate. Among the more lasting losses created by Sandy is the demolition of long-established assumptions that range from the invulnerability of our South Shore neighborhoods to the prompt restoration of power after a storm departs.

As Congress is lobbied for reconstruction money, no conversation about the cost to rebuild can be considered without discussing why, where and how our previous assumptions were washed into the Atlantic, and what the implications are for our region far into the future. In truth, Sandy should become a grassroots rallying cry for a broad-based strategic response that will dramatically improve the entire region's ability to withstand future hurricanes and superstorms.

Otherwise, the $60 billion-plus that President Barack Obama has pledged from Washington to fix our storm damage will just be the down payment for what needs to be rebuilt after the next extreme weather event.

The good news is there are clear examples, regionally and globally, that we can look to for lessons in assessing the vulnerability of our transportation, electricity, fuel, water and social systems.

There are lessons elsewhere that have comparable populations and costly infrastructure. In Blackpool, England, a seawall designed as an attractive series of steps down to the ocean is protecting the community while maintaining the region's historic connection to the shoreline. In Richmond, British Columbia, landscape architects designed a waterfront park and green corridor that increases access and recreation, while both allowing periodic inundation and protecting low-lying areas from an anticipated sea level rise of 61/2 feet and increased springtime melt from the mountains.

In other words, other regions have recognized the threat and acted to prevent catastrophe.

The storm has taught us that our electrical grid needs to be reviewed with a clean sheet of paper. The Long Island Power Authority is already the subject of investigations, and the governor has expressed his displeasure at LIPA's storm recovery performance in no uncertain terms. How Long Island gets its electricity, and from whom, may well be totally different in our post-Sandy environment.

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The ocean's destructive assault on Nassau County's sewage treatment plants underscores the reality that these essential infrastructure investments have been ignored for political generations. Given the facilities' utilitarian nature, they'll never have the constituency of, say, a public park or neighborhood baseball field. Yet, we no longer have the option of ignoring these crucial facilities, and investments are needed to upgrade, maintain and protect these plants from future storms. As if to remind us that this issue won't go away, the damaged Bay Park plant will continue to spew sewage into surrounding waters for months to come, as crucial replacement pumps and motors take time to be made and installed.

 

Long Island continues to define itself by its shoreline, battered and scarred by the double blows of Sandy and the follow-up nor'easter. It is imperative that the science relating to its restoration be correct.

To this end, New York State should institute a task force working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Nassau-Suffolk's various municipalities, to expedite short-term solutions to the damage -- working with tight, hard deadlines. These actions are not just about saving recreational destinations or seashore homes. Places like Long Beach and Fire Island are called "barrier beaches" for a reason. Lose them, and Long Island's entire South Shore becomes even more vulnerable to the next storm.

All of this raises the larger question. Workable solutions are achievable, but they require connected thinking and connected action. Long Island can't do this alone. Individual government entities can't implement a comprehensive approach. Communities need to work across borders. We need to take an integrated systems approach: understand technical and social implications, incorporate engineered and natural solutions, and then apply public and private resources to create the needed improvements.

 

To their credit, before Sandy, communities across Long Island had begun working together to address long-term issues of energy, transportation, waste, water management, economic development and housing. The Long Island Regional Sustainability Plan, part of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority's Cleaner Greener Communities program, is expected to establish a framework early next year to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. But the political pragmatists among us know that, generally, regional approaches to regional problems have been addressed by far too many with sullen reluctance. Sandy mocked Long Island's political jurisdictions and will haunt those who think they can return to business as usual.

If ever there was a time to embrace broad-minded regionalism, this is it. We have the skills, the experience and the motivation to design a resilient future for Long Island. Let's engage our collective expertise to understand -- and act with intelligence and urgency. Because we never know when the winds and waters of the South Atlantic will give birth to a weather system that will make us look back at Sandy with fond nostalgia.

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