This is not a new question for Long Island: Now that we've seen a storm's power to disrupt the flimsy pretensions of our species to build homes on the shifting sands of our shores, what do we do next? Do we build again, or do we retreat from the shoreline to safer ground and let nature do what nature does?
Sandy now forces us to revisit the question. The answers seem likely to turn out much the same as they have in the past. But we have a serious obligation to look squarely at the issue. On Nov. 15, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo created three commissions to study what Sandy did to us and make sweeping recommendations on how to improve New York's emergency preparedness and the ability of our infrastructure to stand up to future storms. The governor should make sure the commissions address the build-or-abandon-to-nature issue.
They don't have to start from scratch. The problem of shifting sands arose long before Sandy shifted them again.
Two decades ago, a powerful storm in December 1992 did serious damage to homes on Fire Island. In its aftermath, Newsday ran a series of detailed stories about the build-or-abandon conflict. The series found, for example, that a year before the 1992 storm, a state commission headed by then-Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine had recommended a policy of "strategic retreat" from the shore.
That was in keeping with what coastal geologists say: The ideal solution would be to clear away the rubble of the latest storm, don't build back nearly as close to the water, and let nature take its course. When storms hit, reporters call coastal experts such as Orrin Pilkey of Duke University, Nicholas Coch of Queens College and Malcolm Bowman of Stony Brook University, and the scholars all point out some version of the futility of rebuilding and of nourishing beaches damaged by the storm.
No government, however -- not the state, not the towns, not the Fire Island National Seashore, an arm of the National Park Service and the Department of Interior -- has been able to win legal battles with owners who want to live as close to the water's edge as they can. Courts uniformly rule against any prohibition of rebuilding as an unconstitutional "taking" of property.
Despite the advice of scientists and the Lundine commission's report, the 1992 storm didn't dissuade people from rebuilding their homes too close to the new sand brought in to replace the sand that had been washed away.
And now, here we are again.
Some parts of the Island's 1,200 miles of shoreline have fared better than others. But the damage from Sandy has been widespread. Breezy Point and the Rockaways have been devastated. Robert Moses State Park and Wildwood State Park have suffered sharp drops in beach elevation. The storm has cut new inlets in Fire Island east and west of Moriches Inlet, at Smith Point County Park and Cupsogue County Park, and through the Wilderness Area of Fire Island National Seashore. Sandy also wrecked many private homes along the South Shore.
Now the questions are what to fix, what to rebuild, and where.
Our two U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, are pushing for $500 million to $1 billion to fund seven Army Corps of Engineers coastal protection projects from Staten Island to Montauk Point -- including such locations as Long Beach, Gilgo Beach, Fire Island and Asharoken -- that already have congressional authorization.
But authorization is only the first step. The approvals process before a project gets done is long and labyrinthine. So the two senators want Long Island to enjoy the same shorter, more expedited process that the Gulf Coast received after Hurricane Katrina.
The senators obviously intend to be relentless on that funding and those projects. There may be no appetite right now for the back-to-nature approach that scientists recommend. But it should at least get a respectful hearing by one of Cuomo's commissions. These are some of the big questions that need answering over the next few months, and the commissions seem like a natural starting point to get some answers:
What areas absolutely must be protected by building sand back up on beaches -- and what areas should be left to the mercies of tide and wind?
Can we afford to continue that sand replacement over and over after monster storms yet to come? There's plenty of history to show that this repair work has had to be done repeatedly at barrier beaches along the Atlantic Coast.
Since there's a long line of court decisions that uphold the right of people to rebuild their damaged beachfront homes, how can we legally discourage building back in highly dangerous locations?
Can we nudge people to think twice by changing the way the up-to-its-neck-in-debt National Flood Insurance Program reimburses losses? Do we dare to say: Your flood insurance will pay for one loss of a home, but next time you're on your own? It's one thing for flood insurance to help families who have the misfortune of living in a flood plain in the middle of the Island, but quite another to keep paying out to those who keep making the same mistake over and over on the beach. Why should taxpayers foot the bill for this sort of private but seemingly reckless behavior? Any long-term solution has to include a flood-insurance fix.
Can we change building codes so future construction has to withstand storms as fierce as Sandy -- or worse?
To begin answering these questions, Cuomo should instruct someone on one of his commissions to look back at the Lundine report of two decades ago and at the sea-level rise task force from 2010, which made recommendations on how the state could cope with those rising levels. That's a starting point.
If Sandy finally makes us look at these crucial coastal questions and come up with real long-term answers, she will have done us at least one favor.