The state will push ahead with 25 local projects aimed at making some Long Island communities better prepared for a major weather event two years after superstorm Sandy caused $8.4 billion in damages to the region.
These plans, which officials have outlined to Newsday, sprang from the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program and will cost $96 million, officials said.
Critics say these projects -- which include bulkheads in Long Beach and drainage improvements in other communities -- won't keep water out of Nassau and Suffolk counties, as many had hoped.
And it's unclear when they will begin.
"If you are really planning to protect the South Shore of Long Island, you need to be able to close off the inlets," said John D. Cameron Jr., chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement the selected plans will help the area.
"These projects are all about building a more resilient Long Island from the ground up," he said. "We launched the NY Rising program last year to help empower local communities . . . to build back better than ever before."
His office declined to make a representative available to answer follow-up questions.
Islandwide, several multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects are underway -- dune replenishment on the East End and the strengthening of electrical and rail systems among them.
On a more local level, vulnerable communities were given an opportunity through New York Rising last year to develop plans that would better protect them.
The 25 approved projects come from a list of more than 600 ideas proposed by 21 New York Rising groups across Long Island, mostly along the South Shore. A 22nd group, Bay Shore, is drafting its plans.
Each was made up of volunteers who met repeatedly with state planning experts; elected officials were barred from the process.
A Newsday analysis found that only about 100 of the 229 highest priority projects as selected by the groups could eventually keep water out of Island communities, or better protect homes, businesses and roads once floods occur.
Roughly 30 of the 100 plans would fund only studies -- mostly of drainage and shoreline stabilization -- meaning that about 70 could bring more immediate relief.
Members of these groups said the priority projects they chose addressed their most immediate concerns, though they are not enough to prevent the type of damage brought by superstorm Sandy.
Erik Mahler, who helped craft the Baldwin/Baldwin Harbor group's plan, said the region needs to build more costly barriers, like gates.
"All of these little projects . . . will help out during the [Tropical Storm] Irenes," he said. "The flood gates are the only things that will help alleviate the Sandys."
Superstorm Sandy stuck on Oct. 29, 2012, and devastated much of the South Shore, particularly in Nassau County. To help with the recovery, Congress approved $60 billion in relief funding for the states affected by the storm.
Money flowed to the Island through several federal channels, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
New York Rising was established to help distribute all of the HUD aid, which is being spent on housing, small business recovery, community reconstruction and infrastructure.
The Island's $250 million infrastructure allocation represents a sliver of the $4.4 billion in NY Rising funding and was earmarked not only for resiliency measures but also to bolster communities' economic growth.
New York City got a separate allocation.
Cuomo launched the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program in July 2013.
But the state didn't get enough of a financial commitment from the federal government to fund the large-scale infrastructure improvements that local communities need to prevent the type of devastation brought by Sandy, experts and officials said.
So the groups said they decided to address other, smaller issues, in many cases.
A representative of the governor's office said the projects were selected because they had community support and the backing of the local municipality in charge of carrying out the work.
The groups divided their plans into three categories: "proposed," "featured" and "additional resiliency."
Newsday's analysis focuses on only the "proposed" plans because they are more likely than the rest to receive funding, officials said. The projects in that category for the 21 New York Rising groups cost $381 million to $427 million.
The 25 projects announced by Cuomo's office this week could be implemented soonest -- another reason why they were selected, an official said.
The costliest plan, at about $20 million, will fund storm water infrastructure upgrades in Cedarhurst, Hewlett, Hewlett Harbor, Hewlett Neck, Inwood, Lawrence and Woodmere.
It might include the use of pervious pavement, which allows water to move more easily from the roadway to the ground, and landscaping to help remove pollutants from the water, in addition to targeted drainage improvements.
Members of that group did not respond to calls for comment.
In Long Beach, the state chose to fund a $12.45 million project that would replace and install bulkheads along its bay side. Officials said the plan is the most shovel-ready of all the proposals.
City Manager Jack Schnirman said the project will replace sporadic bulkheading of varying heights with a contiguous wall of protection at least 9 feet high.
While he doesn't know if it would be enough to protect the region from another superstorm, he said it would be a good first step.
"There is no such thing as storm prevention," he said. "Only mitigation. You cannot prevent Mother Nature from foiling even the best plans."
Oceanside is slated to get $10.32 million to do an analysis and then improve its storm water drainage system. Likewise, Barnum Island/Island Park/Harbor Isle will see $9.9 million in drainage improvements, the state said.
But not all 25 plans would mitigate flooding or strengthen the communities' infrastructure.
Fire Island, the Village of Babylon and the Massapequas will get generators, for example.
The Baldwin/Baldwin Harbor group is receiving $800,000 to plan for a resiliency study of long-term future of its commercial corridors.
Mahler said he's disappointed in the selection because it won't keep water out of the area.
And it means "real work" could be years off, he said.
'Huge waste of money'
"It's a huge waste of money," Mahler said. "Studies go nowhere. They take years and then people sit around a table and talk about it rather than doing something."
He wanted a retractable dam at Silver Lake Park and improvements to the sewer system.
A majority -- 125 of 229 -- of the priority projects proposed by the community groups would do nothing to strengthen infrastructure or resiliency.
For example, the Atlantic Beach/East Atlantic Beach group asked for $2 million to create a community assistance center; Babylon and West Babylon sought nearly $1 million in emergency equipment; Lindenhurst asked for a quarter-million dollars to upgrade its website to make it more nimble in an emergency; Mastic Beach asked for $231,000 to start a 3.5-mile bike path.
Yet in the 400 "additional" or "featured" requests, there are scores of measures that would provide mitigation.
Freeport, for instance, included a program to regularly maintain and protect flood valves, the identification of roads that need to be raised, and a study on how to protect the Nautical Mile from storm surge, sea level rise and coastal flooding in the "additional" category.
Oakdale and West Sayville listed the possible raising of bulkheads in this same category with no cost associated.
Baldwin and Baldwin Harbor listed the installation of 25 tidal valves and the identification of long-term retreat and resilience options for residents and businesses as "featured" items.
South Valley Stream did the same, placing bulkhead repairs in that same grouping. The cost would be $5.5 million for two such projects. That group also listed the study of floodgates and flood protection alternatives at Hook Creek and Motts Creek and the elevation of Rockaway Turnpike and Nassau Expressway as "additional" measures with a $920,000 price tag.
South Valley Stream is getting $1.7 million to restore the natural shoreline along a greenway walking path along Valley Stream at the end of Cloverfield Road North, planting trees, creating more open space and installing other green infrastructure. It was one of the New York Rising group's top projects.
Freeport, in an effort to better protect its electrical infrastructure and prevent power outages, will get a "proposed" request of $3 million to replace and extend the buried portion of key electric distribution cables beyond its boatyard to protect the lines from freed boats and debris during storm surges.
A representative of the Freeport group could not be reached.
Though some hail such plans, others wonder if projects like this will protect the area in a major storm.
"It will help, but is it going to prevent a flood? No," said Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy. "It may provide a safer environment in the case of a flood, but in my opinion, providing some type of a gate at the inlets and building up the barrier island would better protect Nassau County."
Members of the New York Rising groups defended their choices.
Atlantic Beach and East Atlantic Beach will get $720,000 to make the existing Water Reclamation Plant better able to resist future storms. Jonathan Kohan, co-chair of its New York Rising group, said the money will serve a critical need.
Without wastewater treatment, he said, residents would have to leave during a storm. Although saltwater poured into the plant during the storm, it still was able to operate during Sandy.
The second biggest priority, Kohan said, are health and safety issues, which is why the group would like solar-powered streetlights.
"We were in darkness for 10 days to two weeks," he said. "By doing this, we are protecting our lives and property. Our community has taken the position that these things are fundamental to the safety of our residents and that's why they are the first couple of projects in order of priority."
In West Islip, the state announced plans for a $1.3 million capital improvement study -- mostly focused on drainage.
Some improvements would be made from its recommendations.
Larry Donahue, who helped craft the group's plan, was looking for something more extensive and concrete two years after the storm.
"I guess that's a good step," he said, but he thought the document his group came up with was already a study and that it clearly outlined what is needed. "I don't mean to rain on this parade, but when does the community get to see something? I can't say I'm overjoyed with it. I can't help wondering after the election is over, is anybody going to remember any of this stuff? Will there be any follow-through on it?"
None of the projects will dramatically improve Long Island's resilience and for that, experts say, it's worth examining infrastructure projects in other parts of the country and the world.
Dunes in the Netherlands stand 30 feet high in some places; highways are built upon them and vegetation holds them in place, said Malcolm Bowman, a world-renowned oceanography expert.
Long Island might want to consider a similar plan, though it's unfathomable to some residents, said Bowman, a professor of physical oceanography at Stony Brook University.
"The downside is that they cannot see the ocean from their front windows," Bowman said, adding that Long Islanders can't have it both ways. "That is a bugaboo here. Nobody wants to lose the view."
Jay Tanski, New York Sea Grant Coastal Processes and Facilities Specialist, said the state is skipping a crucial step: New York must first study its shores to have a better understanding of how they've changed in the past 50 years.
Right now, he said, such studies are scattershot.
"We don't have enough information about the shoreline," he said. "Some of this money could be spent to develop a program to truly understand what is happening on the coast."
This is particularly true of the North Shore, Tanski said, where far too little data has been collected. Without this knowledge, it would be difficult to develop a solid shoreline stabilization plan, he said. The North Shore did not suffer as much damage as the South Shore during Sandy. "Even the low-energy shorelines are changing," he said. "But we have no information on that process."
Catch basins, bulkheading and the restoration of wetlands could help, Cameron said -- his engineering firm worked with some of the New York Rising groups in Suffolk County -- but what the region really needs, in addition to dunes and sea gates, is major elevation of its critical infrastructure.
As for the sea gates, the cost is a deterrent, Cameron said.
"They are expensive today," he said. "But what if you knew within five years you would get another Sandy? Would you say it's too expensive? You probably could build a system on the South Shore of Long Island for less than the damage caused by Sandy 2. But that was not an option for the present level of funding."
Before any of the 25 projects approved by the state gets underway, the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery will pay for their environmental reviews. The state brought on Hunt, Guillot and Associates, a Louisiana-based project management and engineering services firm with a history of shaping large- and small-scale infrastructure projects, to make sure each plan is eligible for federal grants and to ensure the monies are spent according to federal requirements.
In addition, local municipalities must each draft agreements saying they will adhere to all federal guidelines. And they must file a 30- to 40-page application detailing their plans and related costs -- all before a single shovel hits the ground.