The Fire Island Planning Committee is holding a weekday meeting...

The Fire Island Planning Committee is holding a weekday meeting in Manhattan on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 to discuss plans for New York Rising funding related to superstorm Sandy damage. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

The $700 million federal strategy for protecting Long Island from hurricanes and nor'easters goes beyond restoring dunes and widening beaches, devoting much of the superstorm Sandy aid to a long-term fix: raising South Shore homes and roads.

More than 4,000 homes in flood-prone mainland communities off bays and inlets would be elevated and a number of vulnerable roads turned into dikes, officials said.

The 83-mile Fire Island to Montauk Point project, known as FIMP, is still being fine-tuned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The first phase of the plan -- restoration of the barrier island's battered dune line -- should be given to state and local officials later this month.

While attempts to approve a sweeping flood-control plan for the region failed for decades, the post-Sandy incarnation of FIMP has won preliminary support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the National Park Service and Suffolk County.

"This is a once-in-several-lifetimes opportunity to have these kinds of resources to deal with the consequences of Sandy and to try to ensure our coastal system is a little more resilient when the next storm comes," said Joseph Vietri, the Army Corps' North Atlantic planning and policy chief.

Helping drive acceptance of the plan is a sense of urgency to protect still-fragile Long Island and greater recognition that climate change will make matters worse, he said.

If FIMP is approved -- federal, state and local support are required -- it will take several years to complete, according to the Corps. Nassau's hard-hit coastal areas, including Long Beach, aren't part of the plan.

Steps to be taken

The first step would entail dredging the Atlantic, followed by construction of a brawny dune line along part of Fire Island's ocean coast, officials said. Montauk's business district would be shielded next.

Then South Shore homes in designated 2-, 6- and 10-year flood plains would start being raised -- at no cost to the owners, according to the draft plan. Funding would come from the nearly $51 billion Sandy aid bill approved by Congress.

While such a major home-raising effort would be a first for Long Island, it's been a key component in other federal flood-control projects, including those in Louisiana and New Jersey.

Lindenhurst resident Poonam Sikand knows the value of having a raised home. When Sandy struck Oct. 29, her house near the Great South Bay escaped major damage. Some of her ground-level neighbors lost everything.

She said it makes sense for a federal program to encourage others to elevate their homes to prevent a repeat of that disaster.

"It would be a good idea if everybody's home was lifted," she said.

A three-pronged approach

The Army Corps has fashioned FIMP as a three-prong defense against coastal storms:

Raising structures and roadways. The draft plan calls for spending roughly $500 million to elevate 4,400 mainland homes 5 to 10 feet, with stilts or basements with cosmetic "breakaway" walls.

While specific locations haven't been disclosed, officials are focused on clusters of homes near bays and inlets in at least a dozen Suffolk communities, including Babylon, Brookhaven, Copiague, Lindenhurst, Mastic Beach, Patchogue, Southampton, Westhampton, West Islip and West Sayville.

Tens of miles of flood-prone coastal roads also would be elevated, effectively turning them into protective levees and making them more accessible during major storms, officials said. Specific roads haven't been identified, but Vietri said engineers were looking at stretches in Mastic Beach, Lindenhurst and Dune Road, which runs east from West Hampton Dunes.

"Critical facilities" -- including hospitals and nursing homes, and police and fire stations -- would either be raised, floodproofed or ringed with levees, according to the plan.

Rebuilding dunes. About $140 million would pay for building dunes and widening beaches at several locations, including Fire Island, Montauk, Westhampton, West Hampton Dunes, Georgica Pond and Tiana Beach.

An estimated 8 million cubic yards of sand -- enough to fill the Empire State Building nearly six times -- would be dredged and pumped onshore, starting as soon as December.

The new Fire Island dune line, about 13 miles total, would stretch from the lighthouse to the wilderness area -- with gaps in undeveloped areas -- and continue from Smith Point County Park to Moriches Inlet.

Dunes fronting homes would rise to 15 feet above sea level, with a 75-foot-wide base and a crest 25 feet across -- much broader than what's there now. Beaches would be widened to 90 feet.

Going "green."Another $60 million would be spent restoring wildlife habitats, salt marshes and wetlands in South Shore bays to absorb floodwaters and help filter out pollutants.

The work would be similar to a project in Jamaica Bay that has restored 150 acres of salt marsh islands, said Army Corps spokesman Chris Gardner.

Because Fire Island is a crucial line of defense for Long Island, federal officials said they hope to begin work this winter as an emergency project.

Given the complexity of obtaining land and easements -- and working around the breeding cycles of protected wildlife, including the piping plover -- that work isn't likely to be completed until 2016, officials said.

A second, smaller emergency project protecting downtown Montauk, including constructing a mile-long dune, would start later next year and conclude sometime in 2015.

FIMP also would help address the longer-term issue of climate change, officials said.

Forecasts call for increasingly violent storms and rising sea levels, and Army Corps projections assume the Atlantic will rise 3 feet over the next 100 years.

"As the sea level rises, lesser storms will have more impact because waves won't have to be as high to reach the dunes or cause flooding on the mainland," U.S. Geological Survey geologist Cheryl Hapke said.

Obstacles remain

FIMP's fate hinges on a number of approvals.

Fire Island National Seashore is managed by the National Park Service, part of the Department of Interior, and its secretary must formally approve the project. So must the secretary of the Army and Cuomo.

Suffolk officials recently pledged to partner with the state on the project, and Fire Island property owners also support the plan.

A key hurdle could be addressing concerns of property owners in the flood plains who have already raised their homes -- and wouldn't be reimbursed from FIMP.

The first public test comes later this month when the Army Corps is to give state and local officials a detailed plan and environmental assessment.

A limited number of proposed home buyouts on the barrier island -- at pre-Sandy prices -- will be closely watched.

"The gun goes off at that point," said Susan Barbash, who lives in Bay Shore and has a summer home on Fire Island. "Everybody is just waiting on the Corps for that list."

Vietri said current plans call for purchasing about 30 properties in Ocean Bay Park, Davis Park and Robbins Rest that Army Corps engineers say are too close to the ocean. Brookhaven Town officials are considering offering some homeowners an alternative: land swaps that would let them move their homes to public land.

Another seven or so homes would be pushed back on their lots to accommodate the new dune. Permanent easements from about 200 property owners are also needed, Vietri said.

Dune construction would start on Fire Island's undeveloped east end and possibly in the west while buyouts and easements are negotiated, he said.

The plan for Montauk, due in November or December, calls for safeguarding the commercial area by replenishing the beach and possibly reinforcing the new dune with rock, steel or "geotubes" -- fabric tubes filled with sand.

For Fire Island and the South Shore, beaches and dunes would need to be replenished every four to five years, depending on how fast the sand erodes, according to the Army Corps.

The agency plans to release its full FIMP plan this winter, giving homeowners and communities a detailed look at areas targeted for home-raising.

Vietri also has been pushing another long-term strategy: urging Long Island officials to adopt more restrictive zoning for flood-prone areas.

"Towns and communities need to make better decisions about how they are building and rebuilding in high-hazard areas," he said. "They can't just look to us to solve the problem."

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