This story was reported by John Asbury, Robert Brodsky, Vera Chinese and Jean-Paul Salamanca. It was written by Brodsky.
The crest of the Atlantic Ocean pounds Montauk’s coastline, exposing buried sandbags intended to protect the downtown from rising sea levels. Due west, a narrow portion of Gilgo Beach washes away over the harsh winter, bringing the water dangerously close to Ocean Parkway. And years of erosion threaten to wipe Southold Town Beach completely off the map.
Across Long Island, coastal communities are in a battle against nature, trying to duck another superstorm like Sandy and cope with the inevitability of climate change at the same time.
Now, with the heart of hurricane season ready to beat down again, experts are divided over whether enough is being done to protect the region.
“From a global perspective we are absolutely better prepared than before Sandy,” said Aram Terchunian, a coastal geologist with First Coastal, an environmental consulting firm in Westhampton Beach.
Terchunian points to new coastal barriers, thousands of elevated or demolished shore-lying homes and millions of cubic yards of sand that have renourished local beaches in the seven years since Sandy damaged nearly 100,000 homes and businesses on Long Island.
But environmental activist Kevin McAllister isn't convinced. He argues that shoreline-hardening projects are stopgap fixes that don't deal with the eventuality of rising sea levels.
What federal officials need to consider, McAllister said, is the politically unpopular policy of “strategic retreat” — purchasing vulnerable waterfront properties and returning the land to nature.
“There is going to be a point of no return when we are only going to get the beach back by pumping it,” said McAllister, a former Peconic baykeeper. “In time, the flooding will only get worse.”
Here’s a closer look at what Long Island is doing to stem the tide:
Living near some of the most beautiful beaches in the country comes at a price.
At the farthest end of the South Fork, the hamlet of Montauk knows all too well.
Downtown floods. And those white-sand beaches are eroding — fast. The shoreline has moved 44 feet inland in two decades, a little more than 2 feet a year.
But the Town of East Hampton isn't ready to relent.
The past two years, town crews have stepped up to rebury an artificial dune that the Army Corps of Engineers built only three years ago out of geotextile sandbags.
Without the dune, though, town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc contends erosion would have exposed cesspools along the string of motels close to Montauk's downtown.
The sand cost just about $1 million for each of the past two years. The town is splitting the tab with Suffolk County.
Right now, the town's share comes from the general fund, but Montauk is considering a special erosion control taxing district that would shift the burden to local property owners.
Southampton Town has four similar taxing districts.
Montauk could rebuild the beach entirely for about $17 million — possibly in conjunction with an Army Corps proposal called the Fire Island to Montauk Point project. The federal work would put down 450,000 cubic yards of sand at the downtown beach.
Thinking of the future, the town is weighing a proposal to move downtown businesses inland to preserve Montauk’s character.
The strategy would take more than a decade, but is what McAllister, the activist, considers the only realistic long-term option.
"Kicking the can down the road will only make the issue more problematic," said McAllister, who founded the Sag Harbor-based nonprofit Defend H20.
But some Montauk residents don't like the plan, citing the millions of dollars in revenue that tourist motels pump into the local economy. Hearing the concerns, the town is revising the plan and expects to release the details in a few months.
Terchunian, the coastal geologist, describes any relocation of downtown as a "wholesale retreat" that would cost up to 20 times more than beach restoration. Homeowners and businesses, he predicted, would carry the brunt of the burden.
For beach erosion expert Henry Bokuniewicz, shoreline hardening isn't a permanent solution — but it may be the smartest and most economical approach.
"I compare it to medical science," said Bokuniewicz, a geological sciences professor at Stony Brook University. "It may not be the cure but it will help you from feeling sick."
FIMP for short
If beach nourishment is the two-aspirin treatment to coastal erosion and flooding, then the Army Corps' Fire Island to Montauk Point project is open-heart surgery.
The $1.2 billion proposal, known as FIMP, would use fortresslike barriers, including dunes and marshes, to shield Suffolk's South Shore for the 83 miles from Fire Island to Montauk Point, where Sandy hit hard.
Tens of miles of flood-prone coastal roads would be elevated as well, effectively turning them into protective levees.
And roughly 4,000 homes in flood-prone mainland communities off bays and inlets — the towns of Babylon, Islip, Brookhaven and Southhampton — would be elevated or floodproofed.
In Babylon Town, FIMP would target hundreds of flood-prone homes that weren't elevated or storm-hardened after Sandy, said Brian Zitani, the town's waterways management supervisor.
"This will make these neglected areas whole again," Zitani said. "They have been rolling the dice living in the flood zones."
For decades, attempts to get support for a sweeping, regionwide flood-control plan failed. Then, Sandy pushed through. Today, the National Park Service, New York State and Suffolk County are all backing the post-Sandy incarnation of FIMP.
Now, the Army Corps needs to approve the work, which could go out to bid next year, officials said.
The FIMP project also calls for dredging the Fire Island, Moriches and Shinnecock inlets. East Quogue, downtown Montauk, Smith Point and Westhampton all would gain beach fill, and groins that worsen erosion would be shortened in Ocean Beach and Westhampton.
Montauk Chamber of Commerce president Paul Monte underscored the need to do a large-scale beach rebuild in conjunction with FIMP.
“Montauk’s economy is a tourist-based economy," he said. "Without a nice, wide, sandy, beautiful beach in our downtown area, not only will our tourism economy be impacted, but all the property owners along that stretch will be impacted."
Monte blames years of neglect by local and county officials for the sad state of the hamlet's shorelines.
"We have been crying for years to have some type of beach management plan in place," he said.
Sandy brutalized Long Beach.
The tidal surge flooded the city, destroying the more than two-mile-long boardwalk on the south side. Waves from the bay to the north roared into homes along Reynolds Channel.
When all was said and done, damage to the city’s infrastructure, including its water and sewer treatment plants, totaled $150 million.
Seven years later, the Army Corps is nearly finished with a $130 million shoreline protection project from Point Lookout to Long Beach.
And the city has secured more than $32 million in state and federal funds for bulkhead improvements on the bay side, said Rob Agostisi, the acting city manager.
“Long Beach’s recovery since superstorm Sandy has been remarkable," Agostisi said. "Since the storm, we have completed hundreds of public works projects, including the boardwalk, key infrastructure and all city parks."
Crews have spent the past three years transforming the barrier island. Dunes were added in front of the boardwalk. The beach was widened with 300 feet of sand. The Army Corps constructed or rehabilitated 18 rocky jetties jutting into the ocean, designed to trap sand on the beach and prevent erosion.
The beach opened this summer to new walkovers over the dunes, built with 1.2 million tons of sand. Contractors planted the first seedlings of dune grass and will return in the fall to finish work near the dunes and plant more types of grass.
But city officials worry that boulders on the new jetties could deteriorate and fall into the ocean. Already, the 15,000- to 30,000-pound stones have started to separate because they weren't built on a concrete foundation, city officials said.
Concern is great enough that Long Beach has delayed taking responsibility for the jetties for five years while the Army Corps conducts annual inspections, maintenance and repairs.
The Army Corps also is looking at storm protection and flooding on the South Shore, in the bays around Reynolds Channel. One option under consideration: tidal gates from Jones Inlet to East Rockaway that would prevent storm surges from flooding communities along the shoreline, including Freeport, Island Park and Seaford. Tidal gates can run into the billions.
“The back bays study is going to be the blueprint study for how we deal with flooding on the South Shore,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). “We can raise roads and put in better drainage systems. These projects are important in hot spots, but to deal with the problem comprehensively as sea levels rise and storms get worse, having a back bays study planned is the answer.”
Southold Town Beach is slowly being swallowed by the Long Island Sound.
Once 100 feet long, the beach has been eaten away by years of punishing winter storms.
Right now, only a sliver of sand separates the surf at high tide from the parking lot on County Road 48.
Every few years, the town replenishes the beach with thousands of cubic yards of sand dredged from Orient Point by Cross Sound Ferry terminal. Then, the sand disappears over time — and the town has to bring in more sand.
“It’s a never-ending proposition," said town Supervisor Scott Russell. "Putting sand on there is a Band-Aid annually. We recognize that. But it’s a very popular beach and we don’t have other options at this point.”
But erosion isn't just threatening the beach: About $46 million in homes, businesses and roads along the shore are at risk of flooding and damage, the Army Corps has estimated.
The epicenter is Hashamomuck Cove, a soundfront neighborhood of nearly 80 homes that have been battered by nor'easters and erosion.
A long-term fix won't come cheap and won't happen overnight.
The Army Corps has proposed spending $17.7 million to fortify and widen 1.5 miles of shoreline along the Hashamomuck Cove with 160,000 cubic yards of sand.
The plan calls for the town to fund a percentage of the construction costs and to pay annual maintenance expenses to replenish sand at the cove area.
But the town can't afford what would be millions of dollars in shared costs, Russell said. And, consequently, cove residents are thinking about forming a taxing district to help the town fund its local share.
“Erosion is difficult to address," Russell said. "Every solution that we’ve read about or seen has been expensive and short-lasting."