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Invest to save LI's drainage system

Waves pound homes near Southold Town Beach during

Waves pound homes near Southold Town Beach during Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012. Credit: Randee Daddona

This month marks the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy touching down on the East Coast and battering the greater New York region. Today, we are no better off. If it feels like extreme weather and superstorms are happening regularly, that’s because they are. Sea waters continue to rise, and natural disasters are occurring at an alarming rate. Tropical Storm Ida tore through New York last month, flooding parts of Long Island, leaving several dead.

While we can’t control the weather, we can control how we respond and protect ourselves. We need infrastructure investments to solve our drainage problems now.

In March 2020, just before the pandemic struck, the Long Island Contractors' Association and Greenman-Pedersen Inc., an engineering design firm, released an extensive drainage study highlighting the need for additional infrastructure investments in Suffolk and Nassau counties.

The analysis focused on the culverts, outfalls, stormwater drains, and underground piping that connect to our environmentally sensitive natural waterways. The study concluded that many factors contribute to a deficient drainage system on Long Island.

To name a few: inadequate facilities, aging infrastructure, and outdated designs. As an example, it is estimated that over 300 parkway catch basins have failed over time, only to be filled with sand and now inoperative. All these factors continue to erode each time we have dangerous weather or flooding. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury to wait any longer to fix them.

Long Island is a couple more storms away from becoming a modern "Waterworld" unless we make the proper investment. Running through the Island, we have various bays and rivers. The Atlantic Ocean surrounds us. Any event of significant precipitation, storm surge, or rainfall will create the "perfect storm" of havoc on our drainage system. That is unsafe for our roads, our homes, and our drinking water.

Yet, we already see the real-time effects of our drainage system's lack of infrastructure investments, which will continue to deteriorate. Monthly videos of flooded roads and cars fill our newsfeeds. While the imagery is dramatic, mass transit tunnels destroyed by flooded water, raging rivers cresting and carrying houses away, and communities placed underwater are true tragedies.

The fact is that too many people rely on quality drainage on Long Island to turn a blind eye.

Some may wince at the price tag of such investments, which professionals estimate may be as high as $50 million annually for the next decade to bring the network to today’s standards. So, this is our new reality. We need to prepare and modernize our drainage systems as an investment to protect our economy and livelihood. Nobody should experience the devastating loss of their home, personal belongings, or worse.

So, what can we do? First, Gov. Kathy Hochul should continue to push forward big, bold infrastructure projects across New York and Long Island. Second, Sen. Chuck Schumer and the entire New York congressional delegation should support the current $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill under discussion. This plan could help fund the necessary drainage system upgrades we desperately need.

If the harsh lessons of Sandy felt like a warning, the devastation from Ida serves as confirmation that we can no longer have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality. Like the American Heart Association calling hypertension the "silent killer," we must recognize that ignoring our infrastructure drainage needs will indeed kill our region. More people will lose lives, and more will lose homes if we do not act accordingly.

Marc Herbst is executive director of the Long Island Contactors’ Association.

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