When it comes to responding to the threat Long Island faces from rising seas and bigger storms, perhaps it was inevitable that real change would begin at The End.
The hamlet is under siege like no other place in the region. Hemmed by water, its residents live with nature to an unmatched degree. Its downtown is a stone’s throw from an ocean whose shoreline has receded 44 feet in just 12 years. Losing such a vibrant economic engine and defining symbol of Long Island’s seaside life would be a catastrophe.
Rather than pay lip service, officials and residents in Montauk and East Hampton Town are talking seriously about their future. And analyzing. And considering solutions. The discussions haven’t been easy. The decisions will be painful.
But they are to be commended for taking the first comprehensive steps to confront an issue the rest of Long Island knows well, but one with which it has not yet fully come to grips. Other communities facing similar challenges should summon the East End spirit of self-reliance and resiliency.
The plan, as pitched by consultants hired by East Hampton Town, considers Montauk’s very real threats head-on. It proposes dramatic changes, among a host of interconnected proposals:
- Relocate oceanfront businesses inland to vacant areas of Montauk.
- Restore those properties to beaches and dunes to protect against rising seas.
- Turn part of West Lake Drive in the Montauk Harbor area into a natural protective bank.
- Raise other vulnerable buildings and infrastructure, and incentivize property owners in other low-lying areas to move to higher ground.
It sounds radical only because it’s never been done on Long Island. It’s necessary because it might be the only means to survive.
There has been little pushback so far. That’s because East Hampton officials have smartly engaged residents and listened to their input, and will continue to do so as the process moves forward. And it’s because East Enders, especially in Montauk, feel in their bones what’s at stake.
They understand their vulnerability. They know hurricanes are inevitable. They realize that limiting risk beforehand is better than reacting to damage afterward, and that funds for reconstruction are neither unlimited nor guaranteed.
The wisdom of the approach was underscored by a recent estimate from the National Institute of Building Sciences that every $1 spent by the federal government to mitigate storm damage saves the country $6 in future costs. The Montauk strategy also highlights the shortsighted decision by President Donald Trump to rescind an Obama-era requirement that federal agencies consider climate-change effects like sea-level rise as they rebuild infrastructure.
New York State, on the other hand, has made some strides since superstorm Sandy, adopting sound scientific projections of sea-level rise and requiring that state agencies that handle permits, funding and regulations consider risks caused by sea-level rise and storm surges. And planning for the future could get easier as private companies improve software that analyzes climate projections, local weather and other data to produce hyperlocal predictions of how storms and other impacts of global warming will affect individual municipalities.
So far, the post-Sandy response on much of Long Island has been scattershot. Some parts of the shoreline are being hardened, creating erosion elsewhere. Some houses were rebuilt and elevated, some were rebuilt as they were, some were bought out and their land returned to nature — sometimes all on the same block. The Army Corps of Engineers continues to develop its $1.2 billion Fire Island-to-Montauk protection plan, but most of its sand barriers inevitably will wash away.
There is some hope for greater coordination in the form of a Suffolk County Legislature task force that is analyzing government’s response to Sandy and taking a big-picture look at ways to protect infrastructure and low-lying areas through natural defenses and land-use decisions. The task force will hold hearings to get public and expert input. Its recommendations won’t be binding on local governments. But if done right, the report could create an environment and a template for coordinated decision-making. Nassau lawmakers are considering a similar task force.
Most Long Islanders understand what awaits. As goes Montauk, so go many of the rest of us. That should be true for our planning, too.