Four years after leaving its destructive mark, superstorm Sandy continues to haunt Long Island.
Drive down some South Shore streets and you see neighborhoods still in turmoil. Some houses sit empty, their owners long gone or still struggling with the mechanics and bureaucracy of making and paying for repairs. Elevated houses rise alongside others built back as they were before Sandy, at the mercy of the next big storm.
We tend to measure Sandy’s impact by the feet of water that came through our doors. But its lingering toll is on our sense of community and the way it exposed our vulnerability.
As a region, we’ve responded in fits and starts. As with our homes, some of our infrastructure has been hardened but not all. Some temporary fixes, like the dunes that inevitably will wash away, have been made. We understand now that we need to restore natural storm defenses we helped destroy, like marshes and wetlands, a task that will require years of diligence and funding. And certainly, resiliency is now a focus.
State agencies making decisions about permits, funding and regulations now must consider risks caused by sea-level rise, storm surges and flooding. That’s good. It’s part of a law passed in 2014 in response to Sandy that also required the state to adopt projections of sea-level rise to help state agencies and local municipalities evaluate risk when assessing projects.
It’s vital information, but the deadline for the Department of Environmental Conservation to complete the projections is Nov. 10. If the DEC blows that, it must start over, and the bureaucratic process of public comments and hearings likely means another year before the numbers are published. That cannot happen. Sound planning demands the projections be produced now.
Most immediately, science-based projections would help state and local officials evaluate the Army Corps of Engineers’ $1.2 billion Fire Island-to-Montauk flood protection plan, which relies on its own figures for sea-level rise. More broadly, they would help villages, towns and counties assess whether and where to continue to develop along the coastline — and, more important, whether and where to retreat.
That’s part of the big conversation about Long Island’s future that we promised ourselves to have after Sandy but it’s not occurring. We know the future promises more storms that will put more of us at peril with sea levels forecast to rise because of climate change. But we don’t know how severe those storms will be, or when they will come. More worrisome: Many of us seem to be losing, or tucking away, those awful memories of how badly the region was crippled four years ago this weekend when Sandy blasted ashore.
Part of that is the resilience in every Long Islander’s DNA. But part of that also is false bravado. And Congress has been complicit in that.
Lawmakers refused to reform the federal flood insurance program to require owners of at-risk properties to pay premiums reflective of that risk. Instead, they kept payments artificially low. In making living on the water cheaper, Congress also made it more likely that the hard lessons of Sandy will not be learned. It’s no wonder house prices along Nassau County’s South Shore are rising faster than on the rest of Long Island. No one is putting the brakes on our dangerous desire to live on the water’s edge.
Responding to Sandy is comparatively easy. Preparing for the storms to come is far more difficult, but essential.
What to do about low-lying Mastic Beach? What about downtown Montauk and Fire Island? What about Lindenhurst, Freeport, Amityville, Island Park and dozens of other Sandy-savaged communities?
Is it tenable to keep erecting barricades we know will be destroyed? Can we afford to keep feeding the hubris that led us to build wherever we wanted instead of only where it was wise? Can we find within us the humility to admit we made mistakes, and summon the courage to make the changes needed to right those wrongs?
All we have to do is look at the neighborhoods that four years later are still ruptured and reeling to know the consequences of getting this wrong.