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Prepare regionally for the next big weather disaster

In a scene still common on Long Island's

In a scene still common on Long Island's South Shore, a home is raised on Oct. 14, 2017, in Freeport. Credit: Jeremy Bales

Each time a massive hurricane slammed into the coastlines of our islands and Southern states in the last two months, a familiar feeling of dread and vulnerability returned to Long Islanders.

Even five years after superstorm Sandy pummeled Long Island, five years after the water receded, and boardwalks were rebuilt, many homes elevated, dunes recreated and infrastructure reconstructed, that vulnerability remains.

Certainly, state and local officials have done much to rebuild in smarter and better ways, to try to protect, however temporarily, our shorelines. Plans for how to respond to such emergencies have gotten smarter. And the infrastructure of our power grid and other electrical equipment is much stronger. But all of these don’t substitute for a regionwide effort to plan for the next big one.

Take the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, a department set up in 2013 to combine recovery and rebuilding under a single umbrella. That effort has been specific to Sandy, officials in that office noted. Its duties are about rebuilding from destruction, not about broader thinking about our region’s resiliency or plans for the future. Even though individuals are having those conversations, that’s not enough.

We have to continue to help those whose homes were ravaged by Sandy, and we have to complete the larger reconstruction projects. A prime example is repairs needed to the East River train tunnels damaged by Sandy’s corrosive floodwaters — an effort whose launch has now been put off to 2025.

But attention must be paid. Harvey, Irma and Maria didn’t hit Long Island, but could have with a few different turns. It’s only a matter of time.

Enter the notion of a regional or statewide coastal commission. Similar to the California Coastal Commission, such an organization would work with municipalities to regulate development to determine what’s best for the shoreline, plan for future massive weather events and, fundamentally, think differently and bigger than we’ve ever thought before. The Regional Plan Association, a Manhattan-based nonprofit public policy organization, suggested earlier this month that such an agency would work across state lines, handling coastal and environmental concerns from New York to New Jersey to Connecticut. That might be a complicated endeavor, but it should be started. The first priority should be to establish a state umbrella agency to bring New York municipalities together to devise a master plan. All that would take would be an act of the State Legislature and a signature from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

From Staten Island to Montauk, from Throgs Neck to Orient, we need to assess the needs, gather and address the best ideas, and then put them in place. The storms will surge, the tides will rise. Let’s not wait until the next one to respond.


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