Clockwise from top right, Newsday's April 9, 1955 editorial cartoon...

Clockwise from top right, Newsday's April 9, 1955 editorial cartoon about erosion on Long Island shores; the Army Corps of Engineers at work on Fire Island in 2016; and waves lash Southold Town beach during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Credit: Newsday, Randee Daddona, Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

For more than a century, the future of Long Island’s fragile shoreline has been a focus of public debate. Much of today’s conversation — especially after a recent series of storms caused serious erosion along the South Shore — sounds eerily familiar.

At the end of World War II in August 1945, a Newsday editorial declared, “The problems of erosion have always been of local concern here on Long Island where time and tide have worn away a considerable portion of our coastline.” It expressed concern about “the pounding of the sea upon our barrier beaches” along the South Shore, but also the more gradual “nibbling” of erosion along the northern Long Island Sound coastline.

Fifty years later, the stakes were even higher. After major hurricanes and tropical storms carved up the coastline in the 1990s, critics warned that overbuilding along the coastline was further aggravating the erosion problem. “Downstate New York’s great city and suburban islands rest in a rising sea,” a Newsday editorial warned in 1993. “The peril is real.”

But 2012’s Superstorm Sandy proved a true turning point. The monster storm ravaged Long Island, destroying or damaging 100,000 homes. Ocean water, pushed by high winds, rushed over dunes and natural wetlands barriers and flooded local streets and basements, causing billions of dollars in damages.

For past editorials on beach replenishment, go to newsday.com/erosioneditorials

While Sandy was a wake-up call for the public and government officials, increasing scientific evidence about climate change exposed the quiet creep of rising sea levels and fueled the urgency to do something.

The parameters of today’s debate remain the same: Should we fight nature’s advance on our beaches with a series of human-made structures? Or should we “retreat” in an organized way from endangered areas most likely to suffer costly damage from the next major storms?

FIGHTING BACK

For years, plenty of politicians and shoreline property owners have favored a “hard armor” approach — building sea walls and groins and pouring tons of sand in “beach renourishment” projects. While some wealthy homeowners paid for their own structures, most of these costly projects have been funded by the public purse.

After Sandy’s devastation, Congress approved a huge shoreline rehab program for Long Island and much of the Northeast to be handled largely by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with local cooperation. In densely populated Long Beach, for instance, a $125 million project rebuilt and added new groins to protect the shoreline and widen the beach with 4.1 million cubic yards of sand. Another $15 million reinforced the dunes in front of downtown Montauk.

On Fire Island, the Corps poured over 7 million cubic yards of sand and relocated some homes at a cost of $291 million. But much of that sand has been swept away, not by one big hurricane but by a series of “no-name” storms. Now Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other government officials are calling for the Corps to conduct emergency Fire Island repairs with more sand at an estimated cost of $10 million.

PULLING BACK

The essential aim is to move people’s homes and infrastructure out of harm’s way before serious storms destroy them. As far back as the 1970s, some politicians — and plenty of environmentalists — have supported “managed retreat,” a policy that avoids building on fragile dunes and beaches, encourages low-cost development of wetlands and seagrass as a natural buffer from ocean storms, and promotes relocation and sometimes actual buyouts of property owners most endangered by storms.

But after Sandy, the idea became reality. Funded by the federal government, the NY Rising Buyouts and Acquisition Program has acquired 1,449 parcels statewide. Many were empty sites on Long Island but some were buyouts of households. In her proposed 2024-25 budget, Gov. Kathy Hochul has earmarked another $250 million for voluntary buyouts to move homeowners away from threatened coastline properties.

OUR TAKE

A comprehensive 21st century approach is needed for Long Island’s embattled shoreline. Rather than going it alone, Nassau and Suffolk counties and their towns and cities should combine forces to begin to solve the dire threat of rising sea levels that surely will redefine Long Island.

Undoubtedly, it was necessary to provide some money to restore the rocks protecting Montauk’s landmark lighthouse and to ensure that Ocean Parkway and vital electrical systems on Fire Island be kept safe from ocean flooding. But we must curb the use of federal flood insurance funds to subsidize the rebuilding of homes knocked down by storms.

Public officials should embrace “managed retreat” as an option rather than encourage expensive rebuilding projects in a Sisyphean fight against nature. Property owners in harm’s way must be urged to retreat with grace rather than in tatters. We must be smarter, and more realistic, to make sure there is far less damage when the next Sandy comes.

As Newsday suggested in 1945, “A well organized plan laid out on a county-wide scale is needed if we are to save our beaches.” If not, by “ignoring the situation, the money might as well be thrown to the fishes.”

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

Newsday Logo

ONE-DAYSALEUnlimited Digital Access25¢ for 5 6 months

ACT NOW

SALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME