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Editorial: Governments must work together to survive new storms

A proposal by Interboro Partners planners of Brooklyn

A proposal by Interboro Partners planners of Brooklyn suggests placing channels along boulevards of Long Beach to prevent flooding during serious storms. Credit: Interboro Partners rendering

Shortly after superstorm Sandy struck a little more than a year ago, it became clear Long Island would have to build back better, stronger and smarter to have any shot of surviving the next big storm.

That's been happening, here and there. Some houses have been raised, some substations have been fortified, the Long Beach boardwalk has been rebuilt and hardened. Individual projects are underway. But the really big work -- the work that doesn't simply protect one thing but benefits all of us -- has yet to begin. For the most part, it's unproposed, unapproved and unfunded.

Thinking and acting regionally is not something we do well on Long Island.

That's why we should be excited about the potential of a competition being run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Rebuild by Design asks designers and engineers and architects and planners to devise solutions to the problems exposed by Sandy. Nearly 150 teams from more than 15 countries submitted proposals.

Among the 10 that have moved on to the final round is a team led by Interboro Partners. The Brooklyn-based firm has some intriguing ideas to help the South Shore of Nassau County -- and, by extension, Suffolk and New Jersey and other parts of the country facing similar issues, an adaptability that is one of the competition's goals. The proposal is unprecedented in its scope and in how its parts work together. But it requires that our many levels of government -- counties, towns, cities, villages -- work in a different way: together. It's a challenge we have to meet. If Sandy taught us anything, it's that water doesn't stop at the town line.Interboro's ideas still need to be vetted. But HUD officials like the way each element works on its own and as part of a larger narrative on what it will take to make our entire region more resilient.

One proposal is to dig channels below ground level along the middle of Long Beach's north-south boulevards to absorb overflow from the bay during storms. The channels would be open on top to also provide a benefit to residents -- by making them community gardens or bike paths or something else. It's part of Interboro's philosophy of the emergency and the everyday: Each improvement must work the one or two times a year it's needed, but also provide a daily value to residents.

The group also proposes to protect the Bay Park sewage treatment plant with a levee that could double as a walkway, jogging path or sledding slope. In addition, Interboro is talking about widening river and creek beds to absorb both storm surges coming up from the bay and stormwater runoff flowing south from inland communities, and transforming those areas into accessible parks with trails for hiking or biking. But many of these proposals -- whether cutting-edge or more traditional, such as replenishing wetlands -- require cooperation from all of our affected communities. Otherwise, the projects won't get done. They won't even get funded, because creating higher standards through regional cooperation is part of the competition's mandate.

And there's serious money available, enough to guarantee the competition does not become merely an academic exercise. Some of the $4 billion that remains in HUD's Community Development Block Grants for disaster recovery is available for the winners, along with other federal funding, expected contributions from states and local municipalities, and possible private funding. That's a healthy carrot. And the stick? No one wants to see Sandy's devastation again.

The Interboro team has begun to talk to our many governments. Officials in Nassau County say they are enthusiastic about what they heard. But intermunicipal cooperation is famously difficult around here. Many have tried and failed. That's not an option this time. There is too much at stake.

It's time to talk. And listen. And act. Together.