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Editorial: Help Long Island survive the next big storm

10-31-12 Ocean Beach, Fire Island was hit by

10-31-12 Ocean Beach, Fire Island was hit by Hurricane Sandy. This is the view at the ocean. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Does it makes sense to keep doing this again and again and again?

In the rebuilding of Fire Island's Sandy-ravaged dunes, we've been focusing on the short term: When will the project start? Will we have to endure another storm season without protection? How long will it take to complete?

With a start date in September finally on the horizon, it's time to start thinking long-term.

When this $162-million replenishment of sand is washed away -- and it will be -- what do we do?

There is no firm date on the warranty for this patch job. It could be five years, it could be 10, perhaps longer. It depends on the severity of storms to come. But the day will arrive -- sooner than we would like -- when the dunes are ravaged once more. It says so right in the Army Corps of Engineers' assessment of its own project: "After the initial placement of sand, the project is expected to erode, and diminish in its protective capacity, eventually returning to a pre-project condition."

So, what to do?

For starters, we need to understand the goal in repairing the dunes. It's mainly to protect the houses, infrastructure and communities on Fire Island. The bigger issue is how to really safeguard the South Shore mainland from flooding, which is caused primarily by water coming into Great South Bay through its inlets. For that, other important work is needed.

Houses on the mainland must be raised, some particularly exposed homes must be bought out and returned to nature, roads must be elevated, septic systems must be replaced with sewers, vulnerable power grids must be moved, and coastal marshes that we destroyed in our fever for waterfront living must be restored.

Those kinds of critical steps will require a large part of the $700 million allocated for the modern version of the Fire Island-to-Montauk Point hurricane-protection and erosion-control plan first proposed more than 50 years ago. And they are smart ways to spend a huge pot of money unlikely to come this away again. Why? Because they are one-time expenditures that solve big problems and reduce risk.

Pumping sand onto a beach is a different matter altogether. The new dune-replenishment plan -- which comes almost two years after Sandy battered the island, and most likely will take two years -- is better than previous efforts in that it also will widen and elevate Fire Island's beach and place a berm in front of the reconstructed dunes. But this fix, too, eventually will wash away. It's part of the life cycle for a barrier island.

The reality is that storms like Sandy are bad for communities but good for barrier islands. In wiping out the dunes, Sandy pushed all that sand into the middle of the island, elevating it and strengthening it. Experts say the dunes eventually would re-form on their own. The process is how barrier islands defend themselves against rising sea levels. Fire Island would function perfectly well as a barrier island for the mainland if we just left it to nature -- and taxpayers would not have to spend a dime on it.

The problem is that people live there. And storms expose them and harm them. So, how to weigh the millions we must pay to safeguard Fire Island?

As a nation, we're only going to have so much money to spend on coastal protection. As more and more cities across the country, including New York, are threatened by inexorable sea level rise, do we use our resources to protect them -- or to defend people's second homes? Or, looked at another way, how much value do we put on preserving a beloved and iconic place that is so much a part of Long Island's identity?

We need to make important decisions about the future of our coastline and coastal communities. That requires an honest and informed debate. Do we actively protect and restore them, knowing that means we must do so in perpetuity? Or do we let nature take its course?

The work on the dunes that begins this fall buys us only time.