A worker stabilizes the dunes to protect the sand and...

A worker stabilizes the dunes to protect the sand and the road. (Mar. 21, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Let's pick the best cliche to describe why we should move quickly to protect our vulnerable coastline:

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

"Never waste a crisis."

"A stitch in time saves nine."

"Every cloud has a silver lining."

Actually each one describes why Long Island and New York City need to move smartly but swiftly to spend the $1.2 billion Washington has put on the table. If you're not convinced, here's one phrase that should seal the deal: "Free money."

In one day last fall, superstorm Sandy washed away more sand than three decades of nature's relentless powers of erosion, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. At the Fire Island National Seashore, the agency found that some dunes were reduced by 15 feet.

We can be thankful that the storm renewed national, state and local attention on how we must protect our shoreline from both the long-term risks of rising seas and the immediate threats of violent storms. Our defensive barriers -- beaches, dunes, sea walls, berms, marshes, groins -- need to be replenished and fortified. Even though we're assured the funds are in a locked box for years to come, the time to get this work started is now.

The federal dollars can elevate coastal roads, homes and recreation areas, reduce flooding at high tide, restore protective dunes and rebuild beaches. The funding is limited to Army Corps of Engineers projects in the works before the massive tropical cyclone hit. Fortunately, that category includes the entire sweep of geographical Long Island's southern coast from Montauk to Brooklyn, along with low-lying Asharoken on the North Shore.

Plans to improve the 83 miles of shoreline from Fire Island to Montauk Point were first authorized in 1960, but there never was any real money behind them. Fifty-three years later our ship has come in -- with $750 million.

The Sandy relief gives Long Beach another shot at $150 million for seven miles of dune protection from Atlantic Beach to Point Lookout. In 2006, the City Council declined to approve an Army Corps' plan after surfers organized and argued that sand replenishment could diminish preferred breaks in the waves. On the Rockaway Peninsula, there is an erosion mitigation package of $300 million to rebuild six miles of coastline and another $48 million for Coney Island for shoreline redesign to reduce future storm damage.

These dollars are the result of the loud showdown in Congress in January that netted New York and New Jersey $60 billion, apportioned into more than a dozen federal pots. But it's what happened after the vote that might make the difference for this long-needed coastal restoration.

The Senate bill provided 90 percent of the funding, requiring state and local governments to split the difference. The House of Representatives, however, wouldn't approve the funds unless the federal share was limited to the traditional formula of 65 percent.

But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) scrambled and found precedent that "ongoing construction" -- which meant some action was taken in the past three years -- could earn a 100 percent reimbursement. He convinced the Office of Management and Budget that a study here, and a report there, qualified the Long Island projects. It was clever, skillful and an acknowledgment of Schumer's clout with the White House. Without Washington paying full freight, it's unlikely that financially strapped local governments would have been able to pony up their share.

What's next is critical. Local governments must work with the Army Corps to approve the specific work ahead, as Long Beach and the Town of Hempstead did in the past two weeks. New York State must then issue environmental work permits. And here's where bureaucratic inertia and petty interests could stall momentum and prevent work from starting this year and next: There are limited times when dredging equipment is available. In addition, the need to protect environmentally sensitive species and locations further restricts the calendar.

It will take years to restore our coastline and the normalcy of our lives on it. We have to get started now.

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