New York’s Hamptons and a swath of Long Island’s South Shore are facing the second hurricane season since Sandy ripped apart the coast. Twenty months after the storm, much of the shoreline isn’t any better protected than it was 50 years ago.
An overlapping maze of federal, state and local agencies is holding up a $750 million plan to rebuild dunes and salt marshes, and elevate and buy out homes along an 83-mile (134-kilometer) stretch from Fire Island to Montauk. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project, first authorized by Congress in 1960 and funded last year as part of the Sandy relief package, may not begin until mid-September and still awaits state and federal approval.
“Areas that were vulnerable two years ago continue to be vulnerable today,” said Larry Cantwell, supervisor for East Hampton, where billionaire Ronald Perelman and comedian Jerry Seinfeld own homes. “It’s painfully slow, and as a supervisor, you fear the worst-case scenario: that while the paint is drying, we’re at risk to a catastrophic event.”
The Army Corps’ Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study, known as FIMP, embodies Governor Andrew Cuomo’s vision of building back stronger after Sandy caused more than $50 billion in damage to the region. It’s meant to protect Long Island for 50 years while initiating a retreat from low-lying areas in what Cuomo calls the “new reality” of rising seas and stronger storms caused by climate change.
The plan to protect against natural disasters like Sandy has run headlong into man-made barriers.
First, Congress didn’t approve the Sandy recovery funds until three months after the October 2012 storm. Then, in December of last year, the Army Corps was forced to seek a ruling from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because the piping plover, an endangered beach bird, lives on Fire Island, where dune construction would affect its habitat. Those talks took almost six months and required input from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Suffolk County and local communities.
The first step forward for the latest iteration of FIMP is an almost $200 million plan to build dunes and add sand to some beaches on Fire Island and in Montauk. Scheduled to begin in September, the plan still awaits the signature of the assistant secretary of the Army and approval from the state DEC.
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York City, said the long-delayed project remains a priority.
“FIMP was stalled for 50 years and would have been stalled for 50 more, but we broke that inaction by securing the historic $750 million funding needed to implement it in the Hurricane Sandy relief bill,” Schumer said in an e-mail message. “Now we must keep the Army Corps’ and other federal agencies’ feet to the fire.”
The largest portion of the project, an estimated $500 million proposal to elevate and flood-proof homes and businesses, isn’t expected to begin until early 2016, said Chris Gardner, a Corps spokesman.
“There is not one single entity that is responsible for any perceived delays implementing the work,” Gardner said by e-mail. “When there are many different stakeholders with potentially varying interests or needs to be addressed, it can make a larger project complicated to implement.”
In the absence of federal action, Southampton, where singer Billy Joel and fashion designer Calvin Klein own homes, levied a tax on special districts last year to raise about $25 million from 141 properties, said Anna Throne-Holst, the town’s supervisor. The funds paid for dumping more than 2 million cubic yards of sand on six miles of beach.
The move is helping to boost the value of the town’s priciest properties, which in turn lowers the tax burden for everyone else, she said.
“They were willing and able to pony up the cost, and it behooves everyone,” Throne-Holst said by phone.
The Corps hasn’t been completely inactive since Sandy struck on Oct. 29, 2012: Five beach projects previously approved for work have been replenished with sand.
A U.S. government advisory panel said in May that climate change is prompting increases in coastal flooding and heavier rains. More than 5,790 square miles and more than $1 trillion of property and structures in the U.S. are at risk of inundation from a two-foot rise in sea level, which could happen by 2050, the panel said in a report.
The Fire Island-to-Montauk Point plan will give time for Long Island’s South Shore to ready itself, said Susan Barbash, president of Protect Long Island, a group that advocates better fortification against storms.
“We have to retreat from the shoreline eventually,” Barbash said. “You can’t do it overnight without severe economic disruption.”