A home seen at sunset along Dune Road
A home seen at sunset along Dune Road in the Hamptons. Photographer: Bryan Anselm/Redux for Bloomberg

The Big take

Unlimited Sand and Money Still Won’t Save the Hamptons

Montauk

Easthampton

Staten

Island

Mastic

Southhampton

Westhampton

Pike Beach

Fire Island

New York Haror

Montauk

Easthampton

Southhampton

Staten

Island

Mastic

Westhampton

Pike Beach

Fire Island

New York Haror

Montauk

Easthampton

Staten

Island

Mastic

Southhampton

Fire Island

Westhampton

New York

Haror

Pike Beach

Montauk

Easthampton

Mastic

New York

Harbor

Southampton

Fire Island

Westhampton

If you happened to be in Montauk, N.Y., when the trucks started rolling in this summer, you’d get a sense of how much sand $171,000 buys. Load after load tumbled onto Ditch Plains Beach, one of the Atlantic Coast’s better surfing spots, carved along one of the richest stretches of the Hamptons. It’s a short walk from an exclusive trailer park where hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb and other wealthy surfers store their beach gear.

The local government funded the sand infusion after winter nor’easters and an early summer tropical storm narrowed the beach and exposed the dense layer of hardpan beneath the sand. For three days before the Fourth of July weekend, dump trucks and tractor trailers dropped roughly 100 loads along a few hundred yards of waterfront. Soon the freshly graded beach was packed with surfers and tourists.

The delivery was one of several this year to beaches in the town of East Hampton, at a cost approaching $1 million, to help restore what’s been carried off by currents and storms in a perpetual ebb and flow intensified by the rising seas. The realities of climate change mean this beach renovation is clearly a temporary fix. It’s also a small preview of things to come, except the federal government will largely be funding any subsequent infusions of sand.

Over the next three decades the U.S. will spend at least $1.5 billion to help shore up about 80 miles of Long Island waterfront as part of the ongoing Fire Island to Montauk Point project, or FIMP. Under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, hundreds of millions of dollars will be invested in dredges that pump offshore sand back onto beaches—much more efficient than the trucks, at hundreds of times the scale. Thousands of residences, many of them beachfront homes, will be lifted off their foundations onto stilts.

As the program gets going, state and local governments will foot a portion of the bill for ongoing costs. Some wealthy homeowners on the beach will join in the effort to thwart rising seas, paying small fortunes to install private sea walls. After years of delays, the project was authorized to begin construction thanks to last year’s Cares Act, which was meant to stimulate the economy in the early depths of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What’s happening on beaches in the Hamptons and nearby is no last-minute maneuver. The spending is merely the latest turn in an eight-decade drama between humans and nature—storm destruction and restoration, lobbying and lawsuits—that’s creating one of the most ambitious running battles against climate change in U.S. history. Of all places, it’s the Hamptons and nearby beaches that will be the biggest test bed for the elaborate policies and defensive measures needed in vulnerable beach communities around the world, even those that aren’t home to millionaires and billionaires. That makes the Hamptons both a climate laboratory and the face of an existential question: How long can, and should, governments deploy a mountain of cash against the implacable rise of warming seas?

Area of detail

Gardiners

Bay

Montauk

10 miles

10 km

East Hampton

Riverhead

Average home value for

Sagaponack, ZIP code 11962,

is $5.8M

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Average home values in Aug 2021 by ZIP code

Westhampton

Beach

1

2

3

4

$5M

Fire Island

Average home value for

Sagaponack, ZIP code

11962, is $5.8M

Area of detail

Gardiners

Bay

Montauk

10 miles

10 km

Riverhead

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Westhampton

Beach

Average home values in Aug 2021 by ZIP code

1

2

3

4

$5M

Fire Island

10 miles

Only 8.4% of properties are

at risk in Sagaponack, ZIP code

11962, the most expensive

neighborhood in the Hamptons

10 km

Area of detail

Montauk

Riverhead

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Westhampton

Beach

Average home values in Aug 2021

by ZIP code

1

2

3

4

$5M

Fire Island

Average home values in Aug 2021 by ZIP code

North

1

2

3

4

$5M

Montauk

Gardiners

Bay

Average home value for

Sagaponack, ZIP code

11962, is $5.8M

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Westhampton

Beach

Riverhead

10 miles

Fire Island

10 km

Area of detail

Long

Island

Average home values in Aug 2021 by ZIP code

1

2

3

4

$5M

North

10 miles

Montauk

10 km

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Riverhead

Westhampton

Beach

Average home value for

Sagaponack, ZIP code

11962, is $5.8M

Area of detail

Fire Island

Long

Island

Area of detail

Gardiners

Bay

Montauk

10 miles

About 41% of properties

in Amagansett, ZIP code

11930, are at risk

10 km

East Hampton

Riverhead

Only 8.4% of properties are at risk in

Sagaponack, ZIP code 11962, the most

expensive neighborhood in the Hamptons

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Percentage of properties at risk in ZIP code

Westhampton

Beach

10

20

30

40%

About 83% of properties

in Fire Island, ZIP code

11770 are at risk, an outlier

Fire Island

Only 8.4% of properties are

at risk in Sagaponack, ZIP code

11962, the most expensive

neighborhood in the Hamptons

Area of detail

Gardiners

Bay

Montauk

10 miles

10 km

About 41% of properties

in Amagansett, ZIP code

11930, are at risk

Riverhead

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Westhampton

Beach

Percentage of properties at risk in ZIP code

10

20

30

40%

About 83% of properties

in Fire Island, ZIP code

11770 are at risk, an outlier

Fire Island

10 miles

Only 8.4% of properties are

at risk in Sagaponack, ZIP code

11962, the most expensive

neighborhood in the Hamptons

10 km

Area of detail

Montauk

About 41% of

properties in

Amagansett, ZIP

code 11930, are

at risk

Riverhead

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Westhampton

Beach

Percentage of properties at risk

in ZIP code

About 83% of properties

in Fire Island, ZIP code

11770 are at risk, an outlier

10

20

30

40%

Fire Island

Percentage of properties at risk in ZIP code

North

10

20

30

40%

Montauk

About 41% of properties

in Amagansett, ZIP code

11930, are at risk

Only 8.4% of properties are

at risk in Sagaponack,

ZIP code 11962, the most

expensive neighborhood in

the Hamptons

Gardiners

Bay

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Westhampton

Beach

Riverhead

About 83% of properties

in Fire Island, ZIP code

11770 are at risk, an outlier

10 miles

Fire Island

10 km

Area of detail

Long

Island

Percentage of properties at risk in ZIP code

10

20

30

40%

North

10 miles

Montauk

10 km

About 41% of properties

in Amagansett, ZIP code

11930, are at risk

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Riverhead

Westhampton

Beach

Only 8.4% of properties

are at risk in Sagaponack,

ZIP code 11962, the most

expensive neighborhood in

the Hamptons

About 83% of properties

in Fire Island, ZIP code

11770 are at risk, an outlier

Area of detail

Fire Island

Long

Island

Area of detail

Gardiners

Bay

Montauk

10 miles

10 km

East Hampton

Riverhead

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Storm-surge projection for hurricanes of category

Westhampton

Beach

1

2

3

4

Fire Island

Area of detail

Gardiners

Bay

Montauk

10 miles

10 km

Riverhead

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Storm-surge projection for hurricanes

of category

Westhampton

Beach

1

2

3

4

Fire Island

10 miles

10 km

Area of detail

Montauk

Riverhead

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Westhampton

Beach

Storm-surge projection for

hurricanes of category

 

1

2

3

4

Fire Island

Storm-surge projection for hurricanes

of category

 

North

Montauk

1

2

3

4

Gardiners

Bay

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Westhampton

Beach

Riverhead

10 miles

Fire Island

10 km

Area of detail

Long

Island

Storm-surge projection for hurricanes of category

 

1

2

3

4

North

10 miles

Montauk

10 km

Southampton

Hampton Bays

Riverhead

Westhampton

Beach

Area of detail

Fire Island

Long

Island

Home values in the Hamptons, where many properties are only used for three months out of the year, regularly exceed $1 million. Coastal homes with higher risk from floods and, eventually, sea-level rise sell at an extraordinary premium.
Waterfront homes face severe flooding risks, according to predictions by First Street Foundation. In West Hampton Dunes, for example, about 78% of homes fall into this category. The Army Corps will deposit thousands of cubic yards of sand in both areas.
Hurricanes add a seasonal threat to the constant risk of groundwater flooding and rising sea levels. The Hamptons has not seen a “hundred year storm”— a Category 5 hurricane—in about 80 years. If, or when, such a storm hits the area, coastal inundation will be severe.
PLACEHOLDER
Source: Zillow Group Inc, First Street Foundation, NYS Clearinghouse, and Microsoft Corp

“Are we going to take this opportunity to reenvision the way we live with water, or are we just going to fight against it until we lose?” asks Alison Branco, coastal director for the Nature Conservancy in New York. “You can continue to pour sand and build beaches if your money is infinite and your sand is infinite. Of course, ­neither of those is true.”

The population of Long Island—legally it’s considered a peninsula, jutting eastward into the Atlantic from New York City—is wealthier and better resourced than ­people in most places in the U.S. But it’s far from the only coastline where federal money is being spent on beach welfare. Over the past century, New York has received 120 million cubic yards of sand, or 8% of the national total, for replenishment, ranking fifth behind California, Florida, New Jersey, and North Carolina. Engineers in 2019 began an $18 million project in Surfside, Fla.—on the beach where a condominium collapse this year killed 98 people—and may eventually undertake a similar effort on Surfside Beach in the city of Seal Beach, Calif.

When government spending is not pumping sand onto imperiled beaches, it’s sucking water out or reconstructing coasts. The town of Palm Beach in Florida pays for the pumps along its waterfront streets to keep ­multimillion-dollar homes dry, preserving real-estate prices that generate rich municipal taxes. In Louisiana a master plan of 124 projects has been designed to leave 800 square miles of land intact for 50 years, at a cost of about $50 billion.

The ocean doesn’t distinguish between moneyed beaches and harder-scrabble coasts, but glamorous waterfronts have greater visibility. The travel-guidebook sands of Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro, St-Tropez in France, Fiji’s Qalito Island, and Thailand’s Phuket are imperiled by climate change, as are the iconic waterfront metropolises of Hong Kong and Singapore. On the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, a resort destination, the World Bank helped restore an eroded beach.

Yet there’s a concentration of efforts in the Hamptons, federal and otherwise, that make it the most vivid place to watch the process of muscular coastal defense unfold. It’s also one of the best places to glimpse early climate retreat. Southampton and East Hampton are among the towns using public funds to buy up low-lying homes, ­letting the sea reclaim the land. Along Dune Road, a narrow strip where million-dollar homes sit atop dunes, there have already been buyouts. This same stretch is where much of FIMP’s work in the Hamptons is concentrated.

Dune Road From Above

This desirable area in the Hamptons is filled with multimillion dollars homes. The uber narrow stretch of sand will see the bulk the Corps’ sand renourishment work

Area of detail

New York

Long Island

Atlantic Ocean

Quogue

New York

Long Island

Atlantic Ocean

Quogue

New York

Long Island

Atlantic Ocean

Quogue

New York

Long Island

Atlantic Ocean

Quogue

Dune Road

Atlantic

beaches

Dune Road

Atlantic

beaches

Dune Road

Atlantic

beaches

Dune Road

Atlantic

beaches

Dune Road

Atlantic

beaches

Quogue

Canal

Quogue

Canal

Quogue

Canal

Quogue

Canal

Quogue

Canal

$8.25M

$8.95M

$8.25M

$8.95M

$8.25M

$8.95M

$8.25M

$8.95M

$4.25M

$4.25M

$4.25M

$4.25M

Source: Zillow Group Oct. listing data and Google Earth

In managing the immense flow of federal funds into the region, the Corps says it’s acting to forestall the most economic damage. “We are spending the money where we get the biggest bang for our buck,” says James D’Ambrosio, a spokesman for the Army Corps in New York. “It may sound hardhearted, but to be fiscally responsible and to be stewards of taxpayer money, we have to abide by the greater benefit of the public good.”

Coastlines have always been unruly. Currents carry ­massive amounts of sand in and out, leaving beaches unstable. Storms drive water across sandy reaches and open new inlets in their wake. Rising temperatures heighten the potential for storms to reshape the land. Glaciers melting far from New York’s coastlines are lifting sea levels. The water around Montauk and Ditch Plains Beach has risen about 10 inches since 1950, and it goes up another 0.13 inch every year.

Climate change has been increasing cleanup costs from extreme weather for at least a decade. More than $8 billion of the $60 billion in damage caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 is attributable to sea-level rise, according to a recent Nature Climate Change study. The Army Corps of Engineers won’t be done with its main work around the Hamptons until the 2050s, by which time the ocean at Montauk could be as much as 2 feet above 1992 levels, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit research organization.

FIMP: What the Corps Plans to Do

Sand renourishment, dune reconstruction, and inlet bypassing is all on the menu in this $1.5 billion project

North

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Bayport

Area of detail

Great South Bay

Watch

Hill

Davis

Park

Sailor’s

Heaven

Barrett

Beach

Robert Moses State Park

Otis Pike WIlderness Area

Lonelyville

Mastic

Remsenburg

Moriches Bay

Hampton

Beach

Sedgle

Island

Tiana

Beach

Westhampton

Beach

Southampton

SPECT

West

Great

Gun

Montauk

Point

Easthampton

Montauk

Beach

Napeague

Beach

Sagaponack

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Bayport

Great South Bay

Davis

Park

Robert Moses State Park

North

Otis Pike WIlderness Area

Lonelyville

Mastic

Remsenburg

Hampton

Beach

Southampton

Westhampton

Beach

Great

Gun

Sedgle

Island

Montauk

Point

Easthampton

Montauk

Beach

Napeague

Beach

Sagaponack

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Bayport

Great South Bay

Davis

Park

North

Lonelyville

Mastic

Remsenburg

Hampton

Beach

Southampton

Montauk

Point

Montauk

Beach

Sagaponack

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Bayport

Great South Bay

North

Mastic

Remsenburg

Montauk

Point

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

North

Great South Bay

Mastic

Montauk

Beach

North

Breach response:

Beach nurishment:

Reactive

Proactive

Dunes +15 ft, Berm 90 ft

No dunes, Berm 90 ft

Bayport

Area of detail

Great South Bay

Watch

Hill

Davis

Park

Sailor’s

Heaven

Barrett

Beach

Robert Moses State Park

Otis Pike WIlderness Area

Lonelyville

Mastic

Remsenburg

Moriches Bay

Hampton

Beach

Sedgle

Island

Tiana

Beach

Westhampton

Beach

Southampton

SPECT

West

Great

Gun

Montauk

Point

Easthampton

Montauk

Beach

Napeague

Beach

Sagaponack

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Beach nurishment:

Dunes +15 ft, Berm 90 ft

No dunes, Berm 90 ft

Bayport

Great South Bay

Davis

Park

Robert Moses State Park

North

Otis Pike WIlderness Area

Lonelyville

Mastic

Remsenburg

Hampton

Beach

Southampton

Westhampton

Beach

Great

Gun

Sedgle

Island

Montauk

Point

Easthampton

Montauk

Beach

Napeague

Beach

Sagaponack

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Beach nurishment:

Dunes +15 ft, Berm 90 ft

No dunes, Berm 90 ft

Bayport

Great South Bay

Davis

Park

North

Lonelyville

Mastic

Remsenburg

Hampton

Beach

Southampton

Montauk

Point

Montauk

Beach

Sagaponack

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Beach nurishment:

Dunes +15 ft, Berm 90 ft

No dunes, Berm 90 ft

Bayport

Great South Bay

North

Mastic

Remsenburg

Montauk

Point

Sagaponack

Montauk

Beach

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Beach nurishment:

Dunes +15 ft, Berm 90 ft

No dunes, Berm 90 ft

North

Great South Bay

Mastic

Montauk

Beach

North

Breach response:

Beach nurishment:

Reactive

Proactive

Dunes +15 ft, Berm 90 ft

No dunes, Berm 90 ft

Sand bypassing:

Sand bypassing placement

Sayville

Barrier island

Ebb shoal dredging

Sediment management

Bayport

Fire Island

Inlet

Area of detail

Great South Bay

Watch

Hill

Davis

Park

Sailor’s

Heaven

Barrett

Beach

Robert Moses State Park

Otis Pike WIlderness Area

Lonelyville

Mastic

Remsenburg

Shinnecock

Inlet

Moriches

Inlet

Moriches Bay

Hampton

Beach

Sedgle

Island

Tiana

Beach

Westhampton

Beach

Southampton

SPECT

West

Great

Gun

Montauk

Point

Easthampton

Montauk

Beach

Napeague

Beach

Sagaponack

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Beach nurishment:

Dunes +15 ft, Berm 90 ft

No dunes, Berm 90 ft

Sand bypassing:

Sand bypassing placement

Barrier island

Ebb shoal dredging

Sediment management

Bayport

Fire Island

Inlet

Great South Bay

Davis

Park

Robert Moses State Park

North

Otis Pike WIlderness Area

Lonelyville

Mastic

Remsenburg

Shinnecock

Inlet

Moriches

Inlet

Hampton

Beach

Southampton

Westhampton

Beach

Great

Gun

Sedgle

Island

Montauk

Point

Easthampton

Montauk

Beach

Napeague

Beach

Sagaponack

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Beach nurishment:

Dunes +15 ft, Berm 90 ft

No dunes, Berm 90 ft

Sand bypassing:

Sand bypassing placement

Ebb shoal dredging

Barrier island

Sediment management

Bayport

Fire Island

Inlet

Great South Bay

Davis

Park

North

Lonelyville

Mastic

Remsenburg

Shinnecock

Inlet

Moriches

Inlet

Hampton

Beach

Southampton

Montauk

Point

Montauk

Beach

Sagaponack

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Beach nurishment:

Dunes +15 ft, Berm 90 ft

No dunes, Berm 90 ft

Sand bypassing:

Sand bypassing placement

Ebb shoal dredging

Barrier island

Sediment management

Bayport

Fire Island

Inlet

Great South Bay

North

Mastic

Shinnecock

Inlet

Remsenburg

Moriches

Inlet

Montauk

Point

Sagaponack

Montauk

Beach

Breach response:

Reactive

Proactive

Beach nurishment:

Dunes +15 ft, Berm 90 ft

No dunes, Berm 90 ft

Sand bypassing:

Sand bypassing placement

Ebb shoal dredging

North

Barrier island

Sediment management

Fire Island

Inlet

Great South Bay

Mastic

Shinnecock

Inlet

Moriches

Inlet

Montauk

Beach

The Army Corps has two modes of action in the region. Reactive efforts build back after a breach in which the bay and the ocean have met, overcoming a barrier island. Proactive efforts come in anticipation of a future breach.
The Corps will rebuild areas of the beach to have a 90 foot wide berm and in some areas, dunes will be built 15 feet high.
Some of the Corps work will focus on sand bypassing at inlets. This process involves dredging to remove sand and then putting it on a downdraft beach, in an effort to restore what has washed away over time.
PLACEHOLDER
Source: Army Corps of Engineers

In deciding where to focus its energies, the Corps has followed guidelines since the 1980s calling for projects that boost economic development while protecting the environment. The Corps must perform a cost-­benefit analysis on potential jobs: For every dollar spent, officials must anticipate preventing at least that amount in repairs for future damage. For FIMP, spread across an area with some of the world’s most expensive waterfront real estate, that calculation shows a dollar of defensive spending saves $2.20 over the expected losses if no action is taken.

The Biden administration has proposed a greater commitment to poor areas in Corps projects. “It’s not clear how benefits for disadvantaged communities are going to be considered and which projects actually get funded,” says Lowry Crook, an Army Corps official during the Obama administration. “There should be a way to do it fairly and not just help high-value property areas. But it’s not easy.”

The current federal plan calls for bolstering communities including Montauk, Southampton, and Fire Island, where the average home values are $1.7 million, $2.8 million, and $1 million respectively. In Mastic Beach, a seaside area between Fire Island and Southampton where prices average $310,000, federal funds will be spent to acquire and destroy 14 flood-prone houses.

As real estate gets more expensive, it’s usually cheaper to lift a house off its foundation than to buy it outright. “So then what you wind up doing is offering buyouts in certain less affluent neighborhoods,” says the Nature Conservancy’s Branco, who lives on Long Island’s southern coast. “Essentially the poor people are being asked to move, and the rich people are being helped to stay.”

Fred Thiele, a 68-year-old Hamptons-born politician who’s served in the state assembly since 1995, says he expects the warming world to eventually upend formulas that help keep rich homeowners in place. Federal funds might defend beaches and homes for a few more decades, but at some point the wealthy, too, will probably have to pick up and move inland.

“Putting sand on the beach continuously—is that a long-term strategy with sea-level rise and the changing climate?” Thiele asks. “Strategies such as retreat from the coast are going to have to happen.”

The federal government’s defense of beachfront homes kicked off, arguably, with the flooded kitchen of Juan Trippe, chairman and founder of Pan American Airways. It was 1938, and Long Island’s Atlantic Coast was dotted with duck and potato farms, modest cabins, and a few grand homes built by the likes of 19th-century ship captains. Trippe owned an estate in East Hampton with ocean views from its many dormers, which had been designed by the architect of Grey Gardens, a nearby mansion that would be made famous by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s eccentric relatives. The airline executive was at home when the Great New England Hurricane broke through the barrier islands, destroying beaches, creating new inlets, and leveling homes. Trippe’s cook, by one account, found bluefish in the kitchen left behind by the floodwaters.

A pioneer of commercial aviation will naturally have government connections few flood victims could hope to match. Trippe sought to have groins—long structures running perpendicular to the shore, also called jetties—installed in front of his home to protect it from the ocean. The Army Corps analyzed the 1938 storm, as well as others that would hit the region in subsequent years, and eventually came up with a plan that focused on dune and beach fill. Congress signed off on one of the nation’s first extensive erosion and hurricane defense projects in the summer of 1960, four years after authorizing the Corps to perform beach renourishment. It was the first iteration of FIMP.

As FIMP moved ahead, jetties became more important than dunes. The project, a joint effort by the Army Corps, the state, and Suffolk County, quickly grew contentious because of a dispute over where to put the first jetties.

The Corps proposed building the first jetty at the west end of the Hamptons, then moving east. That’s because the prevailing currents off Long Island move counterclockwise, from east to west, effectively conveying sand in that direction. When a jetty interrupts the flow, sand builds up along its eastern edge. Any beach behind the jetty will be at greater risk of erosion.

The western end in that era was home to the summer cottages of cops, firefighters, and other civil servants fleeing the heat of the city. The eastern end was home to the richer estates, including Trippe’s, and those ­owners didn’t want to wait for their jetties.

West Hampton Dunes mayor Gary Vegliante seen in his office
West Hampton Dunes mayor Gary Vegliante seen in his office. Photographer: Bryan Anselm/Redux for Bloomberg

Residents on the more affluent side lobbied the local government, recalls Gary Vegliante, who became involved as a homeowner in the legal fallout from the jetty project. “They used their influence to lobby the county to put their groins in first,” he says. “It was an abomination, and it was a distortion of the science.”

Lee Koppelman was director of the Suffolk County Planning Department at the time. He worked closely with the Corps and had access to a helicopter. Now 94 years old, Koppelman recalls watching from above as the jetties started changing the coastline, starting with the first two, which were placed in front of the Pan Am founder’s house.

A flood area warning sign seen on Dune Road in the Hamptons.
A flood area warning sign seen on Dune Road in the Hamptons. Photographer: Bryan Anselm/Redux for Bloomberg

“The beach in front of Trippe’s property was gaining all the sand,” Koppelman said in a recent interview. “All the properties farther west were deprived of sand and, therefore, were having increased deterioration.”

Fifteen more jetties went in through 1970, and Koppelman watched as each one took a bite of the beach behind it. “I would get in the helicopter and count how many houses had washed out to sea,” he says. At one point the Sand n Surf restaurant on Dune Road slid into the ocean. So did an apartment complex’s ­swimming pool. Soon the local government pulled funding from the project, and the jetty-building spree stopped. That’s when the lawsuits started—a chain reaction of ­litigation that would ultimately ­redefine beach defense in the Hamptons as the responsibility for the federal government, almost into perpetuity.

The biggest legal battle took shape after storms in 1992 and 1993. The ocean breached the barrier island at Pikes Beach in Westhampton, washing out Dune Road. Homes were destroyed by the erosion or left isolated on sandy islands. Dozens of onetime Dune Road residents, now without homes or land, faulted the Corps, the county, and the state for the erosion. Vegliante, a ­leather-skinned ­jeweler-turned-teacher-turned-bar-owner, served as their leader. His neighborhood organization drummed up support by hosting meetings at the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan and a bowling alley out east. In an ingenious move he incorporated the home­owners as the town of West Hampton Dunes, unlocking property tax rolls to fund the lawsuit. He ending up being elected mayor.

Soon after the homeowners started their own government, the suit was settled. The federal, state, and local governments would rebuild and then maintain their beach. Under the deal the Army Corps is obligated to bolster the West Hampton Dunes coastline with fresh sand through 2027, repairing damage from the jetties it installed earlier, as well as destruction caused by a much warmer climate than existed in the 1990s. “What has changed,” says D’Ambrosio, the Corps spokesman, is recognition that jetties “can have negative environmental impacts.” FIMP effectively extends the arrangement, with the federal government maintaining the Hamptons beach into the 2050s.

As climate risks increase, so will the mitigation ­experiments conducted by the federal government and local communities. The Army Corps will soon begin putting into practice its theories of coastal defense with a billion-­dollar experiment: home elevation in the Hamptons.

“You can put sand in front of it, or not, but if your house is at sea level in 2050, you’re going to have ­flooding problems,” says Branco, the Nature Conservancy official. “It’ll come from a different direction than the beach. It’ll come from up around and ­underneath. You can’t sand your way out of that.”

To address that concern, the Corps will spend an estimated $1 billion on what it terms nonstructural solutions. The plan calls for floodproofing and elevating as many as 4,432 structures. That means the U.S. government will essentially pay to put properties on stilts, allowing floodwaters to pass underneath.

Sand piles up upon a staircase on Dune Road in the Hamptons
Sand piles up upon a staircase on Dune Road in the Hamptons. Photographer: Bryan Anselm/Redux for Bloomberg

Stilting homes was widely discussed after Superstorm Sandy, when local governments embarked on ill-fated attempts in the Rockaways section of New York City and along the Jersey Shore. When the government seeks to raise a home, it allots funding and hires private contractors to do the work. Homeowners have to find another place to live while their home is stilted, typically on their own dime. In both states the stilting attempt was fairly disastrous, leading to homeowner lawsuits and the conviction of one contractor, who blew the elevation funds on diamonds and gambling.

The Corps has never embarked on a nonstructural project as ambitious as FIMP. “It’s a very intensive thing,” D’Ambrosio says. “It’s very expensive. It’s very time-­consuming.” And even when the home is elevated, there’s still the neighborhood to worry about. Roads aren’t being elevated as part of FIMP, though the Corps considered it. Nor are lawns or utilities.

Before it settled on dumping thousands of cubic yards of sand onto beaches and picking up private property onto stilts, the Corps also weighed a buyout program in the Hamptons. It abandoned the idea, finding it “generally cost-prohibitive due to high property values,” according to its own report. In Montauk there’s been talk among local officials of trying to persuade property owners to retreat. But so far no one has packed up for higher ground. Instead the hamlet is eagerly awaiting 2023, which will bring a delivery of 450,000 cubic yards of sand, hundreds of times the quantity deployed this summer at Ditch Plains. The sand isn’t cheap. The Corps will spend an estimated $500 million upfront on renourishment and then split the cost of maintenance with the local government for the next 30 years.

How much sand can a half-billion dollars dredge up? Almost certainly not enough. “It feels like a ridiculous amount of sand,” Branco says. “But it doesn’t go that far. The second you put it down, it starts moving around.” A sudden storm in a single day can undo the hard work of a multimillion-dollar dredging job.

The pumped sand is more likely to match the consistency of what’s already on the beach. That’s a benefit, coastal scientists say, because if grain size isn’t compatible with what’s already there, the new sand will drift off the beach more quickly. Eventually, no matter what anyone does, the sea will redistribute the sand—on that there’s no dispute. The unsettled question is when to stop putting it back.

Vegliante, the West Hampton Dunes mayor, has little patience for those who see his narrow strip and the ­people on it as expendable. “You can’t let it wash away just because you don’t like the people that live out there,” he says. “Without the resort residents in this community, they’d be potato farms.”