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Suffolk Closeup: Storm surges on the way

Suffolk County took quite a blow from Isaias last week. And if the track of the tropical storm when it hit us was 50 miles farther east, it would have been much worse here.

With gusts reaching more than 70 mph there was a significant and extended loss of electricity from trees having fallen on electric lines and a shutdown of the Long Island Rail Road from trees falling on tracks. Fortunately, it was a fast-moving and relatively short-lived storm with punches of fierce wind rather than days of rain.

The bad news: It was a sampling of what’s ahead.

“Going forward, because of climate change, it won’t be unusual for the Northeast to experience hurricanes with great intensity and frequency,” said Kevin McAllister, founding president of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H20.

Hurricanes and tropical storms feed on the warmth of water over which they travel, and climate change has been causing an ever-higher temperature in water bodies worldwide, resulting in more extreme and more frequent — and earlier — hurricanes.

Isaias was the ninth named storm in the Atlantic hurricane season and the earliest “I”-named storm on record. The season began on June 1 and runs to November 30.

“What a fast start,” commented Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, on TV as Isaias was percolating. He predicted that because of “warm water” it would “continue to be” an “active” season. Late last week, the number of named storms and hurricanes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts to hit the Eastern Seaboard this year, including Long Island, was increased to a total of 19 to 25, up from 13 to 19.

Meanwhile, said Mr. McAllister, an experienced and credentialed marine scientist, on Long Island “incrementally” there has been a “walling off the coast with bulkheads and rock revetments,” which doesn’t allow nature to maintain a coastline that can deal with storms. “The natural system involves a dune which is a sand reservoir and shock absorber,” he explains. “It’s a beach-dune system.”

A good chunk of Montauk has become a glaring example of dune destruction and the folly of then trying to deal with storms by artificial means.

The “primary dune” of a major section of the oceanfront of Montauk was eliminated decades ago for the construction of a string of structures, mainly motels.

In recent years, a choice was made. It was either relocating 10 or so motels and also condos and other structures, rebuilding the dune and allowing the natural coastal process” — the dynamic process that nature provides — to return. Or, and this is what happened in 2015, following the prescription of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: placing 14,200 jumbo “geotextile” sandbags, each 1.7 tons, in front of the buildings to try to protect them. The construction cost: $8.9 million.

Suffolk County government went along with this.

Indeed, a deal was cut obligating Suffolk taxpayers on Shelter Island and all county taxpayers to pay half the cost of “maintenance” of the Montauk sandbags, with the Town of East Hampton paying the other half.

Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) was the sole county legislator to vote against this deal, with his 17 colleagues voting for it. He explained in a letter to his fellow legislators how he was “very familiar” with the “dynamics of the shoreline,” having been for 20 years a member and 14 years president of the Southold Board of Trustees, which oversees the shores and adjoining waters of Southold Town.

The cost of maintenance of the sandbags would reach $1 million a year, predicted Mr. Krupski, and he hit the cost figure of several recent years on the head.

The Town of East Hampton, in a “hamlet study,” subsequently recommended the relocation plan. But, since then, the town reversed itself, because of “pushback primarily from the business community in Montauk,” Mr. McAllister said. “It is very disappointing.”

And in addition to Montauk, there are examples throughout Suffolk County of the mistake — still happening now — of “armoring” the shoreline. 

Next week: details on an important report just released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office which says “millions of Americans live in coastal areas threatened by sea level rise, and in all but the very lowest sea level rise projections, the retreat of people and infrastructure due to climate change will become an unavoidable option in some areas along the U.S. coastline.” It says, “Congress should consider establishing a pilot program … and provide assistance to communities that express interest in relocation as a resilience strategy.”