When the Ocean’s at Your Doorstep

In Montauk on Friday water continued to drain from low-lying areas back toward the ocean. Morgan McGivern

    On the night of Oct. 29 with the wind shrieking, Steve Kalimnios and one of his staff pointed the beam of a flashlight under the Royal Atlantic Resorts hotel. Hurricane Sandy was riding a full-moon tide landward at full gallop. For Mr. Kalimnios and owners of ocean and bayfront properties across Long Island, the nightmare storm that had always threatened from some distant future was on their doorstep, literally.
    “We made a decision that night,” Mr. Kalimnios said.  The building was shaking. The sea was under it all the way to the front wall. We shut down the [fresh]water, the electricity, and walked away saying it’s going in.”
    The building that accommodates thousands of visitors to Montauk each year did not go in, but for the second time in as many years, a storm laid bare its foundations, and those of neighboring hotels along downtown Montauk’s “motel row.” In fact, surge from both Irene and Sandy actually surrounded much of motel row.
    Mr. Kalimnios said on Friday that after the ironically named Sandy, he purchased 14,000 cubic yards of sand to pack under the foundation in an effort to stave off the surge from the predicted northeaster churning just a few days away. When the northeaster struck, the hotel owner ordered another 600 to 800 cubic yards to replace what it had taken.
    At $20 per cubic yard, the two storms cost the hotel nearly $300,000 in sand, not to mention repairs to the hotel itself, and not including the cost of a protective berm made of sand and concrete septic rings.
    The berm was approved by the State Department of Environmental Conservation as a “temporary” structure but without a deadline for its removal. It was not officially approved by the town board, and is technically in violation of the town ban on “hard” erosion control structures in the oceanfront zone.
    During an interview with Steve Kalimnios and his father, Tom, on Friday, the hotel owners insisted they were adamantly opposed to any kind of permanent hard structure such as a seawall, jetty, or revetment in front of their property.
    “A lot of these issues are clouded,” Steve Kalimnios said. “All the owners here are the biggest proponents of a soft solution,” he said, agreeing with coastal engineers that hard approaches cause scouring and, he said, ultimately the complete negation of beach. So what’s the fix?
    Mr. Kalimnios said he saw a two-phase approach. In the short term: the repeated shoring up of eroded sand that supports the hotel and the wood pilings it sits on.
    He described the second, long-term solution as the creation of a special erosion-control tax district in cooperation with East Hampton Town. The district would include as many businesses in downtown Montauk as come to believe that the perpetual replenishment of ocean beach is the only alternative for reasons both physical and economic.
    He said the tax district would underpin loans from the town for beach maintenance, but if the cost were too large, if not enough businesses included themselves in the district, maintaining a soft solution would not happen and the result would be catastrophic.
    “The people not directly impacted think it’s someone else’s problem,” a belief he said Sandy might have altered. “People think we’re looking for a handout,” Steve Kalimnios said. He believes that if nothing is done, the loss of motel row would be followed by the loss of Montauk’s downtown.
    Mr. Kalimnios stressed the importance of his and surrounding businesses to Montauk’s economic engine, and he bristled at being “vilified” as not being environmentally conscious. “We make our living on Montauk’s natural beauty. This is our lives.”  
    His two hotels, the Royal Atlantic Beach Resorts and the Royal Atlantic East Condos, service 40,000 to 50,000 visitors each year, he said, with an economic multiplier (his guests going to restaurants, charter boats, shops, etc.) at 10 times beyond his own revenues. He said motel row had to be the last line of defense. “After we’re gone, money will have to be spent if Montauk is to survive, but it’s hard to persuade people,” he said, even people with businesses in the downtown area who have heretofore not accepted their vulnerable position.        
    Hurricane Sandy succeeded in forcing official recognition of global warming and sea-level rise from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and has added credence to the position held by scientists and coastal engineers that retreat, even forced retreat, from vulnerable areas is the only real solution.
    In yesterday’s New York Times, Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon is quoted as saying the nation’s flood insurance program, $18 billion in debt after Hurricane Katrina, had already received 115,000 claims from Sandy. The program is allowing people and businesses to rebuild in vulnerable places, he said, which, in turn, is “going to end up creating more victims and costing more money in the future.”
    Mr. Kalimnios said that although he had benefited from federal and supplemental private insurance (the latter premium increased by 20 percent last year), he did not know if he could expect federal help if his hotel had to be rebuilt after some future storm.
    On the other hand, there is no place to retreat to, he said, and raising his hotel, a vertical form of retreat seen by some as another option, “won’t work.” Nor does it solve the underlying problem, he said: the continual erosion of Montauk’s once-broad beach. The beach not only protects the downtown flood plain, he said, but is the reason people vacation there, the fuel of the economic engine.
    “At some point you have to defend the line. Retreat is not an option unless you close Montauk. No town center, that’s the retreat,” Mr. Kalimnios said.
    Jeremy Samuelson is the executive director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, an environmental group that faulted Mr. Kalimnios for using concrete septic rings to build his berm, and faulted the town for allowing it to be built, despite the state’s approval. Beyond the short-term issues, Mr. Samuelson said, Sandy had once again shown official reluctance to face a future with a rising sea and more frequent and damaging storms.
    He criticized Supervisor Bill Wilkinson for failing to take advantage of a $200,000 Department of State grant aimed at creating a “post-storm” plan when it was available. “After every storm there is this moment with people saying, ‘We should do something,’ but then we operate in panic mode, not even following the plan we’ve got, even though we know what’s going on. We have a reactionary policy.”
    Mr. Samuelson said the Kalimnios plan of perpetual beach nourishment would not work. “We advocated for tax districts in the past. The problem is it’s too little too late.” He said that places like Breezy Point in Queens and Cape Hatteras proved that manufactured shorelines fail. “You can pump trillions of cubic yards onto the beach and spend yourself into a hole. I’m not saying take away the hotels, but something has to give here. What it is should be determined by open public process that addresses the needs of all stakeholders.”
    Mr. Samuelson said coastal communities need a post-storm recovery plan. “The shape of the coast is going to change dramatically. Sandy wasn’t even a Category 1 storm. How are we going to handle that change? We can be active in managing it, or hang on the vestigial notion that we can stand against the tide. A plan works best when all the stakeholders are at the table.”
    Mr. Kalimnios and Mr. Samuelson were among many who spoke about the overall issue of a post-storm recovery plan at a town board meeting Tuesday. A separate story on that meeting appears elsewhere in today’s paper.