Late Sunday afternoon, amid all the talk about the flooding, downed trees, eroded beaches, and the loss of electricity by thousands in East Hampton Town, someone nailed it: “This was a miss,” he said.
Though predicted to be far more dangerous, Hurricane Irene shifted course and weakened considerably as it reached our latitudes. As late as 24 hours before it raked ashore in New Jersey and rumbled into upstate New York, it was forecast to have sustained winds of 100 miles per hour with higher gusts and to make landfall more or less in the center of Long Island. Yes, this storm was nowhere near as powerful as the devastating Hurricane of 1938. Had it struck the Island where and at the levels predicted, however, the effect would have been catastrophic.
Given what authorities knew the day before, the evacuations of low-lying parts of New York City, Fire Island, and parts of eastern Long Island were appropriate. The region got lucky, as it turned out, but, given how long it takes to get people out of harm’s way, evacuation orders were the right call, as was the boarding up of windows. And it can’t hurt if homeowners are left with a stock of storm supplies: The hurricane season’s peak is only beginning.
Over all, East Hampton officials’ level of preparation was adequate, with a couple of concerns that should be addressed. The most serious was the town’s lapse in not trying to close several oceanfront road-ends in Montauk. This was surprising, since emergency preparedness staff had said previously that bulldozing or sandbagging these vulnerable spots was planned. As a result, the ocean poured into downtown Montauk and the Ditch Plain area through man-made gaps. Had steps been taken to block them, the flooding could have been reduced.
Town officials need look no further for an example of what can work than Atlantic Drive on Napeague, where residents took it upon themselves to wall off the road-end. This is the second time they have banded together to do this, and this time it paid off. As The East Hampton Press reported, the effort appeared to have held the ocean from surging into the neighborhood.
Officials should take heed to attempt to close all of these passages next time around. The dunes are there for a reason; openings in them are an invitation to disaster.
In the area of communication, the Town of East Hampton gets poor marks. The messages coming out of Town Hall were too few as well as trivial and confusing. We learned what most people knew (to stay off the roads and away from the beaches) and that the town waste-transfer stations were going to be opened on Wednesday to accept post-storm debris. This is in contrast to the Town of Southampton, which issued advisories every couple of hours and did its best to keep the public informed. And, if you wanted to see what East Hampton was saying on the town’s official Web site during the height of the storm, you couldn’t; it was inaccessible until about mid-day Sunday. In the absence of information, some get panicky. A better job has to be done in the future.
Okay, so maybe Irene was not quite a miss after all. There are lessons to be learned and more work to be done for when the next one — inevitably — comes.