Seeing the Future

    Wind with gusts into the mid-40s from the south-southeast the past few days have taken away what little sand had accumulated at Georgica Beach in East Hampton Village after the last devastating winter storm. Exposed rubble from portions of the parking lot there now lies where bathers might have spread their towels come Memorial Day. To the east and west, short stone jetties block passage to all but the most intrepid. A single steel pipe, hung with a plaintive no-trespassing sign, is all that remains of a fence with which a homeowner, in a quixotic effort, staked a claim to the sand.
    Those who watch the shore know that it is difficult to look at conditions in any one location and single moment in time and draw conclusions. Over the years, however, certain trends become obvious. As the summer approaches, the stark erosion at Georgica commands attention and leaves us wondering whether we are being given a picture of what is to come.
    People ask what it is about this part of the village oceanfront that makes it so susceptible to beach loss. That might be missing the obvious. The houses that line the sand starting at Main Beach and running west to Georgica Pond were the first to appear on the dunes here, starting in the 1890s. A map made in 1902 shows the Main Beach bathing pavilion set a considerable distance back from the water; it now sits on the beach. More were to come. The economic growth that touched off a boom here in the first decades of the 20th century produced dozens of houses nestled behind then-tall dunes, a hundred or more feet back from shore. Little did their owners know, or they didn’t bother to ask the locals, who knew where not to build.
    The dunes that in another era sheltered the summer cottages of the New York well-to-do are, of course, now gone, as are the wide beaches that were in their views. A century’s erosion has seen the sea creep ever closer to their porches. Stone walls, revetments, as they are called in the trade, are all that stand between these early houses and oblivion in one bad storm.
    Elsewhere along the East Hampton oceanfront, houses that were built farther back or on higher ground, for example, near the Maidstone Club, are still years away from this fate. Farther east, at Beach Hampton, in some places in Montauk, and on many bay beaches, officials naively allowed construction in low spots and far too close to the water — and continue to do so. The owners of these houses, seeing the conditions at Georgica this week, may well have a glimpse of the days to come.