The great scramble to spend will begin in earnest now, following Monday’s passage in the United States Senate of a $50.5 billion aid package for areas hit by late October’s Hurricane Sandy. The challenge is to make sure the money will be used in a sensible manner and with the long term in mind. In East Hampton and elsewhere along the coast, with pledges to rebuild houses, businesses, and infrastructure, the outlook is not good.
What would be key as local, county, and state leaders look at the path ahead is to consider how to mitigate potential dangers based on the best available science and technical advice. The impulse to rebuild and defend after a natural disaster is understandable, but this defiant approach may not be the right one. To endure for generations, coastal communities must prepare for more and stronger storms, as well as rising sea levels, which means we all need to rethink how we live along the shore. So far, the necessary mental adjustment has not taken place. In fact, the promise of piles of federal dollars may put the inevitable day of reckoning further off.
It is critical to remember that Hurricane Sandy was only a Category 1 storm, and that Irene, which passed through the region in 2011, was a tropical storm by the time it made landfall here. By contrast, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was estimated to be of Category 3 strength, and it carried a tsunami-like surge of water far in excess of any seen here during Sandy. We also must not forget winter northeasters, which, because they can stick around for 24 hours or more, can produce hurricane-style erosion.
Unfortunately, East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson has been preaching what amounts to a false dichotomy between an environmental perspective and the needs of commercial property owners, particularly in Montauk. This shows that like many other elected officials he simply doesn’t get it.
Our economic vitality is inextricably linked to the area’s environment. To consider them at odds is more than misguided; it is irresponsible. The landward movement of the shoreline is inevitable. Retreat from the brink would not damage business interests. On the contrary, it is the only long-term way to be certain that the economy will thrive for decades to come. Lest one think that short-sightedness is limited to just one political party, Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, declared, “We are now just a presidential pen stroke away from beginning the rebuilding process in earnest.”
The federal bill is lopsided in favor of the status-quo. Some $16 billion will go to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, $11 billion for shelter and utility costs from Sandy and other storms, and $10 billion for New York and New Jersey transit systems. Projects with an eye beyond immediate rebuilding are the stepchildren and will have to compete for a share of a mere $1 billion set aside for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Given the distribution of funding in the Sandy bill, as well as the ongoing federal budget debacle, counting on an unending stream of federal dollars for sand replenishment at Montauk is a sucker’s bet. Far more sensible, if nearly impossible politically, would be to seek funding to reduce the number and density of shorefront structures through relocation and/or condemnation while creating a dune line to protect the remaining properties.
A plan for the South Fork that does not include retreat as an option cannot be considered complete. Likewise, officials across the region must resist the temptation to spend first, plan later.