In terms of the long haul, the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ meager offer of a temporary fix for Montauk’s threatened downtown oceanfront could be a blessing in disguise.
As some observers have pointed out for years, Montauk’s commercial center is not economically important enough to compete with cities like New York and Miami for an adequate share of federal erosion mitigation money. Instead, the oceanfront there is likely to continue picking up the funding scraps, forcing local officials, business leaders, and residents to begin, finally, to admit to the inescapable reality that the town is on its own and will not see Washington rushing in to save the day.
Representatives of the Army Corps were in East Hampton Town Hall with state officials and others last week to describe the federal offer: a $6 million sandbagging project intended to bolster at-risk structures along a 3,100-foot section of the beach. To put that sum in perspective, Senator Charles E. Schumer is backing a call for $21 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for generators at a single hospital in West Islip. From the numbers, it is pretty easy to see how Montauk ranks.
Beyond the Army Corps’ immediate plan, it dangled the possibility of additional funding when the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study finally moves out of the planning stage — if ever. As we see it, waiting on such a vague promise would be foolish. Instead, given the assumption that vast piles of federal cash are not going to be forthcoming, East Hampton Town officials must begin to speak frankly about the dwindling options.
One thing is clear: Montauk’s first row of hotels and residences along the beach from South Emery Street to about South Essex Street — on about 10 privately owned parcels in all — would not withstand a direct hit by a hurricane that was even moderately powerful. As dramatic as 2012’s Sandy was, its winds did not reach hurricane speeds on eastern Long Island, and its stormwater surge was considerably below others recorded on the South Fork historically.
Making matters even more ominous, almost no natural, protective dune remains in downtown Montauk. This means that over-washes from even routine storms could reach several blocks of the commercial district. A so-called 100-year storm along the lines of the 1938 Hurricane would liquefy the first row of structures, turning their remaining fragments into battering rams that would then lay waste to the rest of downtown as they rode in on raging water. To get a sense of how bad it could be, consider that in the aftermath of ’38, high windrows of splinted walls and roofs, furniture, cars, and the occasional human body were found piled up along the shore of Shinnecock Bay. The houses along Dune Road from which it all had come were entirely swept away.
Readers and policy-makers should picture, too, that when downtown Montauk was laid out in the 1920s by the developer Carl Fisher, a road, South Edgewater Avenue, was plotted in front of the now-threatened motels and condos, between them and the sea. Although the road still appears on official maps, where it was to have been is now underwater. If this does not illustrate that the structures there are simply in the wrong place and that time has caught up with them, we cannot say what does.
It appears that the town now should concede a localized defeat. No one, neither the Army Corps, nor the Town of East Hampton, nor oceanfront property owners, will be able to hold back the Atlantic Ocean. A separate tax district like the one created in Southampton to fund a $25 million sand-pumping project is one possibility. However, in the long term, it probably would be more cost-effective to offer buyouts to the 10 affected property owners or come up with a creative scheme of publicly-aided relocation.
The bottom line is that the town must preserve the beaches for all its residents and visitors. That means rethinking what structures must be saved and at what cost. The process should begin now.