Nature Notes: Ready for the Big One

We on coastal Long Island are living on borrowed time

    It’s coming, it’s coming. This is the year of the Big One. Batten down the hatches and prepare to go without electricity for a week or so, or buy a generator ahead of time and have an electrician who knows what he or she is doing install it. Rising sea level and increased ferocity of storms is no longer a topic for idle discussion.
    Let’s face it. The surface of the globe is heating up. Yes, we can speed up the conversion to green energy, but we can’t do it that fast. Whether it’s gasoline-guzzling supervehicles, coal and oil-burning factories and electrical power generation stations, volcanic venting, forest fires, or flatulent livestock, herd animals, and humans, the writing is on the wall. We are in for some rough weather, some rough times.
    We on coastal Long Island are living on borrowed time. Take a place like Accabonac Harbor in Springs. It will take less than a foot of sea level rise to flood much of its peripheral roads — Springs-Fireplace Road, Old Stone Highway, and Louse Point Road. Then there’s Gerard Drive. Forget it, it will be gone in a flash.
    Fort Pond in Montauk overwashed its banks during the March 2012 record rainstorms. Put a record rainfall together with a very high flood-driven tide in Fort Pond Bay, and the two bodies of water will become one. Add higher winds, bigger ocean waves, and three water bodies will become one.
    Lake Montauk is sure to flood to the south and, as Stuart Vorpahl once said, all of Ditch Plain’s ditches will run south instead of north, the way they do now. Montauk is liable to be cut off to motor vehicle traffic in two places — at the south ends of Fort Pond and Lake Montauk. The Long Island Rail Road had to stop running in March of 2010 because part of the tracks was under water. Don’t count on the railroad for help during an evacuation.
    Then there is Napeague, juxtaposed as it is between Montauk on the east and the Amagansett mainland on the west with one two-lane thoroughfare connecting the two ends. In very big storms such as the 1938 Hurricane it becomes a sitting duck. You will need an amphibious vehicle to cross it. Montauk Highway is only five or six feet above sea level at its belly, and its belly is very wide.
    In the 1938 storm, the ocean came all the way up Ocean Avenue and into Main Street in the Village of East Hampton. A late summer 2010 storm flooded the basement of Guild Hall. What a Category 2 or 3 storm might do in the coming years is anybody’s guess. There isn’t much topographical difference between Pantigo Road and Hook Pond in East Hampton. Next time, the ocean could reach the doorstep of Nick and Toni’s on North Main Street.
    Georgica Pond will also be problematic in a big storm. It is generally highest, anyway, during late summer before the annual fall let-out. It could flood north over Montauk Highway all the way to the railroad tracks and pretty much wipe out the Wainscott sand pit on its way north. We dodged a bullet with Irene last August. By the time it hit us it was a mere tropical storm, yet it flooded streets along the ocean here and there and raised the levels of Hook Pond and Georgica Pond simultaneously.
    Perhaps the greatest damages to be experienced as sea level rises into the middle of this century — possibly as much as two feet, some scientists predict — is that the freshwater aquifer on top of it under the mainland will rise concomitantly, as freshwater is less dense than seawater. That means that freshwater ponds and wetlands will increase in surface area, akin to the contemporary situation in Ronkonkoma in the middle of Long Island, where the Island’s largest lake already chronically overflows onto roads and waterfront properties when the water table rises after years of above-normal rainfalls.
    And look at downtown Sag Harbor, which was largely built on swampland and has wetlands poking their heads up here and there throughout the village. It is already flood prone. Its underlying water table rises up, periodically flooding store and residential basements and requiring days of pumping out to dewater them. Bridgehampton and Sagaponack will be connected to Sag Harbor, not just by the chain of ponds but by one very large pond combining them all. What shall we name it?
    Evacuation by motor vehicle during the Big One will also become problematic. The main two coastal evacuation routes for East Hampton and Southampton Towns are Montauk Highway and Noyac Road. Scuttlehole Road, between the two, is only an alternative for part of the way between County Road 39 and the Sunrise Highway. Noyac Road (including Long Beach Road connecting to the Village of North Haven) already has “Coastal Evacuation Route” signs posted, as does Montauk State Parkway connecting downtown Montauk with Napeague. Yes, the parkway is high and dry for most of its length, and it’s a safe bet, until you descend onto the Napeague isthmus, which is likely to be dangerously flooded over and completely impassable.
    And notice that the big storms are coming earlier and earlier. We have already had two named tropical storms in May. Unheard of! Irene hit last August, during the height of the tourist season. Don’t be surprised if we get hit hard in July this year.
    The safest places in Montauk during the Big One will be the high rise at the foot of Fort Pond, Montauk Manor on the hill east of Fort Pond, and, ironically, the Lighthouse, now a National Monument and just recently made seaworthy again by the combined efforts of the Montauk Historical Society, Greg Donahue, and Patrick Bistrian Jr.
    If I’m in Montauk when the Big One hits, I’ll opt for the Lighthouse as I did during the Perfect Storm of October of 1991. It’s the safest bet in town and will surely outlive us all.


I'm going with you Larry! VB
Can't wait! We'll compete with Martha's Vineyard.