Experts Renew Calls for Strategic Retreat

Sea-level rise means even Category 1 storms will bring devastation
A motel on the Napeague oceanfront narrowly avoided destruction during Hurricane Sandy. Some coastal-policy experts have said the time has come for an overhaul of the way the shore is managed. David E. Rattray

    For those experts who have spent time studying and thinking about eastern Long Island’s resilience to storms like Hurricane Sandy, the consensus is that the time to stand and resist nature’s fury has passed.
    In interviews this week, Scott A. Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College; Robert DeLuca, the director of the Group for the East End; Rameshwar Das, who helped write East Hampton Town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program plan, and Carl Safina, the director of the Blue Ocean Institute and a Lazy Point resident, offered slightly differing takes on what the lessons should be for policymakers, but all said that climate change and rising sea levels meant that storms like the one that struck the Northeast on Oct. 29 are becoming more frequent.
    Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the eastern Long Island shoreline, although it was certainly less severe than elsewhere, was still remarkable for two reasons: because its eye made landfall far to the south, on the Jersey Shore, and because it was only a Category 1 storm. National Weather Service records for Oct. 29 showed top gusts of 66 miles per hour in Montauk and about 70 miles per hour in Amagansett — a couple of miles per hour below hurricane strength.
    During Sandy, a tide station maintained by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration at Fort Pond Bay, Montauk, recorded a surge of about five feet above normal.
    The Hurricane of 1938, which crossed near Patchogue, had sustained winds that neared 130 miles per hour. Storm surges recorded were about 12 feet at Westhampton Beach and nearly 15 feet at Montauk.
    Hurricane Sandy was bad, leaving some 40,000 people without a place to sleep in New York City alone, but it spared eastern Long Island what could have been a far-worse blow. “This, believe it or not, was kind of a miss,” Mr. Mandia said. “We are going to get a Katrina-like storm at some point in the future.”
    For Mr. Mandia, the bottom line was, “elevate or retreat, don’t spend money on barriers.”
    The most important message, as far as he was concerned, is that sea levels are going to rise and they are going to rise faster. This means that even a relatively weak storm, like another Sandy, could be increasingly difficult for the region to absorb.
    If an elevate-and-retreat policy is not adopted at large across the region, Mr. Mandia said, sea walls or revetments and tidal gates would have to be continually extended higher. He compared rising seas to a basketball court: “The rim stays at 10 feet, but as the floor gets higher, eventually even ordinary players are going to be able to dunk.”
    Sandy, he said, rode into the metropolitan region on an existing sea-level rise of about a foot, making its impact worse than it would have been a century ago. Predictions for additional rise in the future are for another foot by the middle of the century and as much as three feet by 2100.
    “The take-home point is we have to do something. We can’t do nothing,” Mr. Mandia said. The debate over science is over now, he said, and lawmakers must now think about policy. Mr. Mandia is the author, with Hunt Janin, of "Rising Sea Levels: An Introduction to Cause and Impact," published last month.
    Mark Tercek, the president of the Nature Conservancy, wrote in an opinion piece that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on Monday that communities must now take four basic steps: reduce carbon pollution, restore ecological storm buffers, seek ways to balance natural systems and man-made structures, and be more careful about how and where building is allowed.
    Locally, Nate Woiwode, a coastal-policy expert for the conservancy’s Long Island chapter, said that the story of Sandy was really that of 2011’s Hurricane Irene in the context of a changing climate. “Storms bring home that issue,” he said. “This is a new world. How do we invest in our natural resources in a way that we can ensure that human and natural resources are safer and more successful?”
    Mr. Woiwode, who was attending a conference in Rhode Island this week about climate change and the coasts, said that for every dollar of risk reduction, coastal communities would save about $5 later.
    As Mr. Woiwode and the others see it, the coast can be shored up by thoughtfully balancing manmade structures and natural systems, while acknowledging that Mother Nature is going to get the last word.
    Mr. Woiwode said the key to saving communities from storm devastation was to adapt coastal infrastructure so it is not as vulnerable. This could involve restoring wetlands that serve as natural surge buffers, and rebuilding dunes along the ocean. “There has to be an absolutely fundamental change in the way we look at this,” he said.
    The Town of East Hampton already has a master document, created under the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program and completed in 1999, that is supposed to guide projects along the shore. Its authors at the time acknowledged that the town was vulnerable to northeasters and hurricanes and wrote that “contemporary development has often failed to take into account coastal storms and the potential for damage from flooding and erosion.”
    The report, which was not adopted by the Town of East Hampton and New York State until 2007, said that a “strategic retreat” in the face of receding shorelines is the most realistic approach.
    Mr. Das, who was on a citizens committee that helped draft the town’s waterfront plan and then edited the final report, said that the moment had come for elected officials to look at the coast with clarity and foresight. “There has been a head-in-the-sand approach to it. Fortunately that is kind of changing from the top,” he said, citing statements from New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, who said after Sandy that the way people and governments think about the coast had to shift.
    “The town board needs to re-engage in the long-term planning process,” Mr. Das said.
    At the local level the policy future might involve an overarching post-storm recovery strategy, Mr. DeLuca said. This might, he said, firmly outlaw rebuilding in certain areas — something already attempted in various town codes, but routinely overlooked as emergency permits are handed out. “Most elected officials say to property owners, ‘We will not stand in your way,’ ” he said.
    This “permit-by-permit” response, he believes, leaves the coast open to devastation with each new storm. A more-sharply defined plan would cost taxpayers less in infrastructure repairs and post-storm handouts to property owners.
    Universal restrictions that applied to everyone along an at-risk section of shoreline would have to be backed up by some kind of financial commitment from the state or Washington, D.C., and perhaps a public referendum, Mr. DeLuca said. A broad and rock-solid approach, he said, “would create some level of certainty, and over time, that looks more attractive” to real estate investors and insurers alike.
    Without it, he said, “at some point there will be an apocalypse of cost where even Lloyd’s of London says, ‘You know, we can’t do this.’ ”
    As New York and New Jersey stagger under the blow and pick up the pieces, he said, “This is an opportunity to have a discussion.”
    Mr. Safina expressed his opposition to the Federal Flood Insurance program, which he called “a counterproductive way for the rest of the country to subsidize people putting billions of dollars and millions of lives at continuous risk, encouraging wholly inappropriate development.” The program is an insurer of last resort, allowing property owners up to $350,000 in combined structural and possession coverage, and is generally required by banks issuing mortgages along the U.S. coasts.
     Mr. Safina said, “To help people rebuild in those places is to help put lives and investment at repeated risk. It’s foolish.”