In the fall of 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit Long Island, devastating communities as it caused floods, property damage and power outages throughout the island.
But just before he lost power, Marshall Brown, the president of the environmental group Save the Great South Bay, received a call.
“The Nature Conservancy group let me know that Sandy breached Fire Island where it needed to be breached,” Brown said. “All that stored up, unhealthy water in the South Shore was finally released.”
Four years after Hurricane Sandy breached the beaches along the South Shore, the water is now clean and marine life has begun to flourish, but The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are looking to reinforce the coastline through the Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point Project, a $1.2 billion operation that would help prevent flooding and storm damage along 83 miles of shoreline, according to USACE officials.
The project is completely funded by the federal government under the Disaster Relief Appropriation Act of 2013, which was passed to help states affected by Sandy.
“There were three breaches because of Sandy, and about 50 percent of the sand on Fire Island was lost,” said James D’Ambrosio, Public Affairs Specialist for the USACE’s New York District. “That’s 4.5 million cubic yards.”
But environmental advocates like Brown say that the USACE should leave the breach in the Fire Island Inlet open.
“The Fire Island barrier beach is meant to tear and reform, but the army corps has this idea that it must be an unbroken straight line,” Brown said. “And that does harm to natural bays”
Officials from the Town of Brookhaven also want the the breach to stay open. And although they support the USACE’s project, they say certain parts are outdated and impractical.
In a press release, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine says that the Breach Contingency Plan needs to be thoroughly updated to include benefits to the long term existence of the barrier island that breaches may contribute to healthier shores and bays.
“I went down to the breached area, and you could clearly see the difference between what it was and what it is now,” Romaine said. “It needs to stay open.”
Save the Great South Bay and Stony Brook University’s Center for Clean Water Technology officials say that the breach allowed the excess nitrogen that was building up in the center of the South Shore to be flushed away into the Atlantic, restoring life to the shoreline.
“Now people are spotting ospreys, seals, sea turtles and even dolphins,” Brown said.
According to the current draft of the USACE’s plan, the project mostly involves creating barriers through dredging—digging up and moving—beach sand, and about $600 million will be used to raise and retrofit homes and roads.
“The homes in Mastic Beach need to be raised to avoid major flooding from not just storms, but from rising sea levels,” D’Ambrosio added.
But the plan to raise about 4,400 homes along the shoreline does not include fortifying or altering the septic tank systems, which would contaminate the water, and that water would be trapped in the South Shore by the barriers, according to Brookhaven officials.
Harold Walker, Co-Director of the Center for Clean Water Technology, says that nitrogen in the South Shore pollutes Long Island’s drinking water and causes environmental hazards that are even counterintuitive to the USACE’s plan as it destroys marshes and wetlands in the area.
“When Hurricane Sandy hit, the damage was worse because of the loss of wetlands in the South Shore, which would have acted as a natural barrier against the storm,” Jennifer Garvey, associate director of the Center, added.
Brown also emphasized the importance of the marshlands along the South Shore, urging the USACE to put in place a plan to promote marsh growth in order to create a natural defense against storm waters.
“You have to work with nature, not just push it around,” he said.
The USACE ended their public comment period yesterday after holding several events throughout September and October in Islip, Patchogue, Southampton and Montauk.
D’Ambrosio says that everyone’s criticism and notes will be taken into account while the USACE completes their final report on what should be done along the South Shore. The project will not begin until the the USACE receives approval from the main Washington branch.
“What’s important is that we get help for this shore line before something bad happens,” D’Ambrosio said. “These 83 miles have been suffering over the years from these storms.”
If approved, the USACE would begin construction along the South Shore by 2018.