Pictured Above: Low lying areas of East Hampton Town were inundated with water during three recent coastal storms. |. East Hampton Town photo, via Facebook
The Town of East Hampton has been planning for more than a decade for how to weather the impact of sea level rise along its coastline, but this winter’s flooding has the town realizing that the time has really come to put those plans into action.
After back-to-back flooding events this past week that swamped much of low-lying downtown Montauk and Ditch Plains, the Town Board agreed at its Jan. 16 work session to seek to hire a coastal adaptation specialist to coordinate the effort to engineer solutions to protect the town’s coastline.
“How do we, as a community, work through recovery in the short term and look at resiliency in the long term?” asked Town Supervisor Kathee Burke-Gonzalez as she opened the conversation.
“Now is the hard moment. Now is the moment where we have to begin to behave differently,” East Hampton Town Planning Director Jeremy Samuelson told the board at the work session. “We can no longer simply continue to behave the same way and expect that everything’s going to be ok. It won’t. We have to move roads and critical infrastructure from where they are to more sensible locations. The good news is we know how to do this.”
“Our relationship to the shoreline not only defines our community, but it is also time for us to redefine that relationship,” he added. “The last couple storms were devastating, but not surprising.”
East Hampton laid out a roadmap for these changes in its Coastal Resiliency Action Plan, in the works since 2014 and adopted as part of the town’s Comprehensive Plan in 2022.
Town Councilwoman Cate Rogers said the town had dropped sand at Otis Avenue in Ditch Plains in December of 2023, which was washed away by the flooding overnight Jan. 9 through Jan. 10. Before the flooding on Saturday morning, Jan. 13, she said the town again dropped sand at Otis Avenue and in downtown Montauk. She said the second round of sand in Ditch Plains was able to protect the neighborhood from that round of flooding.
“We know we will see increasing storms and increasing storm surge,” she said. “We know that this is climate change. This has been studied for decades. We’re certainly seeing the impacts of the studies we have talked about for decades.”
“It is time for the town to develop the next phase of plans to provide for recovery, get our infrastructure running and get our roads cleared,” she added. “We need to take a long term look at coastal resiliency. What can we do with a storm coming?”
Mr. Samuelson said he would like the town’s land use departments to begin to have conversations with property owners before storms, to give them an idea of what they can do to protect their property, and the correct process for rebuilding if they suffer a loss.
“The community is already having this conversation,” he said. “We’re reacting rather than being pro-active…. What we, as a town, need to be doing is inviting people to have this conversation before the storm… They should be able to meet with us, in advance of a major storm, when there isn’t that weight on our shoulders.”
“There are emergency provisions that allow someone to rebuild, stabilize or keep things from getting worse, and make accommodations for public safety,” he added. “We have a moral responsibility to make sure this is done in a way that ensures public safety. The way you do that is front-load the work in advance of the need.”
The flooding comes just as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is mobilizing dredging equipment to pump 450,000 cubic yards of sand along the sandbagged beachfront that it installed to protect downtown Montauk nine winters ago, much of which was damaged in the recent floods.
At the start of the work session, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez read aloud New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos’ recent letter to the Army Corps warning that its projects “are at risk of catastrophic failure if immediate action is not undertaken to facilitate their repair.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a statement that the East Hampton board received in the midst of its work session, stating that it has received the DEC’s request for a review of storm damage to four of its projects on the South Shore and South Fork, including downtown Montauk, West of Shinnecock Inlet, Fire Island Inlet to Moriches Inlet and Shores Westerly of Fire Island Inlet.
“We’re in the process of examining all of the data from these storms in accordance with federal guidelines,” said Col. Alex Young, commander of the Army Corps’ New York District, in the press release. “We’re committed to working with our partners at the federal, state, and local levels to determine the best path forward for helping to mitigate coastal storm damage for the residents of these communities and throughout the tri-state area.”
Ms. Rogers said numerous areas of the township experienced flooding during the recent storms, including Beach Lane in Wainscott, Gerard Drive and Louse Point in Springs and Lazy Point — all called out in the CARP plan as problem areas.
Kim Shaw, the town’s Natural Resources Director, was very involved in preparation of CARP.
“Here we are, seeing the horrible things called out in the plan actually a reality,” she told the board. “We need to hire an expert to help us resolve these issues.”
Councilman David Lys said the most appropriate expert would be a coastal morphologist.
“We do need to hire someone with that specialty,” said Ms. Rogers. “These are new specialties, across the world. I believe we should be bringing them in at this point for implementation.”
“In the last 14 months, we had two of the largest tides the Town of East Hampton has ever seen,” said Mr. Lys. “In 2012 was the second highest, with Superstorm Sandy. If that’s not telling you, climate change is coming.”
“You have to start preparing now,” he added.
Mr. Lys also urged the public to download an app called MyCoast, developed by New York Sea Grant, which allows them to document flood damage in real time.
“Folks should take photos of their own damage, as well,” said Ms. Rogers. “That helps with FEMA, and with us as well.”
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