There’s something innately human about the need to remember anniversaries. They can mark how far we’ve come, how much we’ve lost, how much we’ve learned or how much is still unknown.
The anniversary of Superstorm Sandy is a reminder of all those things.
In the early months of rebuilding here, every walk down by the water was an occasion for painful reminders: a 40-yard roll-off container in every driveway and a soaked carpet on every lawn. Grass that had turned a parched yellow from the salt water didn’t turn green until well into the spring. Here or there, you’d hear the ring of hammers coming from the home of someone lucky enough to have received a timely flood insurance payout.
Then, with the summer, came a flood of insurance cash, and along with it, the flood of optimism that usually accompanies cash. The dumpsters disappeared, new landscaping began cropping up, and the East End got hard to work forgetting the storm.
When we were kids on the North Fork, we always expected horrible damage with every hurricane down on the ocean shore, and Sandy’s storm surge found every weak spot in the ocean’s barriers and tore on through. But we never really thought about how vulnerable you can be alongside the peaceful Peconic Bay.
Back up in Bay View Pines and Waters Edge in Flanders, two working-class neighborhoods on the edge of the bay, the storm pushed water seven blocks in from the bay, in a mucky mess filled with dead grass and rotting plastic toys. Over in Pine Neck in Noyac, a neighborhood of tiny houses took the brunt of the seas. The Southold Town Trustees issued hundreds of permits to rebuild damaged properties along the Peconic Bay.
But there’s a funny thing about seaside shacks. A woman who lives in a 19th Century fishing shack on Cutchogue Harbor says the water just came in to her living room and then went back out, like it has so many times before. She mopped the floors, made some tea, and went on with her life. Her house wasn’t airtight like houses that are built today. Her wide floorboards didn’t warp, the air circulation kept the mold from growing in her walls, and she just went on with things.
Everywhere you walk, along the Peconic Bay on both forks, there are neighborhoods dotted with these tiny fishing shacks, high on their pilings, ready to take on the water and go on with things.
Down along the barrier beach along Hampton Bays, Dune Road now seems to become impassable with every storm. Congressman Tim Bishop held a rally down there last Friday to announce he’s asking the Army Corps of Engineers to raise the road by 16 to 20 inches and strengthen it against flooding at federal expense.
If the work is done, it would be part of the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study, a study the Army Corps has now been working on for more than 50 years.
In late summer, Congress agreed to spend $700 million to implement parts of the plan early, in response to the damage caused by Sandy. They’re already working on a plan to shore up downtown Montauk.
And over in Bridgehampton and Sagaponack, 141 oceanfront homeowners have agreed to form a new taxing district, in which they will fund the cost of pumping sand out of the sea and putting it on the beaches in front of their houses.
There isn’t yet a comprehensive plan for how the East End will strengthen its resiliency against future storms and, as some property owners raise their houses and build higher bulkheads, there are bound to be questions about the effect on their neighbors who choose not to rebuild.
Even Albert Einstein warned his son about the dangers of becoming a become a coastal engineer. There are too many variables involved in coastlines to ensure a reliable result, he said.
Southampton is putting together the final phase of a hazard mitigation plan to make its infrastructure more resilient, and other towns are considering doing the same. The Peconic Institute is discussing the possibility of creating a regional coastal resiliency plan.
But some homeowners have had enough. Down in those waterfront neighborhoods in Flanders, after the dumpsters left and the men with hammers finished their work and the landscapers made everything nice, a new phenomena arose: for sale signs.
The folks who live at the end of my street put it pretty succinctly just a couple weeks ago.
“We’re never going through that again,” they said.