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Coastal Storm Splits Island and Brings Communities Together

Coastal Storm Splits Island and Brings Communities Together

Sand being pumped through pipelines onto Gilgo Beach, one of several beaches receiving sand replenishment with the Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York, Coastal Storm Risk Management Project. Photo: James D’Ambrosio, Public Affairs.

By JoAnne Castagna, Ed.D.

In 1992, Joseph Vietri, then a coastal engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District, was walking with a colleague and a coastal researcher around Westhampton Beach, a barrier island located on the south shore of Long Island, New York.

A barrier island is a long narrow island that lies parallel and close to the mainland, protecting the mainland from erosion and storms.

Vietri said, “The island was recently beaten up by a Nor’easter. We were walking in ankle-deep water and started to wade into peat that must have broken off of a wetland.”

Peat is decomposed organic matter that acts like a binding agent. It keeps wetland soil together. Once broken free, erosion can accelerate dramatically.

He continued, “We looked at each other and said, ‘If something is not done immediately, this whole island is going to unravel within a week.’”

In a matter of days this is exactly what happened.  Water from the ocean side of the barrier island washed over and into the bay side, splitting the barrier island, creating a breach or gap that quickly turned into a full-blown major inlet that swallowed up dozens and dozens of houses.

“We thought we could never allow this to happen again. We can’t allow time to go by and not take collective action to fix this because at the end of the day it’s just going to cost us a lot of money, anguish, personal loss and tragedy to the people in the area,” said Vietri, who today is the Director of Coastal Storm Risk Management National Center of Expertise, North Atlantic Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

New York District Commander Col. Matthew Luzzatto meets with the project team managing the sand placement on Gilgo Beach, one of several beaches receiving sand replenishment with the Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York, Coastal Storm Risk Management Project. Photo: James D’Ambrosio, Public Affairs.

To prevent this from happening again, the Army Corps in collaboration with numerous agencies and communities revitalized a stalled project – The Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York, Coastal Storm Risk Management Project.

The comprehensive project will manage the risks of coastal storm damage and sea level rise for barrier islands and back bay communities on Long Island’s south shore while at the same time preserving natural resources. After years of researching for the best measures for doing this, the project has begun.

Long Island extends out east into the Atlantic Ocean from New York City. Along the south shore of the island there are barrier island chains from Long Beach to Shinnecock Inlet.

In between Long Island’s mainland and the barrier islands is bay water that includes the Great South Bay, Moriches Bay and Shinnecock Bay.

The project encompasses 83-miles of the south shore of the island from Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point and extends inland two miles.

The area covers the Suffolk County portion of the island that includes the Towns of Babylon, Islip, Brookhaven, Southampton, and East Hampton, 12 incorporated villages, the Fire Island National Seashore, and the Poospatuck and Shinnecock Indian Reservations.

Over the years, the south shore of Long Island has become very populated. Today, there are approximately 150,000 residents in the project area. The region also receives a large influx of seasonal beachgoers and visitors annually.

The south shore is also very developed. Within the project area, there are 46,000 buildings that include 42,600 homes and 3,000 businesses, and critical infrastructures including 60 schools, 2 hospitals, and 21 firehouses and police stations.

In the past century, especially in the last 20 years, Long Island’s developed coast has experienced storm damages. Elevated tides and waves from these storms caused extensive flooding and sand erosion, leaving communities and shore life vulnerable.

Most recently was Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Storm surge from Sandy eroded forty percent of the beach sediment from some areas and created three breaches in the barrier islands, leaving the area vulnerable to significant damages.

Anthony Ciorra, Project Manager, New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers remembers Sandy, “What stands out in my mind, was the devastation I witnessed in the south shore communities in the aftermath of Sandy. Just three days after the storm passed, I boarded a New York State Police helicopter with colleagues and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to inspect the damage caused by the storm surge.  It was a glaring and harsh reminder that these heavily developed and densely populated communities are at high risk of continued damages due to coastal storm events.”

Over the years, the Army Corps would perform small projects to stabilize vulnerable areas, but it was realized, especially with Sandy, that a more comprehensive long-term project was needed for the entire region.

The project would become The Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York, Coastal Storm Risk Management Project.

The project was created by the Army Corps in collaboration with numerous agencies and communities that include the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State Department of State, Department of the Interior, National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Service, Suffolk County Government, the townships of Islip, Babylon, Brookhaven, Southampton and East Hampton, 12 incorporated villages, and the general public.

The project includes several measures to manage the risks of coastal storm damage and sea level rise. They include a breach response plan, home elevations, flood-proofing & acquisitions, coastal restoration, preserving natural resources, and adapting to sea level rise.

1992 Westhampton Beach Breach. Photo: USACE.

Breach Response Plan

After a storm or tidal surge, if a breach is created on a barrier island, it will be closed immediately.

A breach is an opening or gap that develops in a barrier island, allowing the ocean water and bay water to meet, which can make an area vulnerable to storm damages.

Closing the breach will be accomplished by dredging sand from federal navigation channels and placing the sand on the barrier island to build the island back up.

Home Elevations, Flood Proofing & Acquisitions

Homeowners will be able to decide if they want their homes elevated or flood proofed by the Army Corps.

The homes will be elevated so that the lowest floor is above the flood level. Approximately, 4,000 homes will be elevated.

“This is the largest number of structures that have ever been considered for a raising on an Army Corps project,” said Mark Lulka, project manager, New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who oversees the home elevations, floodproofing and home acquisition aspect of this project and was the project manager for the entire project a few years ago.

Flood proofing is a technique used to reduce damages to homes that may be affected by floodwaters.  Approximately, 650 homes will be floodproofed. One method the Army Corps is using to flood proof homes is constructing ringwalls. Ringwalls are walled structures that encircle homes to hold back floodwaters. Ninety-three homes will be provided with ringwalls.

Coastal Restoration

Over the years, much of the project’s coastal area has eroded, removing the natural beachfront and dunes that provide coastal protection to the communities from storm surge.

To restore these beaches, sand will be placed back on them.

Approximately, 4.2 million cubic yards of sand will be dredged from several federal channels including Fire Island Inlet and shoals and Moriches & Shinnecock Inlets and shoals. This is enough sand to fill 420,000 dump trucks.

Ocean dredges gather sand from offshore sand borrow areas and pump it through pipelines onto the beach. The sand will be placed onto several beaches including Gilgo Beach, Robert Moses State Park, and Tiana and Montauk Beaches.

The sand can be placed in different areas of a beach depending on the project design. Sand can be placed to increase the height and width of a berm of the beach. The berm is a flat area of the beach between the landward shore and the ocean where beach goers typically sunbathe.

The sand can also be used to create sand dunes. Dunes provide a natural barrier to the destructive forces of wind and waves. Dunes are areas of the beach where sand is elevated several feet to act as a buffer between the waves and storm water levels and the structures landward on the beach. Dunes will be built and planted with dune grass.

A sand replenished beach with dunes can prevent elevated ocean waters, caused by storms, from inundating coastal communities. According to Ciorra, “Post-Hurricane Sandy analysis showed that beaches that had previously received sand placement and dune construction sustained less damages and saved an estimated $1.3 billion in avoided damages on New York and New Jersey shorelines.”

Lynn Bocamazo agrees with Ciorra. Bocamazo is a retired former senior coastal engineer and chief of the New York District’s Engineering Division’s Hurricane Sandy Branch. She added, “Immediately after Sandy, I visited the Fire Island at Montauk Point – Westhampton Interim Beach Nourishment Project on Long Island, New York. This is part of today’s Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York, Coastal Storm Risk Management Project.”

She continued, “I witnessed how the high dunes created by the Army Corps resulted in an estimated $107 Million in avoided damages.” Bocamazo was involved with the project for 27 years.

To help these beaches retain sand in one location, a feeder beach will be constructed. A feeder beach is a beach that has been stockpiled with extra sand.  This extra sand can naturally drift to other nearby beaches that may be losing sand. A feeder beach will be created along 6,000 feet of shorefront at Montauk Beach.

To help facilitate the movement of this sand and restore the natural cross barrier island transport of sand in the region, two unneeded groins will be removed at Fire Island’s Ocean Beach Village. Groins, also known as jetties, are structures that extend out from the shore into the water and interrupts water flow and limits the movement of sand, to slow down beach erosion. Groins can be made of large boulders, concrete, steel or wood.

Project Area Map of the Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York, Coastal Storm Risk Management Project. Photo: USACE.

Preserving Natural Resources

Not only will the project reduce risks to the public, it will also restore coastal wetland habitats for endangered wildlife.

According to Peter Weppler, Chief, Environmental Analysis Branch, New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “The project includes features that will be beneficial to endangered species in the area, such as the Piping Plover, Least Turn, and various protected beach plant life.”

As part of the coastal restoration aspect of the project, sand will be placed on 12 barrier islands. The sand will be placed with native vegetation to create nesting and foraging habits for these species.  In addition, this sand placement will also help to restore the natural cross barrier island transport of sand.

“Placing the sand in these areas, augments resiliency and enhances the overall barrier island’s natural system coastal processes,” said Weppler who started working on this project in the early 1990s as a new biologist.

Adapting to Sea Level Rise

Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and because of this the project may have to adapt to these changing conditions overtime. The Army Corps will be monitoring sea level rise on a regular basis and making adjustments to the project.

Weppler said, “Based on our monitoring of sea level rise, this could mean over time increasing the volume of sand we place on beaches, increasing the height of berms and dunes to account for observed increases in sea level rise.”

Vietri added, “It’s predicted that future sea level rise could increase anywhere between one to six feet over the next 100 years, resulting in more frequent and severe storm damages.”

Recently, the work began on The Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York, Coastal Storm Risk Management Project. The first phase of work includes dredging sand from Fire Island Inlet and shoals and placing this sand onto Gilgo Beach and Robert Moses State Park.

All work on the project will be performed during times of the year that would not harm wildlife. The entire project is expected to be completed in a decade and all sand placement work will be replenished every few years, beyond the completion of the project.

The Army Corps and its partners are pleased with the measures outlined in the project and are glad it’s getting started.

James Tierney, Deputy Commissioner for Water Resources, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said, “New York State is proud to partner with the experts at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on this critical initiative. The project takes a holistic approach to increasing coastal resiliency while enhancing aquatic habitat, recreational resources, and community aesthetics. In addition, the project sets the key elements of a resiliency framework that will be completed by technical experts in close collaboration with the involved communities.”        

Bocamazo said, “To me the most interesting aspect of this project are the multiple agencies, jurisdictions and groups involved.  Much coordination was needed to get to the final plan.  All of the parties had to agree on how to communicate, cooperate, agree to disagree and move on, determine the level of decision authority, and all the while make progress in the project.  With so many involved partners, coming together over so many years, the project getting started is a testament to persistence and patience, and always keeping the goal of risk management for the population of Long Island in mind.”

Suzana Rice, who took over for Bocamazo as Senior Coastal Engineer, New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said, “My mentor, Lynn Bocamazo, was very involved with the project since the beginning and she has transferred her knowledge to me. This project has been years in the making. So many engineers, scientists, and modelers have worked on it and it’s great being a part of the team making it come to life.”

Weppler, like Vietri, sees the 1992 Westhampton Beach breach as a pivotal time for the project.  He remembers what the Army Corps did following the breach and says it was sort of a template for what would become The Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York, Coastal Storm Risk Management Project.

“This breach created a new inlet that quickly grew progressively wider to about a quarter mile. Eighty houses were under water and many others heavily damaged. Some homes became isolated because the new inlet had cut through the only access road,” said Weppler.

“The Army Corps in cooperation with the community, repaired the breach, restored the beach and dune system, and created a habitat for endangered wildlife.”

Vietri who lives on one of the barrier islands added, “This project will provide layers of protection against storm surge and sea level rise while maintaining and enhancing natural resources. It takes into account the oceanfront, back-bay communities, barrier islands, inlets and estuaries in a way that is a collaborative effort.  It is unique.”

Dr. JoAnne Castagna is a Public Affairs Specialist and Writer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District. She can be reached at joanne.castagna@usace.army.mil.