It has made good sense to protect homes on Plum Island by “renourishing” the beach with sand pumped in from offshore and allowing a handful of residents to scrape sand and build up the dunes in front of their homes.
We are fortunate not to have experienced the ultimate test of this wisdom. In the past couple years we have not had a massive storm that sent devastating waves against our coast. But New York state has, and a report this week in the New York Times presents the stark evidence of just how important these beach maintenance projects can be.
Hurricane Sandy pushed an enormous amount of surf and flood tide waters against the shoreline of Long Island. Among the places devastated was Long Beach, a barrier beach community that shares some characteristics with Plum Island.
Sandy battered Long Beach with a tremendous amount of flood damage. Meanwhile, some smaller nearby communities suffered little effect.
The reason is pre-storm preparation and community investment.
The Army Corps of Engineers proposed a plan to build a 15-foot-tall sand dune barrier along Long Beach, as well as stone groins similar to those on Plum Island. The $98 million idea was rejected by the local city council and widely criticized by the public on aesthetic grounds. It would have created a visual barrier, it would have affected surfing, and it was thought it would drive tourists away.
Also, Long Beach didn’t want to pay its $7 million share of the project.
So Long Beach retained its natural beach, while nearby communities embraced the Army Corps’ artificial “sacrificial” dunes. During Sandy’s wrath, those dunes did what they were intended to do. They saved the communities from devastation.
Meanwhile, in Long Beach, at least $200 million in damage has been wrought, and that figure is expected to grow. Interestingly, in 2006 the Army Corp sought to justify the project by pointing out that in the long run, the $98 million investment would likely protect Long Beach from about $250 million in damage. Turns out, that estimate was pretty accurate.
Monetary figures like these don’t reflect the whole picture. Devastation on this scale also means cherished homes and neighborhoods destroyed, lifelong possessions gone, and lives thrown into upheaval. Can we put a price tag on this?
Locally, over $5 million has been spent renourishing Plum Island and Salisbury Beach within the past couple of years. Another $3.5 million is being spent now on restoring deteriorating sections of the South Jetty, which is expected to help mitigate erosion on Plum Island. Local governments have had to pay a small share toward these projects, and they have done so willingly. The state and federal governments have paid the bulk of it.
These are investments in homes, neighborhoods, publicly owned infrastructure, and yes, tax-generating properties.
They are wise investments, as the Long Beach disaster has clearly pointed out.