Those who argue we should “just let nature take its course” rather than attempt to protect our beaches from ravaging storms should consider the fate of Long Beach, a barrier beach on the southwestern shore of Long Island, N.Y.
A report this week in the New York Times presents the stark evidence of what happens when nature does take its course in the shape of a “superstorm” like Sandy.
Sandy’s mountainous surf and flood tide waters battered the shoreline of Long Island. Among the places devastated was Long Beach, which suffered a disproportionate amount of damage compared to some smaller nearby communities that 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. The $98 million idea was rejected by the local city council and widely criticized by the public on aesthetic grounds.
It would create a visual barrier, opponents argued. It would affect surfing and it might drive tourists away.
Also, Long Beach didn’t want to pay its $7 million share of the project’s cost.
So Long Beach retained its natural beach, while nearby communities embraced the Army Corps’ man-made “sacrificial” dunes.
When Sandy hit, those dunes did what they were intended to do. They cushioned the blow and saved the communities from devastation.
Meanwhile, in Long Beach, at least $200 million in damage was wrought, and that figure is expected to grow.
Interestingly, in 2006 the Army Corps 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.
The damage estimates 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?
Our coast has been long been spared a direct hit like the one suffered by stretches of the New York and New Jersey coasts, though it is regularly pounded by damaging northeasters.
Locally, over $5 million has been spent over the past couple of years to “renourish” Plum Island and Salisbury Beach with sand dredged from the mouth of the Merrimack River or just outside and pumped ashore. A handful of homeowners on Plum Island were allowed to spend their own money this fall to scrape sand from the low tide zone to build up dunes on which their houses were precariously perched.
Another $3.5 million is being spent now on restoring deteriorating sections of the South Jetty on Plum Island, which is expected to help mitigate erosion on the barrier beach. 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.