The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held an information meeting at Long Beach’s City Hall to share with the public how and where they can protect Nassau county’s shoreline and to receive public input.
New York State Senator Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who requested that the meeting be held in his district, opened the meeting saying storms are an existential threat.
“This is the beginning of a very important project,” said Kaminsky. “But right now there is no plan, so we need to start somewhere.”
Today’s meeting, coincidentally held as hurricane Jose furls up the east coast, is the result of an agreement signed last year by the federal government, New York State and Nassau county to begin an environmental impact study to protect the back bay, Long Island’s mainland area between the south shore of Long Island from East Rockaway to Suffolk county.
Following a 1-hour presentation, local residents expressed their immediate concerns versus the USACE’s three-year study.
“I have to jump over things and take off my sneakers so that I don’t get them wet when I take the bus to work,” said James Hodge, a Long Beach resident and city employee. He said his home still floods every day and the bus stop floods whenever it rains.
Kathleen O’Leary says she is concerned after what hurricane Harvey did to Texas and Irma to Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “Can we afford to wait three years for this to be ready?” said O’Leary. “Hurricane seasons are bad now.”
“This is the beginning of a process, this is the study,” warned USACE Project Planner Danielle Tommaso.
Clifford Jones, chief of the New York District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ planning division also solicited the patience of residents.
“In 2014, congress put in place what we call the three-by-three-by-three rule,” Jones said, “so every study needs to be done within three years, within three million dollars and include three levels of vertical teams: the district, our division office and our headquarters office.”
What the Jones explained later in the Q&A session is that the study may need more money to be completed and neighboring cities and counties, as well as the state can have input and make changes to the project, all delaying the supposed three-year study, then implementation and construction.
Crystal Lake, a historian and longtime resident of the North Park area of Long Beach says she witnesses the change in sea level of the bay almost daily.
“Going to work every day, around eight o’clock in the morning, the marshes now are covered in water all of the time,” said Lake of her commute through the Loop Parkway to mainland Long Island. She said she has read reports of sea level rise and believes the water is in fact, constantly rising.
“I’ve lived in this community over a half century,” said Lake. “My community has flooded since I was a child. The bus stops still currently flood. The children have to walk through the water, come out of the daycare, as well as seniors.”
Lake says Reynolds Channel, the part of the back bay that separates Long Beach island from mainland Long Island, has little to no protection.
USACE’s Jones says hurricane Sandy brought attention to the vulnerability of the entire eastern seaboard. He said this project, named the Nassau County Back Bays, NY Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study is part of the government’s plans to address vulnerabilities to the bay, as the ocean side is already being addressed and work is in progress after Sandy sped up the process.
According to the presentation, the study will evaluate the technical feasibility, environmental acceptability, economic effectiveness and “implementability” of possible structures and plans. Jones says the plan must have net benefits to be implemented due to its use of taxpayer-funded dollars. Benefits, such as storm damage avoided, must prove higher than costs, otherwise the plan may never take off.
The next step after the environmental impact study is complete is to allow 30-45 days for public comments, to which a redraft will occur. Then the plan, now called a post-feasibility study, will need to be approved by USACE headquarters, then receive Congressional appropriation for construction funding.
In all, without any delays, it may be that the earliest any protection of the back bay of Nassau county begins to become reality under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is probably after the year 2021. If other organizations and governments get involved, it may take longer.
The USACE team of experts could not answer residents’ questions on when this study or construction will begin. Several “I don’t know’s” were uttered when asked the question directly. They said to begin any construction to protect the island, there needs to be an environmental impact study, and said the study has yet to begin, although there is funding.
Denise Ford of Long Beach asked if the USACE was considering the large community of small businesses on Long Island. “There are a number of businesses within our communities that conceivably cannot be raised (like the houses),” said Ford. “So where do we leave them?”
Tommaso said the USACE is aware that there are structures that cannot be raised and that different types of actions could be taken to protect such structures.
Some of the options mentioned during the presentation were structural measures such as flood walls, levees, dunes and non-structural measures like the elevating and relocation of homes and businesses, acquisitions, new zoning codes, revamping flood insurance and better risk communication. Natural measures seemed to be strong part of the possible project, such as recreating and maintaining living shorelines, oyster reefs, aquatic vegetation and marshes.
But with hurricane Jose poised to approach Long Island as a tropical storm and yet another category 5 hurricane named Maria soon to approach the southeastern United States, residents asked that there be a mechanism to put some sort of an emergency marker to begin some of these projects.
Tommaso said there are other entities that can prioritize storm readiness projects, but that anything affecting the environment and public land needs to go through an environmental impact study first.
Where does this leave Long Island? Like Sen. Kaminsky, Michelle Kelly of Long Beach says she is content that at least the process started. “I wish that there was another answer, that yes that we could just do just ‘this’ and ‘this’, but that’s like a utopia society,” Kelly said. “It’s not going to happen. This is government, this is politics.”