Coastal storm splits island and brings communities together 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. 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 dam- age 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 popu- lated. 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. 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.
March 2022 csengineermag.com
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