It has become the reflexive habit of news organizations to frame every news item as a conflict, a controversy. Without that, there is no story. You could be in a lecture hall for two and a half hours, listen to a panel, then have public statements from a crowd of 600. The one person who stands up to say that the breach must be closed because his apartment complex was flooded this winter is the person who gets surrounded by microphones. That’s exactly what happened in March at a Town Hall in Bellport about The New Inlet. Nearly unanimous support after the 2 1/2 hours, but I had reporters actually say to me, ‘where’s the conflict/story in that?’ When we wade into public policy debates, where the science most matters, it is truly corrosive to science and civic life to see this happen.
People will say ‘teach the controversy,’ and the flat earthers are pitted against Nobel Prize winners. But in a world of infotainment, where media companies are publicly traded, and live by viewership/readership/eyeballs, the uncontroversial truth of certain matters, settled matters like man’s role in global warming, continue, incredibly, as open debates, with obvious benefits to a few vested interests.
So a “mounting debate’ there is, when the loudest and least informed gets another turn at the mike. In stating that the breach renders the South Shore vulnerable to future storms Robert Calarco appears to know something about coastal geology and barrier beach dynamics that has escaped the analysis and understanding of the experts. But that is the world we live in. Expert scientific analysis is put on the same level as mere opinion, with the press engaging in such false equivalences to sell news. Emotional appeals, self-interested hostility to the actual facts, leads to bad policy and once more the science is ignored. And so we kick the can on tough decisions further down the road, the public is encouraged not to do anything, since there’s doubt cast on the obvious, and so we arrive eventually at an event horizon, to a point of no return for our climate.
Here’s how the CBS framed the issue:
But while some are hailing the new inlet on the east end of Fire Island, there is a great debate over its fate. A chorus of calls has demanded that the breach be closed to protect the mainland from a greater risk for flooding.
“Leaving the breach open is going to create the potential for more severe damage should another storm the size of Sandy — or for that matter, Irene — come barreling through again,” said Suffolk County Legislator Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue.)
The new inlet is even being blamed by residents as far away as Lindenhurst for making their flooding problems worse
“The tides are much more extreme than what they were in the past, ever since Sandy,” one resident said in February.
Put on the other side of the debate, it’s always Calarco and a small minority in a flood prone community such as Lindenhurst who argue to close the breach as if that would solve our flooding problems.
The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter how tall we build up our dunes. Flood prone areas will flood. Water will find its own level. Water levels are rising, storms are getting worse. We built where we shouldn’t have, and the shore line of Long Island is destined to look a lot different than it does now, as it stands.
This post, by a marine biologist, puts it best. In addressing the speculation that building higher dunes in Smith Point County Park would better protect Mastic in particular from flooding, he had this to say:
The beaten back dunes in Smith Point County Park have not escaped notice and at the last USACE (Army Corps of Engineers) meeting I was at they stated that the County Park is slated for manual dune building as part of the FIMP project (Flood plain Management Project ).
It is really important for people to know that dune re-building along this stretch of mostly undeveloped parkland will not stop the chronic flooding issues that are pervasive along the low lying areas of the Mastic Peninsula. The height of the dunes really has very little, if anything, to do with the chronic flooding of those low lying areas. This area floods because these communities were built almost at sea level, and are the lowest elevation communities in Suffolk County. These communities have been cited for years nationally as examples of communities most imperiled by rising sea level and coastal storms. It is in these increasingly flood prone communities where we are seeing septic tanks, increasingly, failing, and polluting Moriches, Shinnecock and The Great South Bay and the rivers and streams that flow into them.
Granted that during a big storm some water comes over the island and if you live there, and you are flooding, that most certainly seems really scary. But piling up more sand will do nothing. The unfortunate truth is that low lying communities will flood even without the overwash, even if the dunes are large. An overwash is a temporary event when the ocean waves push water (and sand) past the dune line and sometimes all the way over to the bay side- overwash moves sand from the oceanside and piles it on top of the low lying backside of the island. Although the height of the dunes goes down, there is building of the elevation on the back side saltmarsh and in the tidal wetlands and this all makes the island wider while building natural habitat-barriers against future storms, like marsh, eelgrass and shallows, and shellfish beds. This is the process of a barrier beach, a giant sand bar that continually adjusts to changes in currents, weather patterns, and sea levels. Fire Island, at its current pace, will meet the South Shore in 5000 years. That is its natural dynamic. To try and arbitrarily halt this progression or to seal up the naturally forming breaches that come with that is futile and destructive.
Not all storm induced overwashes lead to breaches – in fact most don’t. In simplest terms, an added component is needed to turn an overwash into a sustained breach – that added component is the rapid conversion of pent-up potential energy from having the bay side and Oceanside water levels at very different heights that is converted to kinetic energy when both sides are connected and one side then spills rapidly to the other side, pushing a lot of sand along with it. It doesn’t have to be the ocean that is higher. If it’s the bay that’s higher the water will rush out of the bay, pushing the sand to the ocean side. So – when the bay and ocean are at similar heights when the storm passes the water goes back down through the existing inlets and there is not a breach. The New Inlet was initially formed by having the ocean side push into the bay – you can tell this because of the expanse of the flood tide delta (all the new sand flats that immediately formed on the bay side of the new inlet are indicative of the ocean pushing into the bay).
People who live and own property on the Mastic peninsula have to understand that unfortunately, no matter how much money is spent on moving sand around on Smith Point County Park land, it will not reduce the chronic flooding that they have in their community. The water is coming in any case in a big storm.
There will be agencies that work to justify the costs of a project of that scale. The County has clearly stated it does not want to give up Burma Road and it most certainly does not want to give up or move the infrastructure at the County Park. They will say that dune building will help prevent overwashes – and that will be correct. But don’t read into this to think it will prevent chronic flooding on the mainland or make the island more resilient and self-sustaining as seas continue to rise (even at the existing rate that they have for the last 100 years).
In addition, manually rebuilding the dunes it won’t in any way impact the way that FEMA assesses the flood risk that those properties are in or the flood insurance rates they will be required to pay. The only way to do that is to elevate the land, on the peninsula, or to elevate the vulnerable infrastructure such as homes. And then if we want to be able to flush the toilet on a full moon at high tide – and not have it simply drain to the bay when the tide goes out – it’s important to reconfigure the way we dispose of waste water in this and other low-lying flood prone communities.
It’s important to have a realistic understanding of what can and can’t be done in terms of preventing flood damage (we can’t prevent floods but we can prevent flood damage) – because there are Sandy relief funds available to help people now – and this most certainly seems like a once in a lifetime opportunity for public assistance for people as people make very difficult choices for their families such as whether or not to elevate their home, move, or some may even need to choose a buy-out option once the cost/benefits of all other options are carefully weighted against the particular needs and desires of their family.