Beach Work: Montauk Protests Echo Dune Road Catastrophe

Elevation of new Montauk dune and wooden walkway over it—as shown by Army Corps workman on the beach
Elevation of new Montauk dune and wooden walkway over it—as shown by Army Corps workman on the beach, Photo: Dan Rattiner

Every morning around 7 a.m. for the past two weeks, crowds of protesters, sometimes as many as 150 but usually about a dozen, appear on the beach in downtown Montauk to disrupt the sandbag project underway there that should keep all of downtown Montauk from being flooded during storms. The town had a taste of it, twice in the last three years, when the sea breached the remaining protective dune and was only stopped by town-owned bulldozers, brought in by that emergency, to shove mounds of sand into the breaches to plug the holes.

The protesters walk around the construction site signs and down the beach to stand in front of the bulldozers, cranes and backhoes so, if the work continues, they will be run over. To avoid that, the work stops. The foremen call the police. The police come and arrest some protesters—maybe two or three—and cart them off to be charged, given a date for a court appearance and let go. The rest of the protesters leave after the arrests. The men get back to work. Nothing else happens for the rest of the day. But then the next day it happens all over again.

The work, at a cost of nearly $9 million, will be completed in about 80 days. At that time, an enormous chain of sandbags, each weighing a ton and a half, will create a wall on the beach. It will be deep down into the bedrock, 10 feet down below sea level. It will rise up to where the dunes used to be, directly in front of where the buildings downtown face out to sea, some of them looking dangerously out atop the remains of what was once a protective dune but is no more. Now the dunes will be back, the sandbags covered with between 3 and 10 feet of sand. You will never see the sandbags—unless we have a storm of the century as we had in 2012. Then some of them might have to be re-covered. But they will have saved the town. Done their job.

Three years from now a much larger project will take place. It’s been approved by Congress. The Army Corps of Engineers will spend $700 million and will build sand dunes anchored by the below sea level sandbags from Fire Island to Montauk Point.

When it is done it will look like what the East End looked like years ago, before the old protective dunes gave way.

You can see such dunes in Montauk at Kirk Park Beach. You climb up the dune and down the other side to the ocean beach. Nobody’s messing with that. You can see it in the Hamptons, at Atlantic Beach. The dunes are intact there, too. In many places the old dune is intact. You climb up one side, down the other and spread out your beach blanket.

This interim Montauk project, however, has not deterred the protesters. They appear at Town Hall meetings, angry. They don’t seem to care that there have been nearly a dozen public hearings about this project during the last two years that people attended and approved. They don’t seem to care if engineers have considered all the alternatives. They don’t seem to care that it will save downtown Montauk from being flooded. And they don’t have their own viable plan. Some of them talk about just taking a breather from doing this. What’s the harm in that? Others mention having it be only of sand. Or they say that sandbags are illegal hard structures (they are not). Mostly, they just seem shocked that now, with all the approvals, it is happening.

“I don’t think it takes a scientist to know that this is a horrible idea,” said Montauk local James Katsipis to The East Hampton Star, which reported he has helped organize protestors. “They’re going to get rid of perfectly good dune to build this artificial dune that’s going to get washed away.”

On the other hand, as a longtime publisher of a weekly newspaper in this community, I honestly have to say that I feel a pang of camaraderie with these protesters.

Years and years ago, I was involved with a protest that stopped a beach project such as this. It was a project 20 times this size, which was intended to extend from Quogue to the Moriches Inlet, a distance of 20 miles. The plan was for the Army Corps of Engineers to place giant stone jetties sticking a hundred yards out into the ocean at quarter-mile intervals from one end of this community to the other.

We were hundreds of protesters, many of whom were friends of mine. It was great fun. Why was our tax money paying to save the oceanfront homes of the rich? It was a good rallying cry. We carried signs. We went to town hall. We sang songs. We filed petitions. And, with the job just halfway done, with just 16 jetties built at a quarter mile intervals, we got this project to be brought to a halt.

And our doing that, 10 years later, resulted in a disaster where nearly 190 private homes, all one next to the other oceanfront, fell into the sea, and Mother Nature created an enormous third inlet between the ocean and the bay as a brother to Shinnecock and Moriches Inlet completely altering the salinity of the bay. We felt a lot different about it when that happened.

It is amazing to me how few people remember this unbelievable catastrophe in the Hamptons. The jetties went in between 1964 and 1972, the 15 of them at quarter mile intervals. To the west, nothing. We’d gotten the plug pulled. For the next 10 years we danced around so proud of ourselves for having stopped this, not noticing that along the three miles of beach to the west of the project, the beach was getting narrower and narrower.

Soon, the sea, at high tide, was bashing into the homes there, and then, alarmingly, the homes began to crumble and fall into the ocean to be washed away. Now, as a responsible newspaperman, I’d write stories about it. Why had this happened? Look at what hath been wrought! I’d go down with a camera to the angry ocean there, walking along the buckled concrete of Dune Road, past fallen telephone poles, exposed electric wires (all utilities had been cut), fire hydrants, water pipes and cesspools. One day a house would be at some crazy angle to the ocean, the waves bashing against it, the next day it would be gone. The debris in the ocean included refrigerators, toilets, light fixtures, television sets, rugs and bedding, lamps and all other manner of furniture and housewares.

The most powerful memory I have of this time was driving down to where Dune Road was cut off by the gouging of the ocean and a police barrier had been set up, with armed officers manning it 24 hours a day. Nobody allowed out. Looters were going out there in the night by boat. Some even brazenly during the day. It was dangerous out there.

And I recall this woman, about 35, with two children about 10 and 8, getting out of her car and screaming at the police there to let her through so she could get some things out of her house, just for a little while, and then having to be restrained, in tears, as she was ushered back to her car to drive off.

All this happened because of what we did. Great job, yes? The built jetties were catching the sand as it drifted down from east to west. At the last jetty, there was no more sand.

Now, alarmingly, in addition to destroying all the homes, the ocean simply breached across the wreckage and linked up to the bay. Soon it was a permanent breach, wider than the Shinnecock Inlet. People named it. It was now Little Pike’s Inlet, in honor of a long-ago beloved East End congressman named Otis Pike, who had nothing to do with this.

It remained for the Army Corps of Engineers to save the day. In 1993, they brought in—by ship—enormous corrugated steel panels, 200 feet long and 60 feet high. These are the kinds of panels that you can bolt together to create a dry dock. Make a giant box of steel, bring a ship in need of repair underneath in, pump out the water, get to work.

But this steel, bolted together, could also become a sea wall. The Army Corps created a quarter-mile-long steel wall across Pike’s Inlet, drove the bottom 30 feet down into the sea floor, then poured sand over the top of it where it stuck up just above the waves. Little Pike’s Inlet was gone. There’s no Little Pike’s Inlet today. After that worked, the Army Corps built a road along the top of the sea wall, just where the old road had been. Along this road, builders drove in and rebuilt this entire lost community of crashed-down homes. They are there today. Hundreds of them, all new, all atop the sand atop the steel. Those concerned about “hard structures” today need only drive over there, get out of your car and stamp your feet. The steel is under this sandy beachfront home community now called the Village of Westhampton Dunes.

The Army Corps of Engineers also “tapered” the last four existing jetties. Each one sticks out less than the one before. As a result, sand gets around the jetties and the beaches to the west get replenished. It works. And where the existing jetties are, today, there is now a beach as wide as a football field where the sand extends out to the jetty tips. Look at Google Earth. The jetties that got in before we stopped them work too.

And I look at that today and say, yeah, we did that! Just our merry band of merry pranksters. And to think that for years, hundreds of underwater plots of formerly oceanfront land were still in private hands. A surveyor in diver’s gear could put some stakes in down there. Some of these plots of the sea floor were offered up for sale for $5,000 each. I laughed. It would be like buying the Brooklyn Bridge. Each is worth millions today.

I don’t think it would be a good idea to play Russian roulette with downtown Montauk. Learn from the past. Learn from the present. Finish this job. When it’s done, you won’t even know it is there, except now you’ll have to climb over the dunes, as we had to do in the 1960s.

Then all of us, as friends again, can go out and celebrate.

Montauk Dune Project
Photo: Richard Lewin

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