Sandbagged? East Hampton Signs On to Take Over Montauk Beachfront

Sandbag cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

East Hampton Town signed a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers last week that, in my opinion, looks pretty terrible. As a result, I spoke to Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell about it. There are sophisticated reasons for what they did.

Four years ago, at the height of a big storm, the ocean surf broke through the mile-long dune in downtown Montauk and began to flood the town. Town backhoes and bulldozers came immediately and pushed sand into the breach, essentially saving downtown.

As a result of this, the Army Corps of Engineers agreed this was an emergency and so put in a sloping wall of giant sandbags on the ocean side of the dunes, costing $9 million in federal money. It went from one end of downtown to the other, a distance of more than half a mile. And buried under tons of new sand on top, the new dune would be much higher. You wouldn’t even know the sandbags were there.

The project was essentially finished last fall, and the deal was that after the Army Corps built this thing, they would turn it over to the town and county to maintain. There might be some sand loss over time. The cost was an estimated $150,000 a year to replenish lost sand, and much of that cost would come from the county.

At that time, it seemed as if the Army Corps of Engineers were heroes. This was a $9 million dollar gift to keep downtown from flooding. Only a few final touches would complete the job: wooden walkways that went over the dunes. Seagrass to stabilize the sand.

But then, before any final agreement was signed, a storm came through last fall and tore a hole in the dunes down to where you could see the underground sandbags. Some of the sandbags had even exploded in that storm. The town, of course, said they would not take the job over. It hadn’t held. It wasn’t complete. Two months later the Army Corps was back and, according to Cantwell, rebuilt the project back to its original height for $800,000. After that, a small part of the sandbag project became exposed in another storm.

So why did the town just sign on to be responsible for damage to the dune? Had they signed on the line last fall, they would have spent $800,000 instead of $150,000 last year. If the first year was $800,000, why would we expect it to be different in the future?

The reasons for signing, according to Cantwell, were twofold. The first didn’t seem to me to be more than just gestures. The Army Corps agreed to allow the town to only have to make repairs once a year, on January 1, rather than have to scramble every time the sandbags were exposed. The other thing was that the Town would not be responsible for keeping sand in the fordune—the area in front of the sandbags which the town thought had been promised by the Army Corps but which turned out to not be so. Finally, the Town would not be responsible for replanting the beach grass that gets washed out.

“Will the Army Corps be responsible for the last beach grass if the town is not?” I asked.

“No,” Mr. Cantwell said. It was also clear that if there were a breach during the summer tourist season, it would be left until winter before being fixed. Not good.

However, the other reason for signing onto this overarched everything. For 10 years, Congress and the Army Corps have been proposing to spend $1 billion to shore up the dunes from Fire Island to the Montauk Lighthouse. It never got through Congress. But last year it did, and then, this spring, Congress approved the funding for it. This massive project will entirely cover up this current sandbag project, according to Mr. Cantwell, and should render this short-term project moot. In other words, the new agreement would only be in place three years—which is the time it will take for the $1 billion project to go through engineering, design and bidding to completion.

I know it’s a long way from the cup to the lip. But it’s a good bet. Best to be on good terms with the Army Corps. So be it.

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