We can only hope that the more than 1,200 people who signed a petition demanding fast action for the eroded Montauk ocean beaches now begin to understand the folly in waiting for the federal government to save the day. A United States Army Corps of Engineers project that had been expected soon to place sand along the Montauk downtown shore has been delayed yet again — now to 2023 at the earliest. This should have come as no surprise: Washington is painfully slow in responding to local concerns, and the Army Corps must juggle dozens, if not hundreds, of competing demands. Meanwhile, the Montauk shoreline remains vulnerable, an unsightly artificial bulwark against the relentless Atlantic.
At some point, we would hope that town officials and groups like Concerned Citizens of Montauk, which organized the petition, would push instead for a long-term approach. Sea level rise and violent storms are inevitable, making the current stopgap sandbag seawall that ostensibly protects a row of about a dozen residences and motels obsolete.
Tragically, the sandbags have blocked landward movement of the shoreline, eliminating the natural beach — and putting the motel owners in perpetual financial danger. No beach means fewer visitors, which could spell trouble for nearby businesses. It also means a vastly heightened risk of catastrophic damage across downtown Montauk in a direct hit from a hurricane, as the destroyed first row structures become waterborne battering rams plowing landward. This was the case along Dune Road in Southampton Town during the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Moreover, the absence of a functional, protective duneline makes heavy damage from even a Category 1 storm assured. This is especially disappointing, since a consulting firm’s recent proposal for a visionary, 50-year relocation plan was roundly rejected by town officials amid a flurry of nonsense claims.
The entire premise of the Montauk sandbag effort was wrong from the start. It was supposed to be an emergency means of saving the motels from ruin while the Army Corps devised a longer-lived solution. In this the work was both illegal — a town law limits temporary erosion-control structures to six months with a possible three-month extension — and fatally naive. Under an agreement with the Army Corps, which paid for the initial work in 2015, Suffolk and East Hampton Town taxpayers have had to cover the cost of trucking in sand to maintain a semblance of beach at about $1 million a year. Meanwhile, town officials and property owners had dodged having to face the inevitable, while the trucks have continued to roll, building and rebuilding the fake dunes after winter weather patterns wash them away.
From the start there were concerns about waiting for the Army Corps. Congress first authorized its Fire Island to Montauk Point study of erosion control options in 1960 — 61 years ago this coming July. The so-called FIMP reformulation (their word) plan was completed in 2020 with a report back to Congress, which should have been a clue to anyone paying attention that the feds were never coming to the rescue. Unfortunately, this lack of foresight meant that the town squandered opportunities to adopt a resilient philosophy where the shore was concerned. For decades, coastal scientists have agreed that the only viable and cost-effective answer is stepping back from the danger. Managed retreat, as it has been called, has been proposed on and off for Montauk for years, but each time it has been rejected by politicians afraid of public opposition. Which leaves downtown Montauk where it is today: waiting for Washington — again — with another summer season fast approaching and another hurricane season arriving right after that.