New Breach at Old Inlet, Fire Island, NY

Aftermath of the storm: How Sandy resurrected a fifty year-old erosion control plan (again)

Aerial view of a new breach at Old Inlet, 1½ miles west of the Wilderness Visitor Center, as seen from the Atlantic Ocean to the bay. Photo by NPS/Liang, 2012.

by Jackie Mirandola Mullen

New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand issued a press release in August, nearly one year after Superstorm Sandy, in which they pleaded with the United States Army Corps of Engineers to pass a fifty year-old erosion control plan for the south coast of Long Island (see maps below). The Senators tapped into the urgency created in coastal communities after Sandy and made clear that these plans were fifty years old.

Fire Island, N.Y., home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy

A Fire Island, N.Y., home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, shown Feb. 22, 2013 (U.S. Army photo by Chris Gray-Garcia/Released).

In fact, Congress first authorized a study of shoreline protection plan from Fire Island to Montauk Point in 1930. Since then, politicians that have urged the implementation of the study have included Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, and Hillary Clinton. Historians and geographers have noticed this tendency of politicians to use disasters as a platform for promoting long-held plans.[1] The case of the south coast of Long Island is unique, however, in that some iteration of the same Army Corps study has been in political play since 1930.

This post examines the almost comical history of an eighty year-old plan that has been revised, revamped, reworked, and at times, forgotten, which the Army Corps now calls the “Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York Reformulation Study” (or FIMP). I examine why the project has never been fully implemented and, perhaps more interestingly, why the U.S. government continues to pursue a fifty year-old plan. This blog post examines the case study of the FIMP plan to ask how governments can stubbornly pursue  plans  whose creators have been dead for decades. Why was a plan that had full funding on several occasions never realized?

Army Corps of Engineers, “Atlantic Coast of Long Island, N.Y.: Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point Considered Plan of Improvement,” Beach Erosion Control Cooperative Study and Interim Hurricane Survey, May 1959.

Army Corps of Engineers, “Atlantic Coast of Long Island, N.Y.: Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point Considered Plan of Improvement,” Beach Erosion Control Cooperative Study and Interim Hurricane Survey, May 1959.

By 1957, the Army Corps had completed their recommendations for the south coast of Long Island, after a hiatus in planning due to the Second World War. This FIMP plan would firm up the shifting coast by constructing groins and building up sand dunes through dredging of inlets and then placing that sand and muck on existing dunes.[2] In 1960, Congress authorized the Army Corps report and appropriated funds for the entire FIMP project—then estimated at $37,000,000.

Unfortunately for the future of the FIMP plan, New York State officials, led by Robert Moses, wanted the Army Corps plan to include a road atop the dunes from Fire Island to Montauk Point. [3] The Army Corps opposed a road on the shifting dunes and would not budge on the issue, thus delaying the project several years. By the time the Ash Wednesday Hurricane hit Long Island in 1962, costs had risen and the project stalled. During these same few years, the National Park Service was also fighting to make part of an area—Fire Island—a National Seashore. Amid argument over the cost and nature of the Army Corps plan, Fire Island National Seashore snuck through Congress in 1964.

The creation of Fire Island National Sea is the single greatest reason why the FIMP has stalled since the plan initially received funding in 1960. The National Park Service moving into the administrative make-up of the area delayed any hopes of the Army Corps implementing a plan from the 1960 funds. With the Park Service in the neighborhood, it had to approve any action that would change ecosystems of the sands and sea, including dredging, hydraulic fill, groin building, grass planting—nearly everything that the Army Corps report included.[4] The Park Service’s stringent stance on disruption to ecosystems added to an already complicated system of approvals the bureaucratic step that broke the camel’s back, if you will.

New Breach at Old Inlet, Fire Island, NY

Aerial view of a new breach at Old Inlet, 1½ miles west of the Wilderness Visitor Center, as seen from the Atlantic Ocean to the bay. Photo by NPS/Liang, 2012.

Since 1964, the FIMP plan has resurfaced with comic regularity. After a storm hits, politicians fight for funds for the study, but then lose the project amid bureaucratic shuffles. In 1978, the Army Corps announced the study was underway, but approvals would take another three to six years to garner. These approvals would not come, however, because even stricter regulations for erosion control came into the region two years later when 1,363 acres on Fire Island were designated as the Otis Pike Wilderness Area.[7] In 1971, one municipality got fed up with the delays and went it alone. Ocean Beach paid for jetties without any federal help, but then watched in horror as they washed away within ten years.[8]

The late 1990s brought another resurgence of the FIMP study, the same promises of federal money, and arguments that digressed into calling the Superintendent of Fire Island National Seashore a homophobe.[9] By 1999, things looked up for the plan passing, but with the knowledge that “the work could not begin before 2002.”[10] In 2004 Hillary Clinton (foolishly?) took up the FIMP study as an easy cause in her first months as Senator, accusing the second Bush administration of defunding the study. Alas, a plan this huge and baggage-laden could not rise or fall with one President or Senator, and it remained in limbo after both of their tenures in office.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District. “Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York Reformulation Study.” Undated map (2012?).

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District. “Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point, New York Reformulation Study.” Undated map (2012?).

Politicians have used the FIMP throughout the years as a way to assuage constituents after storms, but the Army Corps and the National Park Service have fundamentally different takes on erosion control measures. Park lands and the Otis Pike Wilderness area are subject to stricter environmental controls than the rest of the coast, especially after the passing of stricter federal environmental controls in the early 1970s. Politicians have failed again and again to garner the approval of the Park Service on erosion control plans. Resurrection of the FIMP plan after Superstorm Sandy represents an attempt by a new generation of politicians to use the aftermath of a hurricane to proffer a large scale solution to the natural processes (or “problems”) of erosion on Long Island’s south coast. The most recent report by Senator Schumer’s office stated that the FIMP study will continue at 100% federal expense, and that on-the-ground work could begin as early as January– pending National Park Service approval.

Getting the Park Service’s approval is easier said than done, as fifty years of politicians have experienced. In the recent words of the Kismet Community Association, “It has become clear, especially given the delays caused by the government shut-down, that this timetable was overly optimistic.”[11]

 


[1] See, for example, Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998), and Kenneth Hewitt, Regions of Risk: A Geographical Introduction to Disaster (Essex, U.K.: Longman, 1997).

[2] “Fire Island Talk Held on Erosion,” The New York Times, August 23, 1959.

[3] New York State Temporary State Commission on Protection and Preservation of the Atlantic Shorefront, Protection and Preservation of the Atlantic Shore Front of the State of New York; Final Report, 1962.

[4] Senate Public Lands Subcommittee Hearings, December 11, 1963, 6 (Section 8); S. Jeffress Williams and Mary K. Foley, Recommendations for a Barrier Island Breach Management Program for Fire Island National Seashore, Including the Otis Pike High Dune Wilderness Area, Long Island, New York (Boston: National Park Service Northeast Region, 2007); U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, National Park Service, A Report on the Proposed Fire Island National Seashore, New York, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964), 22.

[7] The bill tried to assure constituents that the FIMP plan would still be possible, stating that “wilderness designation shall not preclude the repair of breaches that occur in the wilderness area, in order to prevent loss of life, flooding, and other severe economic and physical damage to the Great South Bay.” U.S. Federal Government, “Public Law 96-585—Dec. 23, 1980.” Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/fiis/parkmgmt/upload/PL_96-585.pdf.  “A Project to Combat Beach Erosion,” The New York Times, June 18, 1978, LI12.

[8] David Bird, “Jetties Give Fire Island Erosion Shield,” The New York Times, August 1, 1971, BQ59.

[9] Several villages on Fire Island are predominantly gay and have been so since the 1930s. For the criticism of the parks’ Superintendent, see John Rather, “A Dispute within a Dispute on Fire Island,” The New York Times, August 22, 1999, LI1.

[10] John Rather, “Army’s Fire

Island Study: Send in the Sand,” The New York Times, December 26, 1999, LI3.

[11] Marsha Hunter, President, Kismet Community Association, Inc., “FIMP Status Update,” October 14, 2013. Retrieved from http://kismetca.com/storm-updates.html.

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Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a PhD Candidate at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her dissertation examines coastal conservation in the postwar United States.