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Hurricane Sandy

Scenes of destruction after Hurricane Sandy hit the North Shore. File photo

Climate change is going to cost us. The prohibitive costs in both dollars and loss of life for past hurricanes in the New York area might be just the beginning if recent trends continue.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based nonprofit whose mission is to “safeguard” the Earth, the cost of ignoring climate change will be as high as 3.6 percent of gross domestic product — hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs and water costs alone could cost the United States as much as $1.9 trillion annually by 2100.

For Long Island the first two pose the greatest risk.

Sea level has been rising consistently for the past several decades and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation predicts sea levels will continue to rise to a high projection of 10 inches by 2020 and 30 inches by the 2050s. As sea levels have been rising so have water temperatures.

Scientists have repeatedly said rising sea levels will lead to an increase of storm surge-related flooding and rising sea surface temperatures will lead to stronger and more damaging hurricanes.

This October will mark the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which resulted in 48 fatalities and caused more than $30 billion in damage for the state of New York alone. Former President Barack Obama (D) declared a state of emergency for New York, and although it was classified as a post-tropical nor’easter or superstorm when it touched down in New York, it led to hundreds of Long Islanders losing their homes and businesses, thousands losing power for weeks, school closures and much more damage.

Scenes of destruction after Hurricane Sandy hit the North Shore. File photo

According to Suffolk County, Sandy damages cost Brookhaven Town a total of just less than $30 million, and Huntington Town slightly more than $30 million. Considerable costs came from debris removal; aid for school district repairs; repairs to boardwalks, stairs, docks and sidewalk repairs; and fire department costs.

“Even with storms of the same intensity, future hurricanes will cause more damage as higher sea levels exacerbate storm surges, flooding and erosion,” a study done by the NRDC said. The study said in recent years hurricane damages have averaged $12 billion annually and more than 120 fatalities. “With business-as-usual emissions, average annual hurricane damages in 2100 will have grown by $422 billion and an astounding 760 deaths from just climate change impacts.”

In 2013, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) created the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery to manage the $4.4 billion in relief funds that was made available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A billion dollars in aid went to assisting 1,100 New Yorkers with reconstructing their homes, more than $76 million was awarded to rebuild 750 rental properties, and at least $49 million was awarded to 1,043 small businesses to support the replacement of essential equipment and renovations.

“Superstorm Sandy demonstrated that New York as we know it faces a different reality — a reality of increasingly frequent extreme weather events that cannot be ignored,” Cuomo said upon the two-year anniversary of the storm.

Sustainable Long Island’s executive director L. Von Kuhen said Sandy helped many residents realize the seriousness of the potential future. The nonprofit works to advance sustainable development for Long Island communities.

“I think Sandy … made a lot of people wake up and realize how vulnerable our coastal communities really are,” Kuhen said in a phone interview. “People are used to periodic flooding from normal storms but never anticipated anything of what Sandy caused. It was a wake-up call.”

Scenes of destruction after Hurricane Sandy hit the North Shore. File photo

He said many communities responded to that call, reaching out to the organization after the storm to create a plan for their town or village so they’re prepared for the next storm. He said the nonprofit conducted a survey in 2015 to see how many people were prepared for another major storm and the results showed Sandy helped teach many people.

“People knew a lot more than they did before the storm because I think a lot of people hadn’t thought about the possibility of a major storm hitting Long Island to the degree of Sandy,” he said. “I think there was a lot of public education at many levels after that.”

Real estate losses could cost the United States $34 billion in just eight short years, and $173 billion by 2075, according to the NRDC study. As sea levels continue to rise, homeowners on the water are going to see their backyards disappear, and water creep closer to their front doors.

“Our business-as-usual scenario forecasts 23 inches of sea level rise by 2050 and 45 inches by 2100,” the study said. “If nothing is done to hold back the waves, rising sea levels will inundate low-lying coastal properties. Even those properties that remain above water will be more likely to sustain storm damage, as encroachment of the sea allows storm surges to reach inland areas not previously affected.”

They estimated if heat-trapping gasses continue to be emitted at the current rate, in 2100 United States residential losses will reach $360 billion per year — with states like New York and areas like Long Island being especially vulnerable.

One Stony Brook resident has already run into a real estate problem concerning her house and proximity to the water.

“I had been dealing with the same insurance company for more than 35 years,” Donna Newman said in a phone interview. “And suddenly they notified me they wouldn’t be able to offer me home insurance any more.”

Newman said when she spoke with someone at the insurance company, they explained to her they could no longer cover her because she lives too close to the water— about a half a mile from it.

“Even with storms of the same intensity, future hurricanes will cause more damage as higher sea levels exacerbate storm surges, flooding and erosion.”

“I was pretty upset by that,” she said. “We have not moved our house; the water has always been there. I was very angry.”

Newman was told many other residents in her zip code were also no longer going to be insured due to their proximity to the water.

The United States as a whole will also face an increasing demand for energy as climate change continues, as well as exploding water costs for the driest and most water-stressed parts of the country.

“Many economic models have attempted to capture the costs of climate change for the United States,” the NRDC study said. “For the most part however these analyses grossly underestimate costs by making predictions that are out of step with the scientific consensus on the daunting scope of climatic changes and the urgent need to reduce global warming emissions.” 

With all the daunting issues facing the United States, if greenhouse gas emission rates are maintained, America is far from the most vulnerable.

“The sad irony is that while richer countries like the United States are responsible for much greater per person greenhouse gas emissions, many of the poorest countries around the world will experience damages that are much larger as a percentage of their national output,” the study said.

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Hurricanes have caused power outages in recent years. File photo

With several emergency services packed into a small area, Port Jefferson Village officials hope to secure a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority toward building a local backup energy grid to be used in case of a crisis.

The village applied for the NYSERDA grant to build the backup grid, known as a microgrid, through a statewide competition because of the critical community services that cannot stop functioning during a power outage, Mayor Margot Garant said.

“During a severe weather event such as we had with [hurricanes] Irene and Sandy, where the hospitals lost power and some of us lost power — some up to 14 days, [and the] hospitals were out eight to 10 days — those … patients that were on critical care services were put in harm’s way,” Garant said at the village board of trustees meeting Monday night. “So basically if we have a microgrid during those severe weather systems … where the overall grid goes down, we flick a switch and keep our critical services online.”

Microgrids are independent of the regional grid and rely on their own power-generating resources. NYSERDA may award up to $40 million total to help communities around New York State build those microgrids.

Port Jefferson Village is not the only municipality on Long Island applying for a slice of the pie. Huntington Town officials recently agreed to pursue the grant funding for their own microgrid, to support buildings like Huntington Hospital and the town’s wastewater treatment plant. And a month ago, NYSERDA awarded the first five grants — $100,000 each — to communities from Buffalo to East Hampton, so the applicants could perform feasibility studies on their projects.

NYSERDA expects to announce the next round of grant winners soon.

“We have two major hospitals, a ferry, a railroad station, our own school district, a village hall, a wastewater treatment facility, a groundwater treatment facility, an ambulance company,” Garant said. “We have a lot of emergency services-related components within a very small radius.”

Port Jefferson is listed on the NYSERDA website as one of five “opportunity zones” on Long Island where microgrids might reduce strain on the regional utility system and have other positive benefits. The other zones are Long Beach, Montauk, Hewlett Bay and Inwood. Statewide, there are eight other regions that have their own opportunity zones.

With a $100,000 grant, the village would work with consultants and local stakeholders, like the fire department, to research the Port Jefferson project. In choosing which projects to award grants to, NYSERDA is using criteria such as the area’s level of vulnerability to outages, how a microgrid would improve community function and the possible effect on ratepayers.

Although power generation and distribution in the United States used to operate at a more local level, the grids have become more regional over time to make the utilities more cost-effective and reliable, according to NYSERDA’s website.

“These systems are, however, vulnerable to outages that can impact large regions and thousands of businesses and citizens, particularly as a consequence of extreme, destructive weather events,” the website said. “Microgrids could help minimize the impact of these outages by localizing power generation, distribution and consumption so that a fallen tree or downed wire will not interrupt critical services for miles around.”

Projects awarded the $100,000 grants to perform feasibility studies will later be eligible to apply for more funding under the NYSERDA program, to advance the microgrid construction efforts.

Recharge basin will reduce erosion at Pickwick Beach

Town workers get moving to construct a sump near the intersection of Amagansett and Shore drives. Photo from the highway department

The town highway department started work recently on a stormwater project that could improve water quality in the Long Island Sound and prevent erosion on a troubled bluff that has homes sitting on top of it.

Brookhaven Town officials hope a new recharge basin near the intersection of Amagansett and Shore drives in Sound Beach, once completed, will collect stormwater runoff from surrounding roads and thus reduce the amount discharging onto nearby Pickwick Beach and into the Sound. The decreased flow of runoff onto the beach would relieve pressure on the bluff there, which has dangerously eroded in recent years.

The recharge basin will be located at the town’s parking lot for the beach. In late 2013, the town bought property — which had previously served as an easement — adjacent to its lot for the purpose of constructing the sump. Earlier that year, the town finished the first phase of its stormwater mitigation project in the area, repairing an outfall pipe that broke during Hurricane Sandy and filling in the bluff with more than 2,000 cubic yards of fill to stabilize it and rebuild its slope.

The bluff had already eroded to a degree, but the hurricane created a 40-foot drop-off at the site and residents at the top of the bluff were worried about safety.

Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro said the work on the both bluff and the pipe were not meant to be the end of the project — the end goal was a recharge basin that would take the erosion pressure off the bluff.

“It was just a Band-Aid so the bluff didn’t erode any further,” he said in a phone interview.

Excavation on the sump has already begun, Losquadro said, and he expects the project to take at least another two months — possibly three if the weather does not cooperate.

The sump has other benefits, from both an environmental and a maintenance standpoint.

When water flows through the streets during rainfall, it picks up and carries dirt, bacteria and other pollutants with it. That contaminated water eventually drains into bodies of water like the Sound in some places. The recharge basin will filter the water naturally instead.

“Wherever we can, we don’t want water draining into the Long Island Sound,” Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) explained when the town was acquiring property for the recharge basin. “We want it to drain into the sump.”

In a phone interview Tuesday, Bonner said the project would save the town money in the long run, as there would be fewer erosion costs in the area.

Losquadro said the basin would also be “much less labor-intensive,” because the highway department will only have to clean it out about once every decade.

It can also hold much more water than a storm drain — the highway superintendent said storm drains can hold a couple of inches of water while the sump can take at least 8 inches, “which is an enormous rainfall.”