Resisted for Blocking the View, Dunes Prove They Blunt Storms
Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Long Beach, N.Y., which decided not to build protective sand dunes along its beach, experienced at least $200 million in losses.

Published: December 3, 2012

LONG BEACH, N.Y. — Surfers railed against the project because they said it would interfere with the curl of the waves. Local businesses reliant on beach tourism hated it, too. Who would flock to the historic Boardwalk, they asked, if sand dunes were engineered to rise up and obscure the ocean view?

And many residents did not care for the aesthetics of the $98 million plan — declaring that they preferred the beach wide and flat, with the soft, light-colored native sand that they had grown up with.

So, six years ago, after the Army Corps of Engineers proposed to erect dunes and elevate beaches along more than six miles of coast to protect this barrier island, the Long Beach City Council voted 5 to 0 against paying its $7 million initial share and taking part.

Many of Long Beach’s 33,000 residents would come to regret it.

The smaller neighboring communities on the barrier island — Point Lookout, Lido Beach and Atlantic Beach — approved construction of 15-foot-high dunes as storm insurance. Those dunes did their job, sparing them catastrophic damage while Long Beach suffered at least $200 million in property and infrastructure losses, according to preliminary estimates.

Joe Vietri, director of coastal and storm risk management for the corps, toured the damaged coastlines after the 12-to-14-foot storm surge of Hurricane Sandy and came to an inescapable conclusion. “The difference was dramatic for areas with vital and healthy dune systems, which did better than those that did not,” he said in a telephone interview. “You can see the evidence on Point Lookout and Lido Beach, which did much better than Long Beach.”

Mr. Vietri, who is overseeing a comprehensive coastal damage assessment, says it is too early to provide hard figures on how towns with barriers fared in comparison with those, like Long Beach, without them.

But up and down the coast, for the most part, dune barriers acted like soft sea walls made of sand and vegetation that even when flattened or breached still managed to protect places like Westhampton Beach on Long Island, Plumb Beach in Brooklyn, and Bradley Beach in Monmouth County, N.J., by blunting the attack of surging waves and tides.

Richard T. Bianchi Jr., public works supervisor in New Jersey’s Bradley Beach, said the town began building its 15-foot-high dune barrier along the mile-long waterfront in the 1990s by laying 25,000 feet of snow fencing in a saw-tooth pattern down the beach and later adding 20,000 recycled Christmas trees as traps for drifting sand. After wind pushed sand over the structure, shoots of dune grass were planted to further stabilize the barrier.

When Hurricane Sandy came, the force of the waves flattened the dunes but left the town’s Boardwalk and the houses just 75 feet from it intact. Plans to restore the Bradley Beach dunes are already under way. The town’s dune-barrier project cost about $10,000 in 1996, Mr. Bianchi said. The town suffered $2 million to $3 million in damage, officials said, while many of its unprotected coastal neighbors were devastated.

“People complained about how high they were, but now they’re not complaining,” Mr. Bianchi said. “They’re praising.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with maintaining the nation’s coastline, said some of the 100 miles of barrier dunes in the region were built by the corps, others by local governments themselves. Many of the projects were built to withstand storms less powerful than Hurricane Sandy, the corps said, and even in places where the surge cut through the sand, the dunes helped to soften the blow.

Cliff Jones, a program manager with the corps’s North Atlantic division in Brooklyn, was the project manager for the 2006 barrier-island dune project that Long Beach rejected. He said the dune would have limited the damage to the town.

“It’s not to say it would have stopped everything, but it would have stopped some,” Mr. Jones said.

Now Long Beach officials say they are reconsidering. “It’s no longer a hypothetical,” Jack Schnirman, the city manager, said. “It’s a reality, and we have to rebuild in a way that takes into account catastrophic storms in the future.”

Long Beach and other vulnerable communities will have to await an act of Congress before restoration and beach-protection projects can move forward. New York’s senators, Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, have asked for a $1 billion emergency appropriation to pay for seven corps sea-barrier construction projects that have been approved by Congress but have never been financed. Included are construction on the south shore of Staten Island, Coney Island, Rockaway Beach, Long Beach and the shoreline from Fire Island to Montauk Point.

“These are projects that should get built, providing the local communities go along,” Mr. Schumer said. In Long Beach, he added, “now everybody supports it.”

The projects can include sea wall or dune building and nourishing beaches to a higher elevation with millions of cubic yards of sand. But some shoreline experts warn that anything short of relocating the buildings and development closest to the ocean only buys time as sea levels rise.

“If you put up a sea wall, the beach will disappear because you stop its ability to move landward,” said Robert S. Young, director of the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. And restoration projects, he said, need to be maintained, at great financial cost.

The Surfrider Foundation, an advocacy group that opposed artificial dunes at Long Beach, has softened its stance against armoring coastlines. Chad Nelsen, environmental director for the national group, said rising sea levels and the threat of more intense storms required a thoughtful consideration of all strategies, including relocation.

“We’re more likely to have a less black-and-white view of the issue,” he said.

Homeowners along the coast are undergoing a similar rethinking. But some experts say dunes can lend a false sense of security.

“People think that if we have a nice big dune, they don’t have to worry and can build a high rise,” said Orrin H. Pilkey, professor emeritus of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University. “I think that’s a very serious shortcoming of dunes.”

He supports dune restoration but also proposes limiting and mitigating development, including not rebuilding destroyed homes next to the beach and elevating others onto stilts to avoid flooding in the event that dunes are overtopped.

“Our preference is to put those dunes back as quickly as possible,” said Julie Schreck, the mayor of Bradley Beach. “I hope other communities will consider trying to emulate nature as much as they can, but I guess every town has to take stock of its own preferences.”