INTERVIEW WITH JOE VIETRI, DIRECTOR OF US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS NATIONAL PLANNING CENTER OF EXPERTISE FOR STORM DAMAGE CONCERNING DEFENSE OF GULF COAST AND FIRE ISLAND
By Jeannie Lieberman
New Yorkers and, of course, Fire Islanders have been advised to keep a "worried eye" out for hurricanes which we have not experienced in this area since 1938. Experts believe another major storm season is coming our way of catastrophic proportions, even the possibility of a category 3 storm.. Allstate has been reported as canceling all new flood policies. The following interview occurred before the newsbreak and is even more relevant now.
What is the name of your office and its duties?
US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS. I'm the director of the National Planning Center of Expertise for Storm Damage. We have been formulating a project here for the South-Eastern shore of Long Island for at least 40 years, and we have been moving along in a fairly methodical pace given all the complexities, and dealing with multiple agencies including the National Park Service. And then came along Katrina and Rita, which struck the Gulf coast, and I'm currently involved in that effort now, and my office is doing all of the independent/technical review for anything that is going on down there.
We are tasked with assisting the Corps offices down in Louisiana, and Mississippi with insuring that any plans they come up with protecting New Orleans and the Mississippi coastline pass the pretty stringent tests that are out there, and these include environmental activities, as well as looking at things that are much different then what they would normally be.
Typically we would put sand on a beach or build a levy, or a flood wall, and now Katrina and Rita are making us question some of the very foundations of what we used to do. So now we are looking at non-structural alternatives, moving people out of venerable areas, looking at creating environmental buffers between the storm surge and the people. It's going to be a tiered response.
What are the tier's of defense? In Louisiana for example, there has been such a tremendous loss of the delta, the sand bars that front these cities. And that has a lot with what man has done to the Mississippi river. We have levied it and dammed it, and that's reduced the amount of sediments that comes down the river and gets deposited into the Gulf. Well the islands that front the gulf have all been disappearing at a very alarming rate. These barrier islands, much like Fire Island provide some protection. They are like your 1st line of defense for storm surges associated with catastrophic hurricanes. Here on Long Island, we think of Fire Island as just a self-sustaining unit, this barrier island, but in reality its part of a very complex set of natural defenses that nature has created.
We have the barrier island system, we then have the Great South Bay, and then we have the main land, and then we have a very low laying portion of the main land which fronts the bay and as you move away it tends to get higher in elevation. So when you think about providing defense against large storms you have to think about it beyond just providing sand on the beach, we have to protect all the homes on Fire Island. You must think about in terms if what you need to do to protect all the homes along the low-lying areas of the main land. Well that's the situation in Louisiana. And what was happening is that when the levy system was designed it was designed for a certain level of storm in New Orleans. Bit it was designed in such a way that it was going to be the last line of defense. Kind of like the castle walls, if you will without the moat, and the barriers that are in front of it.
Let's jump back a minute. Look at how much New Orleans have grown. Originally from a little area that was located primarily in the French corridor, it slowly expanded outwards, and when it did that in fact it invaded upon some of these marsh lands, these wet lands, basically these giant sponges that would help absorb rain water, and flood water, and that has in return lessened that secondary level of defense as well.
What are the three tiers now of defense?
In the situation of the Mississippi and the Louisiana coastline we're going to look at the creation of off-shore barriers. They could be in the form of oyster-reefs, or wet lands. The second tier would be restoring the beaches that fronted some of these islands. So in other words you would work on the back side providing wet land areas, and habitat areas, on the ocean side or the gulf side you would provide for sand fill, and then once you get inland you would use the levies and floodwalls with the pumping station as the last line of defense.
The problem is, is that in Louisiana, building these big structures take up a large amount of surface area. In order to do that you invaded upon where there once were homes, and of course that becomes a very sensitive consideration. And that is similar to what happened here on Long Island.. If you come to the beach and you stand out at a spot and you gaze out into the ocean, and you go back to that spot every year, you'll very hard-pressed to see when the beach has changed. However if you have a house on the ocean and you stand on your deck and then you look out, it's very easy to see where the ocean has creped up, because your home is now a place-marker.
What happens when you lose a house?
When we lose a house we then march further back, whereas if you lose a dune in the wilderness area or over by the lighthouse, it's not really as noticeable.
So now here we are, faced with trying to design a project or provide protection for the main land, but to build that dune takes a big foot print. In our situation here, people are saying you could only move in one direction; forward. And that, because you are not going to take people's homes in order to make it wider, that is part of the problem. There are many folks who believe that we should have a buffer between the 1st row of houses and the ocean, like there was before.
That would be a dune?
Yes, that would be a dune, and then an area behind the dune where the dune could migrate and move. The dunes here were created here with no ability to migrate because there are homes preventing that.
So, now you have this catastrophic storm, and it wipes the slate clean, now you have the opportunity to build something bigger and allow for that buffer, but these people who were there before, who are now displaced, you run the risk of having to relocate them in order to fit this large of a plan on the foot print you have before you.
What do you mean "relocate"? I lost my house, and gave back the land.
Well were talking about it with the Park Services right now. If a house gets immediately in danger here, they are looking for opportunities for somebody who is willing to sell the home, and a buyer who is willing to buy it. Whether it be the Federal Government, and that's a plan we are considering, but not on the books yet.
There was a buy back plan with FEMA!
Yes, but it wasn't very well funded.That was a problem, and what were trying to have is fund it in a way that's rational, and we're working with the Park Service, the State, and the C ountry to try to come up with that, a plan that allows us to do more then to just put sand on a beach. So that's just point number one.
What about the incredibly escalating price of real-estate?
That's part of our problem, there are roughly 200 homes located within the dune district here. If we even assume a basic value of $1 million dollars, and I think we valued that probably higher per home within the dune district. But let's just assume that as a round number. If you go into the Pines obviously some of those homes are far more then that, but if you go into the dune district there probably less. So let's just take a round number $1 million dollars. (I'd probably say the average is around $1.3-$1.4, but lets just use $1 million), and there are 200 homes in the dune district. That is $200 million dollars to even just buy out the first two rows of homes.
Is that expensive b uy back plan feasible ?
It becomes un-feasible as a one time placement. It only becomes feasible as homes are threatened if you have a mechanism where you have funding that could acquire those properties from a willing buyer. It could give them an opportunity to buy a house som where else. But again there are four thousand structures on Fire Island. So its not feasible to even consider that you're going to move everyone off of Fire Island. It's just not happening. So what we have to do is come up with a blend of plans that would in fact allow for some relocation.
Is that relocation on Fire Island?
Yes, on Fire Island, but there is only a finite amount of space! The Park Services are considering actually utilizing some of their lands as a possibility.
To the National seashore?
Yes, and you know the buffer areas, for example here in Kismet between Sea bay Walk and Pine Walk, are natural areas. So the Park Services are actually giving consideration to doing that though there's nothing on the books yet. It's just one of many alternatives that were looking at here. But jumping back to Louisiana think of the lessons and what's really going to be some hard choices here in New York: any plan that you provide for has a certain amount of risks. Nobody has enough money to eliminate all the risks.
In Louisiana they designed for a category 3 storm, thinking that a category 5 would never happen. What are the odds? Well that category 5 came along. So what you have to have is an understanding amongst all the parties, all the participants, and all of the homeowners that even if you put a plan in place it, it is not going to provide the ultimate level of protection. There's not enough money to do that.
Why can't you build something that will be withstand a category 5 storm?
You can't, it's just physically impossible. A major storm making a category 4 or even a large category 3 storm making land fall to the west of Fire Island, maybe the Rockaway's or even maybe northern New Jersey with us being on the right side of the storm, and I mean a major one like category 3 or 4 would probably put entire Fire Island under about 15ft of water. So think about that.
Are you saying that what you are building in Louisiana is still not going to protect against a 4 or 5 storm?
That's correct! To build a category 5 level of protection which is what congress is tasking us to do right now, which we are evaluating, the impact on the physical landscape, the size of the walls, the size of the levies, and the size of the pumps that would be required at the pumping stations would be very dramatic, and it's going to have to have a very large cost, probably in the tens of billions of dollars. So therefore, and again I'm just guessing here because were just not finished with all this, it would be about 2 more years before were done with the analysis. But my guess is there is going to be some significant cost both from human and financial prospective. People are going to have to make a trade-off. In other words do people really want the category five level of protection because this is the effect on physical landscape?
You said it would take another two years just to do the design .So what do they do in the meantime?
In the meantime, what were doing right now is working on restoring the category 3 level of protection that was damaged during the last storm, and we're vigorously doing that.
Knowing that it could be inadequate?
Knowing that it could be inadequate, knowing that it would take up to a category three level of protection. That's correct.
That's it, and there is no way one could possibly design and build a category 5 level of protection. It would take you a decade plus to build such a large project. Now transferring that to Long Island, Fire Island, and Montauk Point its 83 miles long.
From where to where?
From the Fire Island inlet, to Montauk Point. Including us. Plus it includes all of the Back Bay shore lines, plus all of the mainland shore lines. When you add up the total mileage that we're talking about here is about 300-400 miles of total coastline that you're trying to protect.
But if you protect Fire Island you do you have to protect Long Island?
Yes, you do, because what happens is this, and that's one of the big problems, is that you could build a dune 100ft high, and you would still have maybe I would say 3,000 homes regularly flooded on the mainland of long island, and that has a lot to do with the geography. Long island sticks out like a sore thumb into the Atlantic Ocean. During storms, especially nor'easters or anything like that,.water tends to pile up in the western Bays. What happens then is the only way for all this water out there in the Bays to get out is through the inlets on each end, or over the top of the island. When a storm sits around for a while the ocean level never goes down enough to allow the Bay to empty. Think of it like this, water finds its own level. So even if you had a dune 100ft high you would still have at least 1,000 homes flooded at least once a year. So we have to come up with a plan and that's what we are evaluating. Now we're looking at elevating and rising these 1,000 homes that are in that 10 year flood plan. Now that would be done in regardless of whether anything happened to Fire Island. The idea would be would that be separately justified as a worthwhile expenditure, and that's what were looking at.
And you're talking about Long Island now?
I'm talking about the main land of Long Island. So what if we pick the low laying areas of Mastic and Shirley and parts of Lindenhurst we would actually have to consider elevating and rising these houses up so it doesn't flood.
But what about us?
On Fire Island itself, that would be done in regardless of what everyone does on Long Island.
Raising it up?
Yes, here we would also look raising and elevating homes as well. In other words, if you were to walk through town now, you'll see some homes that are on slabs (flat), and some that are on pilings and elevated. What we would try and do is look at a system where by we could try and provide funding to elevate these homes.
So the owners wouldn't have to pay for it?
No, in fact we have done this successfully in the village of Freeport and a few other places. The owners actually tend to pick up fairly well, because they have an opportunity to do other renovations on there homes. If you look at Freeport, and the practically 20 homes that have been elevated there, if you saw what they looked like before and if you saw what they look like now, it's quite an amazing sight. The benefit to society is that we don't have to keep constantly keep paying flood insurance or buying them out of the flood insurance program.
Understanding though given the huge geographic area of the 83 miles given complexities of working with multiple levels of government. You would never be able to build everything simultaneously. So anything you chose to do would have to be done over separable sections, over a lot of years.
And when you do one segment does the adjacent one usually suffer?
Well no, because the idea here is the cumulative efforts analysis requires you to ensure that you can't do harm. What we would be looking at is in most of these areas are a combination of things which is environmental or what I would call restoration of natural process. Allowing that natural river of sand to move un-interrupted along the shoreline. You know where because of man's involvement it is interrupted in various places.
So what we hope to do is take a lot of the lessons that were learned down in the Louisiana gulf coast as we're finishing up the projects f here for Long Island since they are real world examples of what can go wrong or what can go right, and try to use those to modify or alter the designs and plans we have developed here. The difficulty in doing that is you have to now act as a way of a facilitator with the folks from the State and the Counties and the towns. Because you have to bring back your experience from Louisiana and try to explain it to them, and articulate to them what has occurred down there, and the change in philosophy that that's bringing about. We have in New York tended to move very slowly and very methodically in our processes here and we're working on this job for 40 years.
This project actually started as a result of the storms in 1954.
Does this project have a name?
Yes it does, its called "Fire Island to Montauk point beach erosion control project.. Parts of it were built on the same plans on which West Hampton beach was built and others. B ecause of its association wth the Fire Island stretch, especially the 24 miles that's here being in the foot print if the natural park service. So here we have to be especially careful on how we plan and design to build a project, because it is in fact a national park. And it has its own set of rules and procedures. So one of the things we're doing now is trying to link our plan with the general management plan that is being described here on the park. I'm optimistic. We have a very good superintendent.
What's the plan?
We've got a commitment from the park Service to allow us to develop a cooperative type of an environment where we can live. We can listen and learn from one another. Visibly if we were in an unconstrained environment, this project could have been designed and built decades ago. But the reality of it is it's not an unconstrained environment. We have the only Federally designated wilderness area in the state of New York located here, just east of Watch Hill. Between Water hill and Smith points County Park. There are not many wilderness areas in the country to begin with and this in the only one in New York, and when you think New York with the Adirondacks and everything else, it's pretty amazing that this is the only federally designated one. So all of those constraints require a certain higher level of planning then normally. So in November we're going to be releasing a screening of alternatives report presenting all of the alternatives that are feasible for this area. And what we hope to do is get input from all of the key agencies as well as the general public on what alternatives are preferred. It will be much like a Chinese menu in a sense that you could pick and chose, because there is not one plan that would fit all. For example, what would you do here in Fire Island would not necessarily mean what you would do in the South Hampton or in Montauk Point. So you plan has to be geared towards the geographical realities of where you're working.
In the mean time?
In the meantime we cross our fingers. Honestly I'd like to tell you that there is a beach contingency plan on the books that was developed by the Corps, the Park Service and others, so, in the event of a catastrophic storm, or if there was a breach in the barrier islands, we do have a mechanism to react fairly quickly. But that would not be to the level where it would be beyond what was already there.
What's a "mechanism"?
In other words we could bring a dredge in fairly quickly and close the breaches but we could not build it higher then what was already there. In other words to stop the water from moving from the bay to the ocean we could not build big protective dunes. It's a very fine level of protection that we provide.
So what are you going to do this summer?
Well this summer, nothing actually. The communities have been busy working on their own beach scrapeing permits and such, and they're running into some environmental issues with those. In terms of the Federal Government we really have no involvement at this point unless there's a major event, and in that particular use I guess the State would request assistance. Then we will probably provide it. Put other than that then we would continue working on our design. The 1st responder responability for this area, as with all areas in the U.S, is really with the local government. The federal government is the option of last resort.
What does the local government do?
It depends what local government you are affiliated with..You've got two different towns here, and one county. So in Brookhaven town they've been pretty aggressive in dealing with some efforts down there. The burden will fall on the towns and the counties. And as of right now as the birds appear, the Piping Clover season, which starts March 15th, you're pretty much shut down till the end of August. So I don't anticipate any work really taking place between now and then, unless there is some individual beach scrapeing permit.
Is that reasonable?
Well it's reasonable in the sense that they are an endangered species. Well unfortunately we pretty much defer on the experts, which is the fish and wild life service. So again I'm only an engineer, I could not question the mating habits of birds or anybody else on that matter. But externally the fish and wild life service feels very comfortable, plus the state and the park services with that length of time required to make sure these birds have an opportunity to nest.
What's the Bottom Line?
I'll sum this all up with one basic statement. What we are dealing with here is no different than anywhere else. It's a competition for a very scarce resource. The resource is Fire Island or the resources on the barrier island beach. The competition is between man and nature, and it's been going on for centuries, and it will continue for centuries into the future. And that's really where it's at. It's a competition for a scarce resource.