Setting the Scene for Hurricane Sandy: An Overview of Pre-impact Period in Long Beach, NY

Long Beach’s official motto is ‘the City by the Sea…. We don’t want to be the City in the Sea.’”[1]

To fully understand the impact, post-impact, and recovery periods of Hurricane Sandy in the City of Long Beach, New York and to more effectively move forward into the reconstruction period, it is necessary to first piece together the Gestalt or “overview of what has happened during the pre-impact and crisis time periods, including identifying principal actors… and any unique aspects of the disaster.”[2] For the purposes of this post, I will focus specifically on the official narrative, concentrating on the plans, policies and formal institutions.

Overview of Past Hurricanes in Long Beach

By looking at the history of hurricanes and storm damage in Long Beach, it became clear to me that these disasters are not, in fact, an uncommon, unexpected, isolated event. According to the 2007 Nassau County, New York Multi-Jurisdictional Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, hurricanes are the “highest ranked natural hazard in Nassau County” and have repeatedly caused significant flooding and structural damage to the communities on Long Island.[3] Moreover, emergency preparedness officials “consider Long Beach, with 60,000 people living on a low-lying barrier island about 10 feet above sea level, to be the most vulnerable point on Nassau’s South Shore.” [4] Richard Rotanz, the county’s commissioner of emergency management went so far as to label Long Beach as ‘the weak link, as far as Nassau is concerned.’[5]

The 2009 Coastal Protection Study of the City of Long Beach, NY documents at least nine damaging storms on the Island since 1938[6] – the strongest storm to hit the Island in the twentieth century, killing over a total of 600 people and causing the equivalent of $4.1 billion today in property damage.[7] Following the destruction of several of these storms, local and state government agencies, such as the New York District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have conducted numerous studies in an attempt to develop storm damage protection plans for Long Beach. Despite economic justification and the continual need for improved disaster protection measures, especially in light of their proven frequency and reoccurrences, these plans have repeatedly been rejected due to a lack of sufficient support and questions over funding. I have included an overview of a select few more noteworthy storms and plans.

For instance, in response to the March 1962, “Five High” nor-easter, the Army Corp of Engineers drafted the 1965 Beach Erosion Control Study, which recommended a disaster mitigation plan that included “hurricane barriers, closure levees, an oceanfront dune with protective beach berm, groin reconstruction, construction of a terminal groin at Jones Inlet and periodic beach nourishment.”[8] According to the 2009 Coastal Protection Study of the City of Long Beach, NY, the plan was not adopted because “the proposed dune along the oceanfront was not compatible with the type of development on the barrier island of Long Beach” and as a result the study was ended in 1971.[9]

Following Hurricane Gloria in 1985, dunes were built in the West End at the end of the Boardwalk in Long Beach. Although the some objected to blocked ocean views, the measure was implemented. According to Morris H. Kramer, an environmental activist, during the storm “’people saw their furniture floating in the street and wanted to do something about it.’”[10] Harvey Weisenberg, who was the City Council president at the time and oversaw the dune-building and is now a New York State Assemblyman, asserts that the project was proof that the dunes could reduce and prevent flooding.[11]

Additionally, a federally-funded reconnaissance report on the area proposed a “110-foot wide beach at an elevation of +10 feet NGVD, backed by a dune system to elevation +15 ft NGVD with suitable advance and continuing nourishment would be an implementable design” at an estimated cost of $53.2 million.[12] The plan was approved in 1989 and a feasibility study on the project was launched in 1991, though it did not reach completion until 1998. According to the 2009 Coastal Protection Study of the City of Long Beach, NY, city officials and residents questioned the effectiveness of many of the proposed changes, including the new groin field adjustment, and were concerned that the construction of dunes seaward of the boardwalk in Long Beach would “restrict beach access, reduce the available area for beach recreation, impact aesthetics, and result in a fill footprint that extended too far offshore, partially burying the existing groins and negatively impacting surfing and other recreational activities.”[13] As a result the measures were not implemented – marking over 30 years of government and institutional failure to deliver a large-scale sustainable effort to protect and alleviate the community of Long Beach from unnecessary damage in the face of storms.

2006 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Long Beach Island Storm Damage Reduction Plan:

In 2006, the United States Army Corps of Engineers developed a revised storm damage reduction project, which addressed many of the earlier concerns. For instance, the revised plan proposed “a 15-foot-high dune tucked under the Boardwalk, with a 10-foot berm extending out another 110 feet, planted with beach grass, then sloping down to the water.”[14] The project cost was projected at $98.5 million to be shared between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Nassau County, the Town of Hempstead, and the City of Long Beach with the city’s share at $7 million.[15]

The some of the key supporters of the proposal were the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Nassau County, the Town of Hempstead (including Lido Beach and Point Lookout). Additionally, past city officials and state and federal officials supported the plan, including Bruce Nyman, who worked on earlier plans as the Long Beach city supervisor and later city manager and Harvey Weisenberg, an assemblyman who oversaw the dune-building past the Boardwalk while City Council president following Hurricane Gloria in 1985, and environmental advocate Morris H. Kramer.[16] While I have been able to identify a handful of key proponents, I struggled to find additional outside groups and local residents and officials that supported the proposal and only found a very limited variety of arguments for the plan. I suspect, however, that the lack of sources is due to a lack of access to documentation, rather than a lack of support, and I hope to find further information.

Proponents argued that the proposed plan would protect public and private property from future “wave attack and flooding during major storms and hurricanes.”[17] Their rhetoric invoked “scary memories of Katrina and the prospect of rising waters from global warming” to build support.[18] Additionally the Corps and the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation predicted a project benefit to cost ratio of 2.7 with the annual benefits from the plan implementation at $24,009,000 and predicted annual costs of $9,017,000.[19]

The key actors opposed to the Army Corp’s project proposal were the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental and surfing advocacy group, and specifically Jeff Kupferman, the chairman of Surfrider’s Long Beach Action Committee, and Alison Johnson, the vice chairwoman of Surfrider’s New York City chapter, as well as the City Council of Long Beach, which included the council president, Leonard G. Remo, and vice president Robert S. Tepper, and councilmembers James P. Hennessy, Thomas R Sofield Jr. and Denise Tangeney. Opponents held three central complaints with the plan, emphasizing their doubt with the plan’s effectiveness and cost, their concern that the changes to the beach would ruin surfing conditions and create dangerous riptides, and their belief that the changes would compromise the aesthetics and accessibility of the beach. Additionally, the opponents argued that the potential loss of surfing and beach recreation along with the diminished beach aesthetics would negatively impact the local businesses in the area. Beyond these explicit arguments, opponents seemed to emphasize the project as imported from “outside” government agencies and organizations, ignoring the needs and opinions of local, “insider” citizens and organizations. Jeff Kupferman’s final speech to the Long Beach, NY City Council utilizes these sentiments, asserting that his “home and community were being threatened.”

From the available documents, the Surfrider Foundation appears to have been the most vocal and well-organized key player on both sides of the debate. The organization described the Army Corp’s proposal as a “poorly designed beach fill plan”[20] and argued that “the project would jeopardize the waves they love,” despite reassurances by Army Corps project manager Clifford Jones that the project would not have a long-term impact on the area’s surfability.[21] The Foundation “held meetings to held meetings to get its message to the public and the council alike, and produced testimony by a coastal engineer and several representatives from local communities whose beaches had undergone similar projects” testifying against the Corp’s proposal in Long Beach.[22]

In May of 2009, the City Council of Long Beach, comprised of two Republicans and three Democrats, unanimously voted against the adoption of the Army Corp’s storm damage reduction plan. I was unable to find any information on the official reasons that the Council and councilmembers rejected the proposal. It seems likely that it was a combination of financial reasons with the City unable/unwilling to spend $7 million on preventative measures for the future (as opposed to spending the money on measures to meet the community’s immediate needs), and particularly in light of the project’s debated negative effect on local business, and the vocal opposition from community members through the Surfrider Foundation. Within this gap of available information, I began to experience firsthand some of the methodological challenges of limited access to documentary material in disaster research discussed by Stallings in the chapter, “Methodological Issues.” For instance, Stallings points out that “often for good reasons but sometimes for self-serving ones, official disaster response agencies frequently try to limit not only researchers’ access to personnel for interviews but also to control the written documents that researchers are able to obtain” (p. 72). Within this perspective, it would be in the Council’s interest to limit access to documents with information on their decision to reject the Corp’s proposal so as to reduce blame in the case of storm damage.

Post-2006 Storm Damage Reduction Plans:

The 2007 Nassau County, New York Multi-Jurisdictional Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, found that of the assessed value of $16,190,887 for improved property in Long Beach, 83 percent is within the hazard area for a 100 year flood, 56 percent within the hazard area for a Category 1 Surge flood and 44 percent within the hazard area for a Category 2 Surge flood.[23] Additionally, of the 35,916 population total in Long Beach, 66.89 percent is within the hazard area for a 100 year flood, 42.63 percent within the hazard area for a Category 1 Surge flood and 56.23 percent within the hazard area for a Category 2 Surge flood.[24] Although the City of Long Beach rejected the 2006 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Long Beach Island Storm Damage Reduction Plan, the City and the larger Nassau County did, however, recognize the continued risk of hurricanes, flooding, and storm damage in the area.

The 2007 Nassau County, New York Multi-Jurisdictional Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan made several storm damage reduction recommendations to all the communities within the County. These suggestions including public education efforts, ensuring key organizations have emergency weather radios, development of detailed evacuation plans, flood-proofing police stations, publicized plans for location of designated Red Cross shelters, identification of at-risk, repetitively flooded properties, and promotion of “disaster resistant development.”[25] The City of Long Beach specifically prioritized developing a plan and seeking funding for “back up electric and telecommunications systems in local government owned critical facilities,” which would increase the City’s ability to “effectively manage the incident and inform the public of all event related facts” at an estimated cost of $250,000 to $300,000.[26] The City, however, did not propose any major storm damage reduction projects in the report.

Other prevention efforts in the City of Long Beach have utilized bulkheads and over the past two decades, the City spent $8-10 million on bulkhead repair.[27] According to the 2007 City of Long Beach Comprehensive Plan, the “steel bulkheads on the eastern side of the canals need replacement, which is expected to cost about $6 million.” The report noted that although the City has “found that replacing the existing bulkheads with 9-foot high bulkheads will reduce this flooding, but there is no coordinated bulkhead improvement program or funding to undertake it.”[28] Additionally, although “flooding is also reduced by the installation of tide flex valves at the ends of the pipes that convey stormwater to the bay,” the valves require more upkeep than was financially available.[29]

Despite these smaller-scale efforts, the City of Long Beach continued to be at risk for storm damage, and in recognition of this risk, the City contracted Coastal Planning & Engineering, Inc. to “provide guidance in implementing a Federal storm protection program,” and to analyze the Locally Preferred Plan, which included a proposal for rehabilitation of existing groins and a floodwall with fill as needed and was drafted with the input of the community, including the Surfrider Foundation, versus the 2006 Limited Re-Evaluation Report (the Army Corp of Engineers’ storm damage reduction project ).[30] Coastal Planning & Engineering, Inc. produced the 2009 report Coastal Protection Study: City of Long Beach, NY Oceanside Short Protection Plan, which “recommended that the City of Long Beach support the Corps in completing the LRR process in order to secure funding and move the project forward.”

Despite this recommendation, however, I was unable to find any further studies or actions taken by the City of Long Beach towards the implementation of the LRR or any other storm damage reduction projects. It is likely that this is in part due to the unfavorable fiscal situation developing in Long Beach at the time. By 2009 the City of Long Beach began to suffer from a deficit caused by increased expenditures with decreased revenues.[31] By the 2011-2012 fiscal year, leading up to Hurricane Sandy, the City projected a budget deficit of $10.25 million – more than 12.4 percent of all budgeted expenditures for the year – with depleted “rainy day fund,” which had been spent by the prior administration to mitigate the deficit since 2009.[32] As a result, City Manager Schnirman said the City of Long Beach “cut spending, reduced [the city’s] personnel, made all those tough decisions to balance the budget, including having to raise the tax levy, to stabilize the city’s situation… And then Sandy hit.”[33]

By the time Hurricane Sandy hit Long Beach, NY, over 70 years had passed since the severe destruction of the 1938 Hurricane and over 40 years since the first study was conducted in an attempt to develop storm damage prevention and reduction plans. This collective inaction in the decades leading up to Hurricane Sandy reflects a denial of the reality of hurricane and storm damage and its high frequency in the area and represents an institutional failure to adequately protect the community from impending harm. In their failure to implement large-scale damage reduction projects, officials and government organizations have instead relied on emergency management plans, which individualize the responsibility of disaster preparation. I will explore this issue more thoroughly in my next post.


[1] Lambert, Bruce. (2006) “It’s Surfers vs. Turf as Long Beach Votes on Plan to Build New Dunes.” NYTimes.

[2] Stallings, Robert. (2007). Methodological Issues. In H. Rodriguez, E. L. Quarantelli & R. R. Dynes (Eds.), Handbook of Disaster Research (pp. 55-82). New York: Springer.

[3] Nassau County, New York Multi-Jurisdictional Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, Feb. 2007

[4] Rather, John. (2005) “Long Island: Dreading a Replay of the 1938 Hurricane. NYTimes.

[5] Rather, John. (2005) “Long Island: Dreading a Replay of the 1938 Hurricane. NYTimes.

[6] More specifically, the study reports damaging storms in 1938, 1950, 1953, 1960, 1962, 1984, 1985, 1991 and 1992. (Coastal Protection Study, City of Long Beach, NY Oceanside Shore Protection Plan Prepared by: Coastal Planning & Engineering, Inc. November 2009).

[7] Rather, John. (2005) “Long Island: Dreading a Replay of the 1938 Hurricane. NYTimes.

[8] (Coastal Protection Study, City of Long Beach, NY Oceanside Shore Protection Plan Prepared by: Coastal Planning & Engineering, Inc. November 2009).

[9] (Coastal Protection Study, City of Long Beach, NY Oceanside Shore Protection Plan Prepared by: Coastal Planning & Engineering, Inc. November 2009).

[10] Lambert, Bruce. (2006) “It’s Surfers vs. Turf as Long Beach Votes on Plan to Build New Dunes.” NYTimes.

[11] Lambert, Bruce. (2006) “It’s Surfers vs. Turf as Long Beach Votes on Plan to Build New Dunes.” NYTimes.

[12] (Coastal Protection Study, City of Long Beach, NY Oceanside Shore Protection Plan Prepared by: Coastal Planning & Engineering, Inc. November 2009).

[13] (Coastal Protection Study, City of Long Beach, NY Oceanside Shore Protection Plan Prepared by: Coastal Planning & Engineering, Inc. November 2009).

[14] Lambert, Bruce. (2006) “It’s Surfers vs. Turf as Long Beach Votes on Plan to Build New Dunes.” NYTimes.

[15] Long Beach Island Storm Damage Reduction Project: Atlantic Coast of Long Island Jones Inlet to Rockaway Inlet, Project Information. (2006). U.S. Army Corps of Engineers & New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

[16] Lambert, Bruce. (2006) “It’s Surfers vs. Turf as Long Beach Votes on Plan to Build New Dunes.” NYTimes.

[17] Long Beach Island Storm Damage Reduction Project: Atlantic Coast of Long Island Jones Inlet to Rockaway Inlet, Project Information. (2006). U.S. Army Corps of Engineers & New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

[18] Lambert, Bruce. (2006) “It’s Surfers vs. Turf as Long Beach Votes on Plan to Build New Dunes.” NYTimes.

[19] Long Beach Island Storm Damage Reduction Project: Atlantic Coast of Long Island Jones Inlet to Rockaway Inlet, Project Information. (2006). U.S. Army Corps of Engineers & New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

[21] Lambert, Bruce. (2006) “It’s Surfers vs. Turf as Long Beach Votes on Plan to Build New Dunes.” NYTimes.

[22] Gibberd, Ben. (2006) “Storm Protection; Rejection of Preservation Project Ripples Through Long Beach.” NYTimes.

[23] Nassau County, New York Multi-Jurisdictional Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, Feb. 2007

[24] Nassau County, New York Multi-Jurisdictional Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, Feb. 2007

[25] Coastal Protection Study, City of Long Beach, NY Bayside Protection Plan Prepared by: Coastal Planning & Engineering, Inc. November 2009.

[26] Nassau County, New York Multi-Jurisdictional Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, Feb. 2007

[27] City of Long Beach Comprehensive Plan 2007

[28] City of Long Beach Comprehensive Plan 2007

[29] City of Long Beach Comprehensive Plan 2007

[30] Coastal Protection Study, City of Long Beach, NY Oceanside Shore Protection Plan Prepared by: Coastal Planning & Engineering, Inc. November 2009

[31] 2011-2012 City of Long Beach Inherited Fiscal Deficit. 20 March 2012.

[32] 2011-2012 City of Long Beach Inherited Fiscal Deficit. 20 March 2012.

[33] Russ, Hilary. “Long Beach, New York Faces Post-Hurricane Sandy Financial Challenges.” Huffington Post. 7 Nov. 2012.

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monica byrne

writer . playwright . artist . activist . traveler

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