Can Long Island withstand another Superstorm Sandy?

Superstorm Sandy devastated Long Island 10 years ago. 
Humans worsen climate change,
and intensify hurricanes that hit their neighborhoods. 

With sea level rise, coastal flooding and extreme weather,
people who live, work and play near the Great South Bay
are at great risk of losing their homes.

Courtesy of Patchogue Medford Library

Long Island has a history of hurricanes.

In 1938, a hurricane devastated Long Island — and much of New England — during its early suburbanization. Then came 44 more storms to date, with names that creep into the memory of families alive today, whether its Donna in 1960, Gloria in 1985, or Bob in 1991.

Image courtesy of Long Island Traditions

Superstorm Sandy hit Long Island on October 29, 2012.

“The area was devastated. The marina looked like a war zone!” said Paul Panasuk, homeowner during Superstorm Sandy.

Image courtesy of Freeport Historical Society

Long Island was not ready then. After Sandy, more storms with names — Isaias in 2020, Ida, then Elsa, in 2021, and Henri in 2020, the largest category storm to hit Long Island since the '38 hurricane — tested the region's resilience to stay, adaption to rebuild and mitigation to hold back intense floods and extreme weather.

Ten years later, Long Island still might not ready for the next storm.

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Daily Eagle

“If Hurricane Sandy were to happen again in 10 years, it would be different. It wouldn't be the same event because of 20 years of warming. It would potentially be stronger, it would have more rainfall and it could produce a larger storm surge," Kevin Reed, associate dean for research in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University.

Since the 20th century, these super storms seem to visit Long Island at a higher frequency. It's actually the intensity of the storm that has changed. The "big-one" used to come 30 years apart, now the interval shortens to 10. All of this is because of climate change.

Along with more extreme hurricanes, people living near the coast might also experience intense flooding and other destruction, which is made worse by rising sea level.

Sea level rise is a gradual process, which began a long time ago.

"In the 1970s, for people that built on the water, people’s homes were getting closer and closer to the water, when they used to have 400-500 feet of lawn in between their houses and the water edge. That’s when I knew something was going on and that’s all before superstorm Sandy," said Nancy Solomon, the executive director of Long Island Traditions, which a group that seeks to preserve history and folklore.

The rising sea level threatens a permanent change to waterfront housing.

"Houses that are in the canal have been raised. People have already made the investments and they’ll continue to do so," said Mary Ellen Lutzky, an East Patchogue homeowner.

Raising homes can be a large expense. Homeowners must find another residence during construction, as their property is transformed.

Many homeowners on the south shore are raising their homes to avoid water damage from flooding and storm surges.

Many houses still have structural damage from Superstorm Sandy.

“We have got to build better and build higher. But sometimes, higher is not enough," said John Weiburg, the founder of Greentauk Engineering.

Image courtesy of John Weiburg

Other than home-rising, seaside dwellers have also invented preventative measures to prevent flooding from destroying their homes, such as snow-fencing and beach grass.

"I was commissioned to landmark some bungalows in Far Rockaway, which is ground zero for Superstorm Sandy," Soloman said.

"Those bungalows were barely touched, and I didn’t know why. There were two things that saved them. There was a jetty built in the 1940s, which stabilized that inlet. Another reason was that they had created a dune from snow-fencing and that beach grass started from the 1980s," she added.

Sea level rise is not going to stop.

“Our beaches are changing. They’re getting thinner,” said Jordan Raphael, park biologist at the Fire Island National Seashore.

The changes are being felt by communities on Fire Island, a barrier island that protects Long Island's south shore from tidal erosion from the Atlantic Ocean. Intense waves eats away at the landscape of Fire Island's southern beaches. On its northern side, the bay's ferry service — the only way to get to or from Fire Island — can change based on the capacity of its sand dunes and the level of flooding. 

“Dunes are what protect us from the ocean, so as climate change continues and hurricanes happen we get more storms. Because we are a thin sandbar, we are so susceptible to these big storms,” said Parker Sargent, homeowner and filmmaker.

Fire Island is going to eventually disappear, Raphael said.

In addition being a blow to the seasonal tourism industry, the idea of losing the island is a "monumental" loss to historic queer community. 

“And if it's gone, what will happen to Long Island, it really is our protection,” said Robert Bonanno, president of the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society.

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Climate change also threatens the health of wildlife habitats. Sea turtles and other cold-blooded sea creatures are more frequently surprised during extreme swings of seasonal temperature.

The sudden cold can inhibit their bodily functions. Victims of cold stun can starve, succumb to predators, or be easy targets for fishing vessels and other recreational boaters.

“Because they slow down, everything goes into a reserved state, like a hibernation. A forced hibernation, I would say. These animals look completely deceased on the beach. Some of them are completely unresponsive. Their survival is so crucial on when they are found and when they get to our facility, ” Maxine Montello, rescue program director at New York Marine Rescue Center in Riverhead.

The center responds to a community hotline for stranded turtles washed ashore and rehabilitates them over the winter.

Chestnut is an injured turtle who resides at center's Riverhead facility. She was struck by a vessel 12 years ago after experiencing cold stun, which caused a permanent deformity to her shell that bars her from returning to the wild. She wears a weighted vest to help her swim underwater and now lives "a luxurious life" of enrichment activities and lettuce leaves, Montello said.

Because of climate change and human activities, fishing is not what it used to be as well.

Harvesting the bay’s clams and oysters was extremely lucrative. The Great South Bay was the most productive body of water in the United States for hard clams, forming one third of the world’s oyster market—even reaching the plates of Buckingham Palace. 

Between 1980 and 1985, the oyster population collapsed by 90% due to overfishing, and was further strained from warming, hypoxic waters. Harvesters at the start traveled two miles offshore to begin their work; today, they travel 33.

“It used to be that a bayman only catches one thing for a living, and now a bayman has to catch a combination of things to sustain his or her life,” Solomon said.

The health of the bay is instrumental to life on the waters, economically and culturally.  To make a lasting change, the problem must be handled at its source.

Image courtesy of Long Island Traditions

The damage to the bay has motivated many volunteer organizations to repair the ecosystem. The environmental group Save The Great South Bay features prominently, operating through community engagement and direct action.

“Earth day was not the change in cultural conscience like we thought it would be. But people are starting to realize it does matter what you flush down the drain, where you change the oil in your car,” Andy Mirchel, chairman and director of the oyster program at Save the Great South Bay.

“We’re a small cog in the big machine of bay restoration. Our goals are really big, but it takes a lot of planning and a lot of money. Fortunately, we’re starting to get the science down. We’re serious about doing it the right way."

Superstorm Sandy’s damage to Fire Island did have a positive effect for the environment. Water circulation allowed the bay’s polluted water to be exchanged with cleaner water.

“Fishing near the inlets is much different than years ago–it’s clean! During the 80s and the 90s, that was a cesspool! And now, my grandkids swim in the bay,” said Deborah Panasuk, a local homeowner.

In areas far from the inlet, low water quality persists as a major problem.

Oyster restoration programs aim to put filter-feeding shellfish in
strategic “sanctuaries” to carry out their role in purifying the Bay’s waters for generations to come. And to grow into a population for harvest.

"Undoing the Damage"

A dive into water pollution of the Great South Bay and the plan to stop it.

GOES-13 Satellite surveillance images of Hurricane Sandy at 1:45 p.m. EST on October 28, 2012.

GOES-13 Satellite surveillance images of Hurricane Sandy at 1:45 p.m. EST on October 28, 2012.

History tells us a major hurricane will travel again up the Atlantic coast.

The continued changes to Long Island's Great South Bay means a continued change to the lives of Long Islanders. Efforts of lasting change need to be put into place to protect the bay and its barrier islands.

"People just need to be aware of climate change’s impact. With more awareness, we can hatch a plan to battle climate change," Raphael said.