Peconic Avenue under water on Oct. 31, 2012 after Superstorm Sandy. File photo: Peter Blasl

Are we better prepared today than we were a decade ago when Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast, devastating entire communities with massive storm-surge flooding and leaving millions in our region without power for days, even weeks, on end? 

Since Sandy, New York has increased its standards for building and improved its infrastructure to protect against storm impacts but Long Island remains especially vulnerable to catastrophic impacts of the coastal storms that climate scientists agree will increase in both frequency and intensity due to climate change. 

What are we doing locally to mitigate those impacts? 

Instead of changing local zoning and building codes to prevent or even just discourage development in vulnerable, flood-prone coastal areas, Riverhead is actually encouraging high-density development along its downtown riverfront, an area overwhelmed by Sandy’s powerful storm surge and regularly inundated when storm systems far less intense than Sandy bear down on our region. 

Yet the town is encouraging and approving multi-story development along the riverfront. And this is happening without a mitigation plan in place — let alone actual mitigation measures.

The town was able to commission the Army Corps of Engineers in early 2020 to create a floodplain management study, but there has been no public presentation to the board of the study’s findings. The most we’ve heard are promises that the new development on the riverfront will be durable and withstand the effects of climate change. There has been some discussion of a barrier to be built close to the south side of the buildings to protect them from flooding, but we haven’t seen anything codified to require it, nor have we heard discussion of how to make it a reality.

It’s disappointing this topic isn’t a high priority for the comprehensive plan update. It’s every bit as important as how much industrial development should be allowed or how to invigorate the town’s transfer of development rights program. To be sure, the conversations surrounding climate change have dramatically evolved in the 20 years since the current comprehensive plan was adopted. The current comprehensive plan doesn’t mention climate change, or sea level rise, or storm resiliency and, from what we’ve seen so far, we’re not too sure how much that will change in the comp plan update.

We want downtown to prosper. But neglecting these questions is effectively climate change denial — and will ultimately lead to the opposite of prosperity for downtown Riverhead. The town must look at these issues not in terms of what may happen in five, 10 or even 20 years. It must instead plan for the waterfront the people of Riverhead will be living with in 50 or 100 years. 

In December 2010, a state task force created by the legislature to study the impacts of sea-level rise on coastal New York said rising sea levels will result in septic system failures due to higher groundwater tables, increased flooding, increases in permanent inundation, loss of tidal wetlands, greater storm surges, increased coastal erosion and and damage to crucial infrastructures such as energy facilities, transportation networks, wastewater management systems and drinking water supplies. 

The task force recommended immediately identifying and mapping vulnerable areas, so that land use planning decisions can take sea level rise into account. Those decisions should include discouraging continued development in coastal areas and imposing new, much stiffer penalties for violations of the state’s coastal erosion hazard areas act — increasing penalties from $500 to $10,000 per violation. Riverhead took no action to implement — or even study — those recommendations. 

In June 2012, just four months before Sandy, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report finding that sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast from Cape Hatteras to north of Boston is increasing three to four times faster than sea level rise globally.  

According to a mapping tool developed by The Nature Conservancy, the entire parking lot on the south side of East Main Street will likely be under water by about 2080, as will much of the town’s coastline along the river and bay. But that prospect continues to go unaddressed.

By the end of this century, our children and grandchildren will be asking “What were they thinking?” when they consider the amount of high density shoreline development allowed in Riverhead and other coastal areas even after Sandy hit. Maybe a better question would be, “Were they thinking at all?”

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