Freeport Village meeting focuses on enhancing coastal resiliency for natural disaster defense


Freeport officials and environmental experts convened a summit to propose new measures after revealing the south shore of Long Island’s susceptibility to powerful storms.

Hurricane Sandy slammed through Freeport 10 years ago, destroying nearly 3,500 homes, closing down businesses along the Nautical Mile, and inflicting $10 million in damage to the city’s infrastructure. Freeport was not the only town to suffer the impacts of such a calamity; other waterside communities, such as Long Beach, saw terrible effects that devastated their town and famed boardwalk.

Village mayor Robert Kennedy was joined by environmental officials and marine researchers on Dec. 7 at Village Hall to highlight the vulnerabilities of Long Island’s south shore to large storms, floods, and coastal surges.

“I, as mayor, have been trying to spearhead a program of protecting the waterfront community,” Mayor Kennedy said. “Along with numerous elected officials to try to prevent something like Superstorm Sandy from damaging our waterfront community as it did. And at that time, we investigated methods that would prevent this, and one of them was surge barricades.”

According to Kennedy, over 100,000 residents of South Shore communities will be adversely affected the next time a natural disaster strikes. 

Those communities must grow to become more resilient, but doing so will be challenging given financial circumstances. For larger properties, the cost of elevating a home can range from $80,000 to $125,000 or more. Thousands of houses are in the flood zone and would need to be raised, at a cost of billions of dollars.

One potential solution for safeguarding residents and their property is the installation of storm surge barrier gates along the coastlines. Storm surge gates are large gates that are designed to be installed at the entrances of harbors and estuaries. They are typically made of steel or concrete and are used to protect areas from storm surges, which is a rise in sea level that can occur during a hurricane or other strong storm.

When a storm surge is predicted, the gates can be closed to prevent water from entering the harbor or estuary and causing damage. This can help to reduce the risk of flooding and other types of damage that can be caused by storm surge.

“This is preventative, you have a barrier island so the whole trick to this is to fortify the barrier island, and install surge barrier gates,” Kennedy said.

“You could prevent all of the waterfront community on the south shore of Long Island from flooding.”

The resurrection of new “Zombie Houses” in the event of another natural disaster is one concern Kennedy cites as a key factor in his support for the initiative.

For decades, Long Island has been dealing with a housing crisis. Early 2000s price spikes led to a housing bubble, which resulted in a market crisis in 2008 and 2009. In the Village of Freeport in particular, numerous residences were consequently foreclosed upon. Then came Hurricane Sandy which devastated a large number of residences in the neighborhood. Several of the houses are now deserted, mere husks of what they once were. They are referred to as “zombie homes.”

“There are several homes that were repossessed by New York for breach of contract and not timely performing the repairs and are still zombie homes,” Kennedy said. “Freeport still has 50 homes that are vacant as a result, and people just walked away. Insurance has skyrocketed and real estate is adversely affected.”

Malcolm Bowman, oceanographer and Stony Brook University professor, was present at the event, along with members of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, to reveal the findings of a four-year New York State study on coastal resiliency.

“The South Shore, where the village of Freeport is, is very low and storm surges are really just extra high tides that are driven by very, very powerful winds blowing the water against the coast, and it piles up,” Bowman said. “Then the water looks for every little inlet, every little crack it can find to flow in. The city of Long Beach and Freeport are where the population density is very high, with a lot of people and a lot of structures.”

The proposed method for operating these theoretical gates is to close them only when there is word of a storm or other form of disaster approaching the region.

The gates should be closed two to three hours before high tide and opened again two hours later to commence tidal flushing and release stored bay water for optimal protection.

Although some people would be wary of a man-made barrier affecting the natural ecosystem and natural waterways, Bowman argues that they can coexist with the right management and resources.

“It’s sort of a cultural divide between the gray and the green,” Bowman said. “The gray I think of as engineering, painted steel, concrete, and the green is the natural environment. There’s a sort of a suspicion that these two cultures don’t talk to each other, they talk past each other. As a professor of oceanography and a professor of environmental science, I’m in both camps. One of my missions in life is to try and get these two cultures to sit down at the table and talk to each other.”

Bowman and his research team foretell the results of particular natural disasters thanks to modern technology. By using model programming, they can simulate the real world and examine how different sorts of disasters would affect the model. They have even gone as far as to recreate Sandy’s effects on the community.

“With computers we can actually model the real world, we can play God,” Bowman said. “We can make the tides come in and out, we can make the winds blow, and we can reproduce what happened that night during Sandy 10 years ago to learn from it.”

The summit was also attended by John Cameron Jr., founder and chief executive of Cameron Engineering & Associates, to further discuss the engineering firm’s study on the viability of installing these gates to safeguard the inlets against future disaster incidents.

“You look at Freeport and it is directly north of the Jones inlet,” Cameron said. “The ocean waters from Sandy came right through in Jones and led right by up and flooded Freeport. Freeport was one of the most devastated communities on the south shore. So, it was a logical location for us to have this presentation in the village hall.”

Models representing the consequences of storms and tidal surges in extreme weather events, like Sandy, were displayed at the conference to emphasize the importance of such preventative measures.

“Those of us professionals, engineers and scientists who are knowledgeable and involved said it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when we’re going to get another Sandy,” Cameron said.

The project is in the planning stage; pursuing government financing will enable it to advance and materialize. Before any construction can begin, the stage of development will have a more thorough design with further research which will take years to implement.