USACE “Extreme Storm” Determination Opens Gates to Federal Aid

Oceanside at Fire Island Pines, January 27, 2024. Photo by Ted Steffensen.

“The Army Corps is fired up to help Fire Island,” were the words of Senator Charles Schumer following the Emergency Declaration announcement made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) last week on Friday, January 26, 2024.

The declaration came one month and eight days after the nor’easter that ripped thought Fire Island prior to the 2023 Christmas holiday and just over two weeks after a counterpart flooding event that came through in January, devastating areas on Fire Island already weakened by the December storm as well as other coastal areas along Long Island’s South Shore – including Gilgo State Park and Cedar Overlook – both in Babylon.

“Today, We have made good progress,” said Schumer in the joint statement that was released by Governor Kathy Hochul and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as well as the U.S. Senate Majority Leader. “That is a good thing because the Island is a mess from recent storm damage. But even more succinct: this is an emergency. I am glad the Army Corps has heeded this call and can now work with a designation that allows emergency dollars to be sought and used to remediate the wide damage we have seen to beaches, shorelines and inlets.”

The USACE determination unlocks federal intervention under Public Law 84-99 to provide for emergency activities in support of State and Local governments prior to, during, and after a storm event.

Governor Hochul’s formal request for the repair of three additional coastal projects – including the areas west of Shinnecock Inlet, shores west of Fire Island Inlet, as well as Downtown Montauk still remain pending.

“Long Island’s iconic beaches are a treasured natural resource and I’m doing everything in my power to protect them for the next generation,” said Governor Hochul after she toured Fire Island and South Shore Long Island beaches last week.

“I’m thrilled to learn that the [USACE] have decided to help us and it’s about time,” said Thomas Ruskin, President of the Seaview Homeowners Association located on Fire Island. “We’ve known for months that our communities were in dire need. Everyone came together in this bipartisan effort. I hold out optimistic hope. There are still many hoops that the [USACE] and Suffolk County have to go through in the months ahead, and all 17 communities on Fire Island have to cohesively plan together for our future.

Hochul also announced a Comprehensive Resiliency Plan earlier this month in her 2024 State of the State Address to focus on extreme weather events, that included $435 million in her Executive Budget proposal to help implement the following initiatives:

·       Create a ‘Resilient & Ready’ Program to establish fund support for resiliency efforts for low- to moderate-income homeowners ahead of future storms. Qualifying households that regularly experience flood damage would receive assistance to make necessary repairs in a storm’s aftermath as well as cover proactive flood mitigation improvement costs.

·       Creating a ‘Blue Buffers’ Voluntary Buyout Program to encourage buyouts in communities most vulnerable to flooding. The program will prioritize outreach and education first and then begin identifying voluntary projects based on the level of flood risk with $250 million included in the 2024-25 Executive Budget to be set aside for this purpose.

·       Invest in statewide disaster response to improve training and preparedness, and address evolving threats as they come.

·       Update the Coastal Erosion Hazard Area (CEHA) Maps.

“It’s all well and good that you announce a program, but the devil is in the details, and I don’t know if they work for Fire Island,” said Ocean Beach Mayor James Mallott when asked his opinion about these initiatives. “It sounds good, it’s a big fanfare and it’s all over the front page. But trying to qualify for this money? How much of a percentage would we have to pay? Is it a grant, or a loan? There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat here, so we’ll wait and see the details that will come forward after the fanfare has gone down.”

The Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act would help support the Resiliency Plan Initiatives. Passed by New York Voter Proposition on November 8, 2022, the Bond Act makes $4.2 billion available for environmental and community projects that can be accessed by state agencies and local governments to protect water quality and help communities adapt to climate change.

“Fire Island is the line of first lines of defense for the mainland – our 31 miles of barrier beach protects millions of people and billions if not trillions of dollars of property” said Fire Island Pines Property Owner’s Association President Henry Robin in a telephone interview a few days after the USACE announcement was made. “So, while I’m pleased that the Army Corps finally reconsidered their denial and granted the petition, it’s long overdue. Let’s put this in perspective, it took the Army Corps four years to repair the west end of Fire Island after they granted a PL 84 99 emergency prepare petition. We can’t wait four years. We need the Army Corps to survey the beaches, determine a plan and get the financing to get repairs done sometime this spring. There are areas of the Pines that can’t even wait until next spring – we’re one storm away from a very serious disaster.”

This article is an extended version of an article published in Long Island Press on January 27, 2024 writen by the same author.