To the editor:
I write this letter with rain falling outside, and rain on my mind, as it has sometimes been since our home was flooded by an unprecedented rainfall in 2005. That flooding ultimately prompted us to elevate our house to the FEMA-recommended level, a move that several of our neighbors have also made, with more applications pending.
Our house has been much better off since then. There have been several serious deluges since October 2005, and we are happy to report we have had no water near our house and no serious flooding on our property. Even during Hurricane Sandy, when the road in front of our house was covered with salt water for part of the storm and part of West Water Street caved into the bay, our house fared well. I can’t say the same for several of our neighbors on Glover and Redwood who sustained serious flooding in their houses during Sandy, including damage to septic systems, foundations, water boilers and other possessions. It’s also worth noting that while the October 2005 flooding was the result of more than 20 inches of rainfall, and little sea surge, Hurricane Sandy was mostly sea surge and very little rainfall. Had five or 10 or 20 inches of rain been combined with Sandy’s surge, the flooding throughout our neighborhood and the village would have been that much worse.
Given the ongoing village discussions about flooding, stormwater management, and related issues, I dug up the point of view piece “This Tall House,” which I wrote for The Express in winter of 2009. Four years later, the topic remains just as timely, and the challenges just as persistent for our neighborhood and the entire village. In addition, many of the suggested remedies and policy steps remain for the village to consider, including the call for limiting or banning construction in flood-prone neighborhoods, which is the focus of a petition recently submitted at a village board meeting. Our elected officials should consider this petition just one good idea, and one first step, in protecting Sag Harbor and its residents from the mounting threats of rising tides and more severe flooding.
Point of View: This Tall House (Originally published in 2009)
By Brian Halweil
It’s been just over one year since the heaviest rain ever recorded in our area filled our home with nearly one foot of water. Having rubbed the last varnish into our repaired floors and painted the skim coat on our replaced walls, we look back gratefully on a photo that captured me paddling my surfboard in front of our submerged back door and kitchen garden. We spent the winter and spring raising our house and setting it on a new foundation that is six feet higher than before. And now we can sleep every time thunderheads threaten.
Raising our home wasn’t something we wanted to do. It cost more than we’d like to recall. And it did alter the look of our charming little farmhouse whose front porch used to sit just a neat hop from ground level. A few steps now greet us at both our front and back doors, the adjustment we’ve made for living at the safe elevation recommended by FEMA for our flood zone. (By my own calculation, we’re now a bit higher than Main Street.) We brought in fill around our house, but left the majority of our property at its low level, to protect ourselves and immediate neighbors.
It seems hilarious now that we briefly considered leaving our house as is-”historically intact, but basically doomed” as one architect friend put it. As more people apply to raise their houses, and as a changing climate challenges Sag Harbor’s waterfront, this strange calculus confronts our entire village. For those of us set on staying here for a while, the question is how we can use both aesthetic and ecological sense as we respond to these coming changes.
You see, our house wasn’t always so vulnerable. I have a photo of our house dated to 1938-taken just before the Long Island Express blew the steeple off the Whaler’s Church and flooded most of the East End. It shows an aproned woman and man smoking a pipe (and cradling what looks like a ham) standing on our porch, perched above the road and surrounding landscape, just as it is now-a sensible precaution in a coastal town.
But in the ensuing decades, according to some of my older neighbors who lived through that storm, the road was raised several feet to reduce its flooding risk, turning our house and property into a sort of sink. Many low-lying areas nearby, which formerly served as sumps, were filled in and creeks that used to carry storm runoff into the bay were diverted, paved over, or otherwise eliminated. This includes one creek that I’m told ran directly from my property and was buried under West Water Street, the Villas and a waterfront home. Although the ostensible goal of these measures was to reduce flooding on existing land, flooding has worsened, and every new pool, parking lot, and basement became one more impervious surface that shunted water towards those remaining low-lying spaces.
It doesn’t help that Sag Harbor sits directly in the path of rising sea levels that confront all coastal areas in our warming climate. The most conservative estimates put the average sea level rise-caused by melting glaciers and polar icecaps-around the world at 1 to 3 feet within the next 100 years. If that global figure seems abstract, at a recent climate conference in Bridgeport, marine scientists showed that water levels in the sound are rising twice as fast as they were ten years ago: from 1.7 millimeters per year in 1990 to 3 millimeters per year in 2000. That seemingly small rise adds up to about half a foot over the next fifty years, without assuming the rate of rise continues to increase-which it is.
Climate change doesn’t just accelerate coastal erosion and push shorelines landward threatening our town’s wharf and waterfront. The additional heat in the atmosphere also provokes more irritable and vindictive storms. I don’t imagine I’ll have to wait until the end of my life to see another “once-in-a-lifetime” deluge like the one that dropped 21 inches in seven days last October.
So, where does this rising tide leave low-lying villages like Sag Harbor? In Montauk’s downtown, locals are now considering building revetments or seawalls, which we know tend to help in the short term, but can exacerbate the problem in the long term. The more durable alternative of raising up the downtown seems too daunting to even consider. But as history has shown, this isn’t a time to harden ourselves against nature.
Just as the village hopes to help maintain its character by building its stock of affordable housing and greenspaces, it should preserve and enhance its water holding capacity. North Haven has just banned any new construction on land that is regularly covered with water. Sag Harbor should do the same and go one step further by restoring former wetlands that can act as a buffer during storms.
In our corner of the Village, the Cilli Farm Preserve, a former wetlands that used to interact with the bay through creeks, is now filled with harbor dredge. Some creative digging and revegetation could restore it to a pond and wetlands park that would help ease flooding on Glover Street, Long Island Avenue, Garden Street and even the parking lot behind Main Street. The new buildings proposed for the waterfront-on West Water Street and under the Bridge-should include newly planted wetlands as part of any intelligent design. Perhaps the now-toxic Blue Ball site could also be transformed into a sort of tidal pool teeming with life and criss-crossed by observation bridges.
In the case of applications to raise houses, we may need to change our aesthetic sense in the interest of keeping our waterfront above water. (Preserving historical houses doesn’t mean much if flooding constantly rots their beams and keeps people from inhabiting them.) Appropriately designed foundations and native landscaping can help stitch raised houses back into their context. Whole neighborhoods that are raised on stilts could provide a harmonious streetscape that is uniquely Sag Harbor and far from unusual in the East End’s building vernacular. (See Gerard Drive in East Hampton or Promised Land in Amagansett.)
Of course, an application to raise a house doesn’t grant the owner carte blanch. I suspect Garden Street residents would be more amenable to their neighbor’s controversial application if it did not include a square-footage doubling addition, pool, and plan to fill the majority of the property-all steps that will exacerbate the problem.
Yes, there are other things that each of us can do to help curb climate change, from installing solar panels on our roofs to driving hybrid cars to encouraging our politicians to sign on to global climate treaties. The small, energy-efficient homes of Sag Harbor’s past could make a legitimate comeback as energy-gobbling mansions-somehow architecturally appropriate-grow ever more ridiculous.
Sag Harbor’s proximity to water made the town a cosmopolitan center, a legacy that endures as one of the most exciting and beautiful corners of the East End. But if it was built today, much of the historic village would be below the safe elevation. Because we can’t freeze our landscape in time, we have to find a solution that is elegant, practical, and neighborly and preserves our village’s character even as we are forced to change its look. Otherwise, the same water that defined Sag Harbor’s past will eliminate its future.