That’s the question that all Rye residents should be asking these days.
By Bill Lawyer
That’s the question that all Rye residents should be asking these days. It’s probably true that most of us have short-term memories and short-range future projection abilities. We’d like to think that the past and future were and will be pretty much the way things are now. Predictions that the world was coming to an end have come and gone.
Hurricane Sandy, however, certainly was a wake-up call for coastal communities throughout the Northeast. But what can we do? Are we going to keep spending billions of dollars, trying to return our coastlines to the way they were pre-Sandy? Or do we have to find new approaches?
The Bird Homestead, Long Island Sound Study, Save The Sound, and National Trust for Historic Preservation Awards Grant have joined forces to present a series of seven public lectures at the Rye Meeting House by leading preservationists, environmentalists, and scientists, with the overall theme of “After the Storm: Toward a More Resilient Shoreline.”
The first lecture, “Beacons of Sustainability: Lighthouses of the Eastern Seaboard,” was held recently at the Meeting House. In their talk, Dobbs Ferry-based architects Walter Sedovic and Jill Gotthelf focused on the lessons we can learn from the longtime existence of lighthouses on the coast “where storms hit hard.”
Specializing in sustainable preservation, Mr. Sedovic and Ms. Gotthelf have worked on the restoration of 17 lighthouses in the past 24 years. Much of their presentation focused on lighthouses at Fire Island, Block Island, and Huntington Harbor.
Their message was not really new. Back in 2000, an essay by noted coastal geologist Orin Pilkey, titled “Lessons From Lighthouses: Shifting Sands, Coastal Management Strategies, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Controversy,” was published in “The Earth Around Us,” a large volume edited by Jill Schneiderman. The book was meant to be the land companion to Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us,” published back in 1951.
Mr. Sedovic introduced the program at the Meeting House by explaining that, while large-scale development of coastal areas is relatively modern, civilizations since Roman times have attempted to build lighthouses in zones where water and land collide.
He noted that even the Bible contains a lesson about coastal erosion. He referred to Matthew 7: 24-27:
“[Jesus said] Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Does that ring any wind chimes?
From Mr. Sedovic’s perspective, shoreline sustainability is comprised of the “three e’s” – economy, environment, and equity. Any proposed shoreline project should be weighed against these criteria.
Mr. Pilkey’s article focused particularly on the efforts of the U.S. Government to maintain the Cape Hatteras lighthouse to support the operations of a nearby naval base.
In reviewing the history of attempts to build lasting lighthouse facilities, Mr. Sedovic says that these fell into three strategies – defend, engage, or retreat. Mr. Pilkey’s terms were setback, relocate, or abandon.
While “retreat” and “abandon” and “relocate” are fairly easy to understand, the ideas of “defend” and “engage” are somewhat more complex – and they are closer to the strategies that are being considered in recent years.
“Defend” strategies including installing jetties, riprap, sea walls, or other physical means of protecting structures against erosion and wind. The history of lighthouses as presented in the program do not bode well for “defend” approaches.
The “engage” approach describes locating and designing shoreline structures that allow them to “go with the flow” of nature’s forces. This would include such water protection features as raised buildings, as well as the use of wind protection shapes and designs that would “bend” but not break. Bird Homestead director Anne Stillman said that the Meeting House and Bird Homestead structures are in this category.
In the long run, however, with the rising water levels and increasingly intense, multi-directional storms, no shoreline structures can be considered safe.
Mr. Pilkey cites one of the most successful lighthouse installation approaches – the one at Montauk Point. Supposedly ordered by George Washington in 1795 to be set back 300 feet from the edge of the bluff, the light still stands. But – now it’s less than less than 60 feet away.
And, after many efforts to “defend” the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, in 1999, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was moved from its original location, then only 120 feet from the edge of the ocean, to safer ground 2,870 feet inland.