Hurricane Irene largely spared the East End the sort of destruction that many had feared when the storm was approaching the East Coast as a Category 3 hurricane. The lasting impacts of Hurricane Irene’s brush with the East End now appear to have been mostly related to the widespread power outages—the most in a quarter century from a storm—and from beach erosion.
Erosion damage to beaches and bayfronts from the storm’s tidal surge and wind-driven waves was extensive, but experts say the area’s beaches, in general, held up well. There were isolated incidents of more severe beach erosion, land washovers by the storm surge ahead of the storm, and extensive loss of dunes, but the long-term effects are likely to be minimal, those who inspected the beaches following the storm said.
“The bottom line is, we were very lucky,” said coastal geologist Aram Terchunian, a consultant for dozens of homeowners with oceanfront property in Southampton and East Hampton towns. “The dune west of Shinnecock was pierced in three places, and you had some overwashes, but things held up pretty well otherwise.”
The storm surge from Irene and the new moon tides raised water levels slightly less than 6 feet along the oceanfront, according to estimates by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. With the tides up, wind-driven waves affected the protective dunes in many places, breaking through the sand barriers in some spots, particularly in western Southampton Town, and overwashing the barrier islands.
But the barrier beach was not breached in any areas, as happened in the early 1990s, and all of the washovers were cleared by Tuesday morning, according to town officials. The only damage to public properties was the crumbling of asphalt at some access roads and at the Pikes Beach parking lot in Westhampton.
On Monday, U.S. Representative Tim Bishop and Senator Kirsten Gilibrand surveyed the beaches by helicopter with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “What I saw was basically a coastline that was essentially intact,” Mr. Bishop said. “The beach looked good. Obviously, there was some dune damage in Hampton Bays and on Fire Island, but otherwise it looked good to me. We’re fortunate, I guess.”
The dune that separates Dune Road from the ocean in Hampton Bays, just to the west of the Shinnecock Inlet, has long suffered from erosion in the shadow of the inlet’s long jetties. The storm washed through the dune in three separate places and severely eroded the mounds of sand, which were built by bulldozers, along the entire 4,000-foot stretch between the inlet and Ponquogue Beach.
The breaches in the dunes were minor, officials said, but Mr. Terchunian said the area took a walloping. “That’s in bad shape over there,” he said. “That area is very exposed right now.”
Southampton Town had bolstered an 800-foot stretch of the dune just last winter, and that area seems to have withstood the storm well, Mr. Terchunian said, but much of the rest of the dune was badly weakened. Other areas where the town had used sand from a massive stockpile created after dredging of the offshore sandbar in 2009 also held up well to the storm. The town-rebuilt dune and Sandbar Beach in East Quogue withstood the pounding of the waves.
The 6-foot surge impacted the the bay shoreline as well, where the elevated water levels persisted longer into the day on Sunday, and the strong gusts from the west as the storm moved north combined to wash away sand beaches and batter docks and bulkheads on west-facing shorelines.
In East Hampton, the worst erosion occurred in Wainscott—where the waves washed over the dune and flooded into Wainscott Pond—and at Georgica Beach in East Hampton Village, where large amounts of sand and dune were scoured away, erasing more than 20 feet of paved parking lot and exposing a stone groin, similar to the three famous “Georgica Jetties” to the west, that had been buried by sand for more than 30 years, according to area residents.
“I spoke to a resident who lived over here for a long time, and he said when he was a kid, 40 to 50 years ago, this is what the beach looked like,” said East Hampton Village Police Chief Gerard Larsen, who surveyed the decimated beach with a group of curious onlookers on Tuesday. “I’ve never seen that jetty before.”
Coastal engineering consultant Billy Mack said that it is likely that the eroded beaches at Georgica and elsewhere will recover quickly as long as weather patterns stay calm in September.
“The beaches,” he said, “will recover in the next couple weeks if we keep getting these typical southwest swells—those are nature’s little bulldozers.”