Students Explore Sandy’s Lessons for Sag Harbor’s Soggy Future

Hurricane Sandy was a formative experience for many young people on the East End who experienced the floodwaters inundating the shoreline at a time when they might not have had the vocabulary to fully process what was happening.

Over the past several months, 21 teenagers from five high schools on the South Fork with the Guild Hall Teen Arts Council have been exploring the impact Sandy had on downtown Sag Harbor, and using art and technology to express what Sandy showed us about the soggy near future we’re expecting as sea level rises.

They presented their work, dubbed the Sag Harbor Backyard Bathtub Project, on May 10 at Sag Harbor’s Kidd Squid Brewing Company, on the edge of the parking lot behind Sag Harbor’s Main Street that has and will be a big part of Sag Harbor’s coastal inundation story.

“I hope our efforts here lead people to more conscious decisions,” said Sascha Gomberg, one of the leaders of the student group. “We have to have all our ducks in a row.”

The students made graphic buttons, rubber-duckie themed displays and postcards to highlight the project, while surveyor F. Michael Hemmer surveyed the back parking lot for the event. The group then drew lines on the asphalt and placed green surveyors’ flagging tape on telephone poles at the high of Sandy’s waterline, and orange flagging tape higher up on the poles, representing an even higher waterline expected for storms in the future.

One of their postcards shows the parking lot as it would look filled with several feet of water, titled “Doom Your Future,” while another shows the iconic Sag Harbor Cinema sign fading as if it was underwater, with the tagline “Sink or Swim.” In another, a duck looks head-on at the viewer, with the caption “Stop Ducking Around.”

Sonia Koncelik, who lives in Sag Harbor and is in 11th Grade at The Ross School, said she lives near downtown Sag Harbor, and she remembers how the water came in and flooded the back parking lot, which then stayed flooded, with no way to drain out.

“The storm was pretty scary. I still remember someone kayaking there,” she said, adding that she is hopeful that the world will wake up and begin to take more actions to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Students Isla McLean, Sonia Koncelik, Lauren Olivia Rosario and Ava Poblete with some of the postcards designed by Teen Arts Guild members.
Students Isla McLean, Sonia Koncelik, Lauren Olivia Rosario and Ava Poblete with some of the postcards designed by Teen Arts Council members.

“This is an example of the four tenets of being a 21st Century artist — communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity — in one project,” said Guild Hall Director of Learning + New Works Anthony Madonna. “How can we call people into an issue of serious concern, with humor and playfulness.”

Despite the severity of the situation, Nilay Oza of Oza Sabbeth Architects in Sag Harbor, who spearheaded the project, shares that sense of optimism.

“Young adults are experts in learning, and good learners ask the right questions,” he said at the Kidd Squid event. “The way they think is the right way to think about climate.”

Mr. Oza highlighted the work of Hannah Ritchie, a climate researcher and author of “Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet,” who speaks often about the need to mitigate our past and future impact on the climate over the course of the next 100 years. 

“Make your local communities climate resistant — this is a message to us. We need to take action, through optimism that things might bet better,” said Mr. Oza.

He added that the project, which is explored in-depth at www.ozasabbeth.com/are-thinking-about, explores “what we can learn from the way Sandy came into Sag Harbor, looking for historical through lines that will help the village prepare for the future.”

Boston-based meteorologist Chris Gloninger, who grew up in Sag Harbor and now consults on climate adaptation for The Woods Hole Group, also lent his services to the project. Mr. Gloninger, who wrote a Climate Adaptation Plan for his master’s project back in 2017, said he would like to help the village work on adaptation strategies.

“If the storm had tracked 50 miles to the north, Breezy Point and Sandy Hook would have been here,” said Mr. Gloninger of Sandy, which devastated those two communities in Far Rockaway and New Jersey.

In Sag Harbor, he said, “Sandy came in at the public docks, at 5.46 feet of elevation, and came down Bridge Street, where the water enters into this bowl.”

The ‘bowl’ he’s referring to, the parking lot between Main Street and West Water Street, is an area that was called “George’s Pond” when Sag Harbor was first settled in the 1700s, which now stands at an elevation of 1.3 feet. The kids are now calling it Sag Harbor’s Backyard Bathtub.

The project’s model of the way water entered Sag Harbor during Superstorm Sandy.

Sandy’s storm surge, at 6 feet, was just six inches above the elevation at the docks, but because the parking lot is at an even lower elevation, the water stayed and collected.

“And remember, there was no rain with this event. Sandy was a nominal storm,” said Mr. Oza, adding that rainwater could have further exacerbated the problem, as could saturation of the aquifer just below the parking lot. 

Both Mr. Oza and Mr. Gloninger said Sag Harbor should pursue a fluvial study to learn more about how the complex interaction of coastal flooding, rainwater and a high water table could impact the village.

“During such times, this is not just a bathtub. It is a bathtub floating on a swimming pool,” said Mr. Oza.

It wasn’t always this way. 

“Historically, Sag Harbor was a series of hills and small bluffs,” said Mr. Oza. “George’s Pond, where the parking lot is, was fed by a spring that is still running. We literally paved over paradise and put up a parking lot.”

But we aren’t without choices, he said, adding that the village could plan flood infrastructure under land to the north of the parking lot, make the area seasonal parking only, or develop more resilient infrastructure.

“When water comes in, it’s going to fill it,” he said. “We cannot stop the reality of climate change, but we can plan for it.”

He added that it is important that decisions that are made “are not socializing problems and privatizing profits. This is an area where storm surge will affect people’s livelihoods. We should be able to deal with that level of inundation and still have a community. We should not have a cloudburst in October and be shut down for an entire day here.”

He added that “not doing anything is saying that all the businesses should take the brunt of it. That’s not fair.”

Mr. Gloninger added that spending on climate resilient infrastructure is far more cost effective than dealing with repetitive insurance losses.

“Every dollar we spend, saves $7,” he said.

 He gave an example of a real estate advertisement for a $7 million “dream home on the beach” where he works in Massachusetts, which was knocked down in a nor’easter.

The next day, he said, the listing was changed to reflect the now-vacant land, with the tag line “build your dream house on the beach,” and “one quarter to a half million knocked off the price.”

“Our zoning needs to be updated,” he added. “Just because we’ve gotten away with it (building near the coastline) in the past, we can’t use that mindset anymore.”

Beth Young

Beth Young built her first boat out of driftwood tied together with phragmites behind her family’s apartment above the old Mill Creek Inn in Southold. Nowadays, she spends most of her time kayaking, learning about shellfish, writing newspaper stories, trying to sail a Sunfish, and watching the way the bay changes from day to day. You can send her a message at beth@peconicbathtub.com

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