Freeport officials, hoping to construct floodgates here, tour Massachusetts project

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All that was missing was a “Welcome to Freeport” sign, and the city of New Bedford, Mass., could have easily been mistaken for the village. Both communities are located on relatively small bays that empty into the Atlantic Ocean. Both are vulnerable to hurricanes. There is a difference, however: New Bedford hasn’t flooded since 1961, while Freeport has.

1961 was the year that New Bedford — population 95,000 — constructed tidal floodgates to hold back the ocean.

On Monday, Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy, along with a diverse group of 27 representatives, including village Trustee Carmen Piñeyro, Town of Hempstead Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney, Lynbrook Deputy Mayor Hilary Becker and Nassau County Department of Public Works officials, gathered at the south end of the New Bedford Harbor Walk to tour the New Bedford Hurricane Protection Barrier, which stretches across New Bedford and Fairhaven Harbor. They came to learn how the barrier works, in the hope of one day building similar barriers at Jones and East Rockaway inlets to protect the coastal communities that hug the Western Bays. This reporter joined them on the tour.

A $300 million plan

Building tidal barriers across Jones and East Rockaway inlets would cost roughly $300 million, according to Kennedy. The money would have to come from the federal government, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have to complete the work.

Kennedy has already successfully lobbied U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer for $3 million in federal grants to conduct a three-year study to determine whether floodgates would, in fact, be possible at the two inlets. Construction could take up to six years, so the gates themselves would not likely be installed for another decade.

If they were built, however, Kennedy said he believed they could stop another major flood in the event of a storm the likes of Hurricane Sandy. Most of the floodwaters that inundated the South Shore during Sandy in 2012 came through the Jones and East Rockaway inlets, he said.

Floodgates “will deal with our chronic flooding problems,” Sweeney said. “We’re trying to learn from [New Bedford] how they have they [used] this technology and how it could help us to combat flooding.”

In Sandy’s aftermath, hundreds of millions of dollars were allocated for local projects to rebuild homes and businesses and elevate houses that suffered substantial damage.

Before Sandy, south Freeport had a thriving industrial zone, but after the area flooded in the hurricane, a number of business owners decided to cut their losses and move out of the region, according to Kennedy. Tidal barriers would provide assurance that such flooding would not occur again.

“It’s not just the South Shore” that would benefit because of floodgates, Becker said. “It’s all about Long Island. With the protection of the barrier gates, you won’t just see an improvement in people’s lifestyles, but they won’t have to fear the flooding, and there will be a decrease in insurance premiums.”

Economic boon?

Along the 1,400 acres that the surge barrier protects in the New Bedford region, there is a neighborhood of thriving industrial and commercial properties, particularly along the waterfront and the shores of the Acushnet River. That level of economic development, Kennedy said he believes, can happen on Long Island.

“Think about all the money we spent with all of the insurance companies” after Sandy, Kennedy said. With “the loss of economic development with the commercial and industrial businesses, the insurance rates have skyrocketed and the house values have gone down. Let’s get something like this done and make it better for everybody in Nassau County.”

“This is eye-opening,” Piñeyro said. “Coming here and seeing what these floodgates do to this particular community is mind-blowing, and it was built in 1961, with no flooding since. It’s amazing to see.”

Since Sandy, Freeport and neighboring waterfront communities have seen an increase in the number of abandoned homes, dubbed “zombie homes,” because homeowners cannot afford to rebuild. The construction of the gates, Piñeyro said, is key to stopping future flooding.

“We’ve seen the effectiveness that it’s had here,” Kennedy said of the floodgate tour. “I’m really hoping that we can get it moved down to Nassau County.”