When a handful of retired homeowners from Osborn Island in New Jersey gathered last month to discuss post-Hurricane Sandy rebuilding and environmental protection, L. Stanton Hales Jr., a conservationist, could not have been clearer about the risks they faced.
“I said, look people, you built on a marsh island, it’s oxidizing under your feet — it’s shrinking — and that exacerbates the sea level rise,” said Dr. Hales, director of the Barnegat Bay Partnership, an estuary program financed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Do you really want to throw good money after bad?”
Their answer? Yes.
Nearly seven months after Hurricane Sandy decimated the northeastern coastline, destroying houses and infrastructure and dumping 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage into rivers, bays, canals and even some streets, coastal communities have been racing against the clock to prepare for Memorial Day.
Damage to the coastline was severe.
In New Jersey, 94 percent of beaches and dunes were damaged, with 14 percent suffering a major loss of dune vegetation and beach erosion of 100 feet or more; 43 percent were moderately affected, losing 50 to 100 feet of beach, according to an assessment by the American Littoral Society.
Thomas Herrington, a professor of ocean engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, estimated that on one stretch of coastline, 500,000 cubic yards of sand were lost in the storm.
“That’s unprecedented,” he said. “You usually lose that in a decade.”
The beach from Bay Head that extends north to Sandy Hook dropped six to eight feet vertically and eroded landward 100 to 150 feet horizontally, he said.
In New York Harbor, Raritan Bay and Jamaica Bay, a quarter of the beaches and dunes lost 50 to 100 feet of beach to erosion; on Long Island Sound, about 28 percent faced similar damage.
The Army Corps of Engineers will replace 27 million cubic yards of sand along the entire coast to restore and build “engineered beaches” in an effort to protect the homes and communities behind them, said Chris Gardner, a public affairs specialist for the corps’ New York district.
Many officials involved in storm recovery maintain that rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy will be different, incorporating the realities of climate change and rising sea levels.
Some ocean engineers and coastal scientists are not so sure.
“My fear is that the environmental damage from Hurricane Sandy is going to be long-term and will result more from our response than from the storm itself,” said Robert S. Young, head of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.
“There have been steps taken” to rebuild better, said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society.
Houses have been elevated, and in New Jersey there are discussions about bigger and better dune systems, he said.
But he cautioned, “When you really look at the macro — large scale — we are still going in and building in places that are risky.”
A bulldozer pushes sand near a boardwalk that was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy,
in Ortley Beach, New Jersey
photo taken January 7, 2013
in Ortley Beach, New Jersey
photo taken January 7, 2013
Massive beach nourishment projects will restore beaches but require expensive upkeep and affect ecosystems. Individuals and communities are racing to rebuild sea walls that hasten erosion.
And federal taxpayers will foot the bill to rebuild communities that continue to be at risk.
One developer recently went so far as to advertise 24 waterfront acres for sale.
The ad acknowledges that the property “has historically been wetlands” — on which development is barred — but noted that the storm had filled it in with sand.
The Army Corps said it would be mindful of advances in thinking about climate change.
“We are more integrated with the science agencies than ever before on issues related to climate variability, and the science informs the actionable engineering decisions we make,” said Moira Kelley, a spokeswoman for the assistant corps secretary for civil works
Workers on lunch break watch the removal of the Star Jet roller coaster on May 14, 2013 in Seaside Heights, New Jersey
And agencies are striving to better prepare for storms.
In April, the Sandy Rebuilding Task Force — which is focused on regional resiliency — required that those using storm recovery funds to rebuild had to take additional measures to reduce flooding risks.
In New Jersey, tougher building codes and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new flood maps mean homes are being elevated and floodproofed.
New York has committed to using natural infrastructure where possible.
And New Jersey and New York are offering voluntary buyouts to homeowners in flood-prone areas: New Jersey will use $300 million of federal money to buy as many as 1,000 homes, while New York has committed an initial $197 million to buying what it hopes will be over 2,000 homes.
In New Jersey, the goal is to target contiguous properties to restore floodplains.
State officials said the effort was unprecedented — even if it applied to only a fraction of homes.
“We’d have to buy out 200,000 if you wanted to move everyone from potential harm,” said Larry Ragonese, press director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
But in Washington, the impulse to dial back legislation that discourages development is percolating. There were efforts in Congress to delay the introduction of higher rates for federal flood insurance (they failed last week).
Construction on a new section of the Ocean grove boardwalk continues on April 11, 2013.
Ocean Grove, NJ, was denied FEMA funds for Hurricane Sandy restaoration because of the town's non profit status.
At the same time, environmental groups have taken issue with Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, over certain provisions in the Water Resources Development Act, a $12 billion water infrastructure bill that passed the Senate last week, which they feel would weaken the environmental review process.
In a statement, Ms. Boxer said the bill did not undermine current laws.
“By setting deadlines while preserving the protections in environmental laws, we ensure a sound and timely decision is made,” she said.
Not all of the environmental impact from Hurricane Sandy has been negative.
Beaches that were flattened in places like Breezy Point, in the Rockaways, and Fire Island may provide unique nesting opportunities for the endangered piping plover.
The fluff ball of a bird breeds between April and September.
Sand dumped into some bays could aid eelgrass and clam populations — if boating advocates do not get it dredged.
And at least one effort to restore wildlife habitats had the dual benefit of restoring the beach.
In Delaware Bay, the Littoral Society worked with other conservation groups for months to restore and prepare 1.25 miles of shoreline in time for horseshoe crab spawning season.
The storm destroyed nearly 70 percent of the New Jersey horseshoe crab habitat.
The crabs are part of a complex food chain.
Their eggs provide fuel to thousands of red knot shorebirds — an endangered species in New Jersey — as they migrate from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle.
Through public and private grants, $1.4 million was spent to remove debris and lay down 32,000 cubic yards of sand.
Last week, the crabs were spawning and the birds were feasting, Mr. Dillingham said.
Any silver lining for grasses, crabs and shorebirds faces a fundamental threat: the human urge to restore the beaches.
When Dr. Hales told the residents of Osborn Island that they should reconsider rebuilding, they countered that they wanted their children and grandchildren to enjoy the place that was so special to them.
“It’s really hard,” he said. But the reality, he added, is “there’s no future there.”
- Discovery News : New Jersey shore under oceanic assault