The Blizzards of 2015
Plum Island, Massachusetts
On January 26, 2015, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced that starting at midnight, all motorists would have to be off the roads due to an impending blizzard. It was not a great surprise. Weathermen had been predicting all day that this would be an historic, if not biblical storm, that could drop as much as three feet of snow on both Boston and New York.
As soon as he heard the news, Bob Connors swung into action. He called his favorite Boston television station offering to let them embed a reporter in his Plum Island home so she could there first thing in the morning to say that the island’s new seawall was working.
Bob had a lot riding on that message. He had helped convince taxpayers to pay $10 million to repair Merrimack River’s South Jetty and his neighbors to spend $40,000 each, to build the $1.6 million dollar seawall, all to protect their homes.
But the interview didn’t get off to a very good start. The anchors introduced the young reporter by asking how her night had been.
“Well I didn’t get very much sleep. The house kept shaking every time another wave hit. These waves are over twenty feet tall and they just keep pounding and pounding on this shore. ”
Bob bit his lip. Instead of saying the seawall was working, she kept talking about the size of the damn waves and that high tide was still half an hour away.
Then the reporter directed her cameraman to film on the north side of Bob’s home where waves were breaking over his seawall and pouring into Annapolis Way. This was where the island’s sewer lines were buried. The high tide could also raise the ground water level inundating the underground pipes.
Bob redirected her attention back to the south side of his house, where you could barely discern a few structures in the far distance. He insisted that the houses were doing just fine and the seawall was working as planned. But the reporter didn’t seem convinced and asked him how long he felt the seawall would last.
This was not going at all according to plan. Bob said he had to go inside and brusquely brushed past the videographer to disappear into his home. The reporter covered for him by saying, “Bob has been out all morning and is getting cold.”
But the weather wasn’t the problem. The problem was, that Bob’s message wasn’t really true. The seawall hadn’t worked at all. In fact it had failed after every storm since it had been constructed over the state’s objections in 2013.
The only thing the illegal seawall had done was camouflage the ongoing erosion. While waves were only overtopping the wall in some places they were actually being accelerated as they flowed between the boulders along the entire length of the wall. This turned the dune behind the wall into a sand slurry that was carried back out into the ocean with each successive wave. This left unseen cavities behind the wall.
If the reporter came back the next day, she would see that fissures had formed in the sand dunes above the seawall. A few days later, she would see the sand sliding down into the cavities, undermining the foundations of several of Bob’s elderly neighbors’ homes.
But that didn’t matter. Viewers had been given the impression that the seawall had worked and that message was what really mattered.
The President’s Day Blizzard
New England was whacked by the Presidents Day Blizzard a few weeks later. It packed hurricane force winds, whiteout conditions and 24 more inches of snow to be added on to the 5 feet that had already fallen for the season. The Boston papers had started running daily graphics comparing the height of the snow to Boston’s favorite athletes. Party boy Rob Gronkowski was already buried under 6 feet 6 inches, and the Celtics’ center Kelly Olnyk was next in line, at 7 feet even.
But the storm was no joking matter. For the first time in all their years on the island, Plum Islanders were truly frightened. Even people whose homes were on pilings could feel them shudder with the impact of every wave. They couldn’t hear each other talk over the sound of the wind and their electricity kept blinking on and off, so most went to bed early.
The next morning the wind was still howling wind, and 12-foot snowdrifts blocked everyone’s front doors. One woman got a call from her father’s assisted living facility. Apparently there had been a mistake and the drugstore had sent the wrong prescription. Could she go to the pharmacy and pick up the correct prescription?
She was met at the causeway by a group of local policemen. They explained there were severe whiteout conditions and she would have to wait for them to assemble a convoy of twenty cars so they could escort her off the island. They waited another 45 minutes for it to get dark so they could see each other’s lights, then crept through the snow and wind only inches from the lights of the car ahead.
It had taken her all day to accomplish this simple task, but she had nothing but praise for the local police who had come up with the idea of the convoys.
Other people criticized the police for not telling them that if they drove off the island they probably wouldn’t be able to drive back to get to their homes. The National Guard was also on hand in case anyone had to be relocated. These had been life-threatening conditions.
But the most disheartening conditions presented themselves the day after the storm passed. Jayne Peng returned home to discover that her basement had filled up with raw sewage. The same was true for at least 30 other people on both ends of the island and hundreds more were told not to take showers, flush their toilets or run any water. But that was OK they could use a pot or the facilities at the Salvation Army’s Building five miles away. Sewage could even back up into empty summer houses and be overrun by fungus. Imagine what it would be like when their owners returned to open them up in June.
Several families moved off the island to stay with relatives until the sewer could be fixed and half a dozen people signed up to be relocated through FEMA. It was like a mini-Katrina.
Newburyport officials said that the reason the sewer system failed is that it had lost its vacuum, implying that homeowners had not kept their so-called candy cane vents free of snow. But the explanation didn’t really make sense. Some of the homes whose vents were clear were also filled with raw sewage and some of the homes with clogged vents were doing just fine.
But one of the affected areas was suspiciously close to where the ocean had washed over the streets where the sewer lines were buried. Had it undermined one of the mains causing a break? Had the rising tide caused groundwater to infiltrate the pipes?
But the bigger question was, why had the towns buried water and sewer lines under a barrier beach in the first place. Everybody knew that barrier beaches had to be able to move to survive such storms. Why build such a finicky system in an area prone to New England weather?
The answer had to do with taxes, money, misinformation and perhaps greed. But the best way to understand what is happening on Plum Island today, is to go back 5,000 years.
Read more in; Islands in the Storm, Storm Surge; A Coastal Village Battles the Atlantic, Beach Wars; 10,000 Years on a Barrier Beach. Available in local bookstores, and Amazon, Also See Strawberry Hill, UPNE, and Schiffer book tabs at the top of this page. 10% will go toward the David Mountain Memorial Fund to provide environmental books to Cape Cod and North Shore students.