Plum Island, Massachusetts
November 25, 2008
On November 25th, Geri Buzzotta put away the baked goods she had been making for Thanksgiving morning, said goodnight to the picture of her deceased husband Mario, and fell into a fitful sleep. A hour later her grandson heard a crack in the floor below his bed and rushed to his grandmother’s side.
“Grandma what was that noise?”
“Oh, you probably just heard an especially big wave. This house has weathered many a storm, now just go back to bed. Tomorrow is going to be a big day.”
“No Grandma, I heard it right under my feet. I think we need to get out of here!”
Another crack and Geri was convinced, she left her house of 46 years with only her grandson, her pet Chihuahua Oliver, and the nightgown she was wearing.
When she returned the next morning Geri was blocked from returning to her house. Her lot was cordoned off with yellow tape, and a cluster of town officials mingled beside her front door. The building inspector, Sam Joslin, broke away from the group to tell her she couldn’t get back into her own home.
“But Sam, I need to some clothes and the cookies I made for Thanksgiving! My only picture of Mario is in there too!“
“I’m sorry Geri, I cant let anyone back inside. The central support beam under your house has broken.
Several hours later Joslin gave the word and an excavator nudged Geri’s house gently over the dune’s edge and pieces of her former home tumbled into the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
“I’m sorry Geri,” said Sam turning to hug his neighbor.
“Sam, I thank you honey. It wasn’t your fault. I just wonder if Mario is looking down.”
Mario Buzzotta had bought the converted shack for Geri 43 years before. Then, with their own hands, they had lovingly remodeled it into their ocean front dream house. But, now Geri’s savings, her belongings and Mario were all gone. The house had been all she had really wanted and now it too was washing back and forth in the incoming waves.
Geri’s loss was just the most recent chapter in a long story of Plum Island woes. The island is an eleven mile long barrier beach situated near the New Hampshire border in Newbury, Massachusetts. Plum Island was first mapped in 1616 by Captain John Smith, and named for the succulent beach plums that proliferated in it’s dunes. Like most East Coast barrier beaches, Plum Island has long been used by vacationers. During the late 19th and early 20th Century large hotels serviced the island’s summer visitors.
But, like most East Coast barrier beaches Plum Island is also eroding. The reason is sea level rise. Storms in the ‘40’s, ‘50’s, 60’s ‘70’s, 80’s and 90’s swept dozens of cottages off the beach. By 1952, The Army Corps of Engineers had already declared the island in imminent danger of breaking in two. Mrs. Buzzotta’s 2008 tragedy was only the island’s most recent loss to sea level rise.
With such a history, you would think that officials would have tried to discourage development on the fragile island. Instead, however, the town of Newbury spent $30 Million dollars in 2004 to bury municipal water and sewer lines in the dunes running the length of the island. If a new inlet forms, as is expected in the next big storm, up to 750 winterized homes will be cut off from water, sewerage and rescue vehicles.
But Geri’s loss also spurred local officials to complete a story-high seawall of sand-filled jute sandbags. The idea behind the $2.5 Million dollar project was to provide time so the Army Corps of Engineers could come in and devise a more permanent solution to the island’s woes.
But is there a permanent solution? Plum Island is made possible by the erosion of the large dunes in the center of the island. As the dunes erode, currents sweep sand both south to build up Crane’s Beach in Ipswich and north to protect the homes of north Plum Island. Sand also travels down the nearby Merrimac River to accumulate on offshore sandbars that help protect the beach from Northeast storms. Today, most of the town’s focus is centered on having the Army Corps of Engineers repair the jetties at the mouth of the Merrimac River, and using dredged from the river to stabilize the beach.
However, the real problem is that the sea is rising and that the dunes in the center of the island are running out of sand. What sand does come off the dunes is blocked by a rock groin from reaching the area where the island is most likely to break in two. One solution would be to remove or modify this groin. The other solution would be to retreat from this fragile North Atlantic redoubt and gradually incorporate it into the existing Plum Island Wildlife Refuge.
As in so many coastal areas, Geri’s loss was not unexpected. Sea level rise has been undermining coastal communities for centuries, but it has noticeably increased in just the past thirty years. People can remember when their favorite beach was wider, perhaps they remember when their neighbor’s house was swept away.
Suddenly it hit me. The way to understand the full extent of sea level rise was not to sit at home reading about global warming or watching documentaries about polar bears and diminishing arctic ice. The way to understand sea level rise was to take your family to the nearest beach and look for clues as to how much the beach has receded, how houses, former pilings and piers are now underwater.
After Geri’s loss, I decided to uncover some of the lesser known stories of sea level rise and travel to some of the places where it has done the most damage. The odyssey would take me up and down the East and Gulf coasts of the United States. But I didn’t realize how soon the I would start my journey.
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Read more from Bill Sargent’s books on: http://www.strawberryhillpress.com, UPNE.com and Schiffer Press.