Posted by: coastlinesproject | June 9, 2011

Cape Cod Camp owners watch rising tides.

As the June high tides rise, camp owners on Cape Cod remember a similar situation in 2009:
The End of an Era;
North Village
Chatham, Massachusetts

June 18, 2009 was chilly and overcast. Low grey clouds threatened rain, but none ever materialized. A lobsterman from the Chatham Bars Inn offered to drop me on the outer beach while he tended his nearby pots.

We landed on a massive spit of sand. I could hardly believe my eyes, the spit had started growing only 7 months before, and now it was half a mile long and consisted of 12 acres of new land. Every day another half acre of subtidal sand would sweep around the tip of the beach to attach to this spit, which would eventually become Scatteree island.

I was not the only creature interested in the new spit. Tracks in the deep sand showed where a doe and her fawn had wandered out here the night before. Both would become mired in soft sand and drown in the upcoming storm.

The local tern wardens had strung some symbolic fencing over several acres of the highest part of the beach. This was to protect the nests of endangered terns and plovers.

The plovers have become a big bone of contention. As soon as they lay their eggs people are not allowed to drive ORV’s on the beach, and camp owners can not get to their camps until the chicks fledge.

Some of the drivers have spent $250 for overland sand permits and will not be able to use them, except for a few short weeks in August. The other bone of contention is the beach itself. If someone could figure our who owns this new spit of land, it could potentially be worth millions of dollars as oceanfront property.

Three years ago there were fourteen camps sitting on North Beach like seagulls in a row. But, in 2007 an April storm had burst through the beach creating a new inlet. Month by month, the camps had washed away as the inlet migrated north at the rate of ten feet a day. All of the remaining camps had been moved several times in the past year. Just last week, two of them had been dragged back another 60 feet so they could make it through the summer. Now the remains of the last five camps sat clustered together on the last two acres of rapidly eroding private property.

The entire year had been like watching the final moves of a lopsided chess match, where one player was crowded into the far corner of the board, while his opponent sat offshore with all her most powerful pieces. All the first player could do was slide his last pawn ineffectually back and forth between the last two red squares, in a vain attempt to forestall the inevitable.

When I reached the first camp I was overcome with emotion. I could see where the ocean had rushed past the camp like the Mississippi River at full flood. Waves had torn five feet off the low dune in front of the camp while another overwash had rushed past on the other side. Now the high course tides were steadily climbing toward a ten day period of nine foot high tides. It was clear that it would only be a matter of days before all the camps were swept away.

Five days later the unthinkable happened. An unseasonable Northeaster struck on June 22, and lingered around through four tidal cycles. It was not a particularly powerful storm, only packing 20 mile an hour winds. If the storm had struck during the Winter, it would have been lost in the general storminess of the season. If it had struck when the tides were still low, it would have caused little damage. However, it hit during some of the highest course tides of the year when the beach was still recovering from the past winter’s storms.

The day after the mini-Northeaster, Bill Hammatt stood on the storm ravaged beach. A year ago he had invited the last four remaining camp owners to move their camps to his five and a half acres on the northernmost section of North Village. Now his neighbors camps sat tilted at odd angles on the last sandy two acres of his former property, Two of the camps had already slumped off the dunes and were awash in the seething waters of the Atlantic. It looked like a child had thrown a temper tantrum and strewn his toys all over the beach. The Boston Globe had duly recorded the damage in a dramatic; front page, above the fold, news photograph.

Bill Hammatt wanted to believe this was just an act of God, the result of a single violent storm. However, the storm had been relatively mild, Northeasters usually pack winds up to 50 miles per hour. The ocean had been advancing against his land at the rate 5 feet a day, and would have overcome his property even without the storm. But Bill Hammatt was a lawyer, and lawyers are constitutionally leery of numbers. They would much rather talk in forceful language about vague generalities than to have to deal with real numbers. Numbers don’t give lawyers anything to argue about.

In the end Bill Hammatt’s neighbors; Tod Thayer, John Shea and John Kelley all decided that they had enjoyed their camps for several generations and now was the time to let go. They had each spent close to $40,000 moving their camps, the last time only a week before. One by one they sadly watched as their camps were demolished and put in containers to be barged away.

But, Copey Coppedge and Dr. Colin Fuller had much deeper pockets. They had already spent close to $100,000 to move Diastole, their jointly owned camp, four times in the past year. This time they hired an expensive barge and a large crane with the idea of moving their camp to the mainland then move it North Beach Island on the other side of the inlet. Since the inlet opened North Beach Island has become a relic island, which means that it has no source of sand to repair itself since all the sand now flows into the inlet. This means that North Beach Island is guaranteed to wash over in less than a decade.

It had cost the two families close to a quarter of a million dollars in engineering and legal fees to move their $200,000 camp this far, it would cost them at least another $50,000 to buy them just a few more years on the beach, if they can get over all the permitting hurdles. One neighbor said it looked like they had gone through a nasty divorce and were willing to spend any amount of money to get even.

However Bill Hammatt presented the most interesting case. Originally he had decided to demolish his camp, but then he changed his mind and decided to move it one more time, then do nothing, just leave the camp where it was and hope for the best. His neighbors cheered him on.

Later it turned out that his decision was for a slightly less noble cause. If he did nothing there was always the chance a storm would come by and damage his camp so much that FEMA, the tax payer subsidized Federal Emergency Management Act, would reimburse him for his losses. But he could only get money if his camp was destroyed by a storm, not by high tides or sea level rise.

On August 8th Bill Hammatt invited 150 guests over to his camp for one final party. By all accounts it was a roaring success, but Hammatt had raised the town’s ire once again, because all the 150 people had driven over the dunes, effectively creating a new road through town owned conservation lands.

But nature always has the last laugh. Shortly after a crystalline clear Columbus Day weekend, the national weather sevice started predicting that a major Northeast storm would arrive on Friday October 16th followed by another on Sunday October 18th. This meant that northeast winds and ten foot waves would pound the outer beach for four full days during the highest tides of the month.

On Friday morning Bill Hammatt’s camp, Hammatt’s Hangar, was still standing but listing dangerously to the south. The next day, several people arrived in an official white truck. They climbed the stairs and gingerly walked out on what remained of the camp’s north and south decks. They climbed on the roof and tried the front door, then one of them reluctantly lowered the camp’s flag to half mast.

On Sunday October 18th, townspeople gathered on Scatteree Landing to peer through the heavy fog and rain. Half a mile away, Hammatt’s Hangar suddenly slumped into the Atlantic ocean and floated and bumped 200 feet south down the beach, then was swept into the inlet and was bumped and floated 200 feet back up the beach north on the inside.

Finally the tide turned stranding Hammatt’s Hanger in rapidly accumulating sand in the center of the inlet. It would remain there for over a week with five feet of water rushing through it at every high tide, and camera crews clamoring over it’s skeletal remains at every low tide. A few days later, FEMA paid Bill Hammatt’s old beach neighbor John Shea to drive his company’s excavator and two one-ton trucks down the beach to remove final remains of the last camp on North Beach. It was a long difficult process because the camp was mired in a crater of soft sand and rushing water. It took several days because they could only work for a few hours a day at dead low tide. It would have been far cheaper if FEMA could have reimbursed Bill Hammatt to remove his camp before it was left stranded in the rushing waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

So what have we learned from the past two years on North Beach? All the numerous and costly moves, only gave the camp owners a little extra time, and in some cases, a little extra money to remove their camps.

There are still a dozen more camps on Nauset Beach in Orleans and eleven more to the South on North Beach Island. But, because so many local, state and federal regulations were bent, broken and ignored to make the North Beach moves possible, it is highly unlikely that officials will be so lenient about moving camps in the future.

The ultimate lesson we have learned is that in the end, nature in the guise of sea level rise will have her way — no building is really safe on a barrier beach. Such beaches should be carefully preserved and protected so they may fulfill their role as natural barriers to protect Cape Cod’s, fragile mainland areas.

**** ****

Bill Sargent is a consultant for the NOVA science series on PBS and a director of The Coastlines Project. He is the author of “Storm Surge; A Coastal Village Battles the Atlantic,” and “Just Seconds From the Ocean; Coastal Living in the Wake of Katrina.” His most recent books are “Sea Level Rising; The Chatham Story, ” and “The Well From Hell.”
They are available through Schiffer Books, and at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: