Posted by: coastlinesproject | September 11, 2012

Plum Island. A memorial to sea level rise, Geri’s Loss, 9/11. 90% chance of Nadine forming between Azores and Lesser Antilles.

Geri’s Loss

Plum Island, Massachusetts

9/11

There is a small plot of replanted grass on the top of a dune in Newbury, Massachusetts. I consider it to be a kind of memorial to sea level rise. The effects of sea level rise are not as dramatic as a terrorist attack, but they can be just as traumatic to those involved. It seemed somehow fitting to visit that plot of grass on 9/11 and remember what happened only four short years before:

On November 25, 2008, 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. An 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 go 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 its 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 cases like this, the town of Newbury is doing exactly the wrong thing. It owns five and a half acres of primary and secondary dunes immediately adjacent to the Refuge. But instead of deeding the lot to the Refuge, the cash strapped town is trying to sell the lot to a developer so he can build several houses in the fragile dunes.

It is a meshugena idea, made all the more crazy because the lot provides much of the sand that flows north to protect the island’s older homes. Sure, the town will get a few years worth of taxes if the proposal go through, but in five or ten years the new houses will also be hanging over the edge and the older houses will be long gone. It will not be the end of the world, but the losses will reverberate through these families for generations to come. That is the true cost of sea level rise and it is one that can be prevented by gradually allowing these fragile areas to revert back to nature.

1. SHOWERS AND THUNDERSTORMS ASSOCIATED WITH A LOW PRESSURE SYSTEM
LOCATED ABOUT MIDWAY BETWEEN THE CAPE VERDE ISLANDS AND THE LESSER
ANTILLES HAVE BECOME A LITTLE BETTER ORGANIZED THIS MORNING. 
ADVISORIES ON A NEW TROPICAL DEPRESSION WILL LIKELY BE INITIATED
LATER THIS MORNING.  THIS SYSTEM HAS A HIGH CHANCE...90
PERCENT...OF BECOMING A TROPICAL CYCLONE DURING THE NEXT 48
HOURS AS IT MOVES WEST-NORTHWESTWARD AT ABOUT 15 MPH.
 Read more in “Beach Wars; 10,000 Years on a Barrier Beach. See Strawberry Hill tab at the top of this page.

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