Posted by: coastlinesproject | August 16, 2013

Raising New Jersey.

“Raising Cain”

Highlands, New Jersey

August 9, 2013

August 9th broke cold, dark and rainy. I switched my computer on to the Salisbury Beach camera overlooking the deck of a surfside bar. Salisbury Beach and Plum Island were dark and desolate. You could see fencing around the former Sidewalk Café. In a few days the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation would tear down the long-abandoned eyesore and replace it with a natural new sand dune.

Bulldozers stood poised to raze a former go-cart track and amusement park to build 210 condominiums in the marsh behind the beach. The owners planned to dump 8 feet of fill into the marsh in order to prevent the condominiums from flooding. The site was behind the portion of the beach where waves from last winter’s storms had almost drowned a woman in her living room, and destroyed over a dozen homes.

We had just entered the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. There was a seventy percent chance that we would get 6 to 9 named storms and 3 to 5 of them were expected to be major hurricanes possibly as intense as Sandy or Katrina. Yet these projects were a barometer of just how determined oceanfront communities were to build up their waterfronts but how little they had done to prepare for the next storm.

On Plum Island people were hoping that repairing the Merrimack River jetty and building an artificial sand dune would save their homes from erosion, but these were dubious propositions at best. The same was true up and down the East Coast. Everyone had rushed out to prepare for the busy summer season, but few had done anything about the coming winter’s storms.

Breezy Point was still several blocks of charred ruins in Queens, and 2,400 of her homes remained unoccupied. Nantucket was waiting to hear if the conservation commission would grant homeowners permission to armor Sconset Bluff and on Broad Beach mansion owners were waiting to see if the LA Department of Beaches would let them build their stone seawall.

The delays were indicators that our system of boards and regulations is not very good at responding to a rapidly changing environment. Homeowners, developers and environmental agencies would all benefit from a system that could respond more quickly to erosion and sea level rise. But, the Supreme Court had decided that property rights should trump sound environmental policy so it is almost impossible to arrive at any kind of coherent strategy to deal with rapid coastal change.

But Highlands New Jersey was proposing the most audacious plan of all. They had studied what Texas done after the 1900 Galveston Hurricane and were proposing that the Army Corps of Engineers spend $200 million dollars of taxpayers’ money to elevate every house, flower and piece of grass in a community worth $574 million dollars.

They proposed to do this by moving everyone into shelters while their houses were put on pilings eleven feet above grade. Then the Corps would move in, build retaining walls, and dump million of tons of construction wastes behind the walls so that eventually the entire city would be raised eleven feet into the air.

The proposal wasn’t scheduled to be completed until 2015, and construction could take at least three years. Meanwhile Highlands would have to endure at least 5 more years of potentially damaging storms.

But it seems like there is a more immediate solution. Route 36 runs through the town. Most of Highlands gets its name from what locals have always called the “dry” side of town that lies north of the street on land that rises to 266 feet and is the highest spot on the East Coast. But the town was built in the marsh on the “wet” side of Route 36; only 10 feet above mean high tide.

Highlands’ town fathers could follow Nantucket’s example and simply move the buildings to the other side of the street. But why do that if you can convince Congress to pay to elevate your town 11 feet into the air?

Plum Island’s proposal to build an artificial sand dune at homeowners expense was starting to look more and more reasonable. But all these projects should have either been accepted or denied before August. Now it was now almost too late.


William Sargent is the author of several books about coastal erosion. They include Storm Surge, Beach Wars, The House on Ipswich Marsh and The View From Strawberry Hill, which has chapters on Plum Island, Hurricane Sandy, and Salisbury Beach. The books are available in local bookstores and through and

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