Posted by: coastlinesproject | December 21, 2013

Plum Island seawall.

The Seawall
December 15, 2013

In mid-December I had some time to kill before attending a Christmas play in Newburyport, so I decided to see if the December 15th storm had done any damage to Plum Island. When I walked out onto the beach I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Three houses were damaged and teetering on the edge; waves had washed into Harry Trout’s yard across the street from where he had lost his first house last March. That meant that the ocean had been flowing over the sewer lines buried under Fordham Way.

But the most ominous feature on the beach was the state of the “emergency” seawall. Now it stood fully exposed in all its massive glory. We had never been allowed to see its full bulk before. The town of Newbury had closed the beach during the seawall’s hasty construction. Then the homeowners had quickly covered the wall with tons of sand before the beach reopened.

However, it was now easy to see that the seawall had been simply thrown together. Several half-ton boulders had already tumbled off its 40-foot high face and the wall of five-ton concrete blocks that had been built in the 1970’s had collapsed and was now lying on its side on what was left of the narrow beach.

I had to clamber over a rock field of slippery loose boulders to get to the other side of the groins. Someone had written, “Stay Off, Loose Rocks,” on the face of the seawall. I suppose it was meant to be a warning for any beach goer with litigious ambitions. .

But the main problem with the seawall was that nobody had laid down any erosion fabric behind the seawall so now waves crashing through chinks in the boulder seawall increased their speed so they had more energy to undermine the wall. You could already see signs of this happening. Soil in the lots above the seawall had already started to slump exposing deep fissures in the bank. The fissures would have to be cordoned off with police tape so nobody would fall into the chasms forming between the shifting boulders.

The most frightening aspect of all this damage is that it had not been caused by a major storm. I had spent the morning monitoring beach cameras up and down the coast and conditions had not been that severe. The winds had only been blowing at 35 knots, the tides had been moderate and the waves had only been 12 feet high. During severe storms they could reach 20 to 30 feet high.

No, the problem was not the weather, but time. It had been clear for the last two years that the center of Plum Island had been running out of its reservoir of Paleolithic sand and that the groins had been blocking what sand was available from flowing naturally down the beach. So now there was not enough sand for the beach to repair itself after storms like the ones we had last March. We were already paying the price and winter hadn’t even arrived in the Northern Hemisphere.

The next day Senator Tarr made a conference call to the manager of the Army Corps of Engineers Piscataqua River dredging project in Portsmouth New Hampshire. It sounded like good news. Plum Island stood to receive 255,000 cubic yards of dredge spoils from the project. All Massachusetts had to do was come up with the $1.1 million dollars in taxpayers money to pay for the sand. Oh and one more detail. The sand wouldn’t be ready until 2016.

But Plum Island had a far more basic problem. If Massachusetts really were able to raise the million dollars to dump sand on Plum Island, under the present conditions the sand all that sand would wash away during the next storm. This had already happened after homeowners had scarped the beach in 2012, and again after this minor storm in 2013.

No, Plum Island would have to remove the 1960’s groins, before any kind of renourishment project would work. And they only had two years to accomplish the task. How many more houses would be lost in the interim?

Read more in; Storm Surge; A Coastal Village Battles the Atlantic, Beach Wars; 10,000 Years on a Barrier Beach and The View From Strawberry Hill; Reflections on the Hottest Year on Record. See Strawberry Hill, UPNE, and Schiffer book tabs at the top of this page.


  1. I have done so many blogs on this place I love, added my photos of the loss of beach onto Nat Geo with hopes of someone doing something to save this place I love.

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