October 12, 2016
After Hurricane Mathew everyone gave a sigh of relief. It hadn’t killed as many U.S. citizens as either Hurricane Sandy or Katrina. And it also hadn’t damaged as many roads and homes as expected.
But coastal geologist Rob Young was far less sanguine. Mathew had torn up beaches and obliterated protecting sand dunes from Florida to Virginia including in the town of Folly Beach in South Carolina.
Rob was the director of the Developed Shorelines Program at the University of Western Carolina and the program had been using Folly Beach as a case study for almost three decades. He knew the town’s history of beach management would have particular resonance for the residents of Plum Island where he was scheduled to give a Storm Surge talk in November.
In the 1890’s Charleston had constructed jetties to stabilize the mouth of its harbor but the jetties had cut off the supply of sand to Folly Beach causing almost 5 feet of erosion per year. The residents of Folly Beach then built seawalls to protect their homes but the seawalls destroyed the beach. So in 1994, the town beseeched the Army Corps of Engineers to come in and use dredged sand to both build up the beach and construct a berm to protect private property.
But two years later, both the berm and beach were gone, even though the Corps had predicted they would not have to be replaced for a decade. The Corps argued in fact that the beach was actually still there but it was just underwater. To which Orrin Pilkie the irascible former director of the Developed Shorelines program, replied; “True, but underwater sand is a very uncomfortable place to play volleyball.” He was also known for likening the Army Corps of Engineers to a brachiosaurus, a giant water-loving creature with less brains per pound of flesh than any other vertebrate.
Rob knew from experience that people would clamor for the federal government to pay to replace beaches after Hurricane Mathew, because The Federal Emergency Management Agency had decided that after dunes and beaches had been put in place to protect coastal property they should be considered infrastructure. That meant that even if a community hadn’t suffered any property damage it could still be eligible to receive millions of dollars to repair its beaches from the federal government.
So FEMA’s determination also meant that the two artificial dunes that Massachusetts had decided to build to protect the houses on Northern Reservation Terrace would come with their own implicit guarantee. If the dunes were washed away by during a declared emergency FEMA would be on the hook to replace them. Nobody had quite figured that out on Plum Island but they would as soon Rob gave his November talk in Newburyport.
William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach, is available in local bookstores and at http://www.ingramcontent.com.