Recover or Retreat?
Tom’s River, NJ
June 27, 2016
On June 27th Don Cheney and I joined Chris Raia to retrace his footsteps the night of Hurricane Sandy. It would also allow us to see how, or if, New Jersey’s barrier beach communities had recovered from the storm.
Although recently retired, Chris is still a young but seasoned cop. The kind you would feel comfortable with in any kind of emergency. He might even crack a few jokes while saving your life.
Chris picked us up in Bay Head and like everyone else, explained that now we were going to see the true epicenter of the storm. Don and I smiled at each other. This had become a familiar refrain.
Also like everyone else, Chris had a set of pictures he kept on his tablet. It was almost like people were still haunted by the storm and needed the photographs to remind them they had really survived such complete devastation.
As we drove toward Tom’s River we started to see more and more damaged and missing homes. Nearly half of New Jersey’s $3.4 Billion ratable losses had occurred in this single township. Parts of it still looked like a ghost town four years later. This truly was the epicenter of the storm.
We discussed a recent Frontline Program on PBS that explained that thousands of Sandy survivors had not received any money from the Federal Flood Insurance Program, so they were still paying rent, plus a mortgage and insurance on a house that they couldn’t live in.
Although it is federal agency, the Flood Insurance Program is now run by private insurance companies under contract to the government. After the hurricane, the companies hired hundreds of adjusters to handle the myriads of claims. The adjusters followed the procedures and determined that almost all of the people who applied had suffered damage and should receive settlements.
But when the managers of the program realized how much money they stood to lose, they re-reviewed the claims, so that thousands of people lost their formerly promised settlements. The managers had determined that hairline cracks in the claimants’ basements were caused by land movements prior to the storm.
Now isn’t that convenient? How many houses built on sand wont have hairline cracks from land movement?
For this the private companies were paid a 30 percent profit from the non-profit public agency.
One of the first places we stopped was the iconic Mantoloking Bridge. I had seen dozens of photographs showing where the ocean had blasted through the island washing out the bridge and scores of homes.
All of Mantoloking’s 521 barrier beach homes had been damaged, which had destroyed a third of the borough’s tax base, the most of any municipality in New Jersey.
But by 2016, most of Mantoloking’s homes had been replaced. Chris explained that they were owned by people who had either been able to sell their lots right away or had their own resources to rebuild before they received their FEMA checks. Like the Bay Head Yacht Club all of these new houses were larger and more costly than before.
He also explained that state officials had rushed to refill all of the inlets that had been punched through the beaches into Barnegat Bay. But if officials had kept the inlets open and built bridges over them instead, they could have revived Barnegat Bay from its chronic problems with eutrophication caused by septic tanks leaching into the bay. New York officials had discovered this way to inexpensively address after Sandy broke through Fire Island.
As we continued south we started to see the prototypical Jersey Shore. People sat outside modest bungalows talking to their neighbors across narrow streets made of crystal white sand.
But their homes were interspersed with abandoned houses overgrown with weeds and emanating moldy odors. Some of the small houses were being raised so high on pilings that their owners were installing costly elevators.
Chris also showed us several acres of burned out lots in the old Osborne revival camp in Brick Township. His fellow officers had seen the glow of them burning the night they had been trapped in the nearby Lavallette Fire Station.
Over a hundred 1920’s era bungalows had burned to the ground after the storm burst through a gas main.
Many of the residents who had lived in the tightknit neighborhood for decades were still displaced. But architects had drawn up plans for a 90-unit condo complex that would be way out reach for the former residents, yet another case of post storm gentrification.
And what was supposed to protect all these new larger homes? A 22 foot high sand dune that will run the length of New Jersey when it is completed by 2017. But will it just be a hundred mile long security blanket offering only the illusion of safety?
I was reminded of the 40-foot high sand dune that Plum Island homeowners threw up in front of their homes the night before Hurricane Sandy. The following morning people stared in awe at the owner’s stairs hanging in the air 40 feet above the beach. The 4o foot high sand dune had been washed entirely.
If another Sandy occurred next week, it was clear that the losses would not be $16 Billion but closer to $32 Billion. And most of the damage would happen on the string of barrier islands that fringe the East Coast.
But that is not the only problem. Earlier in the summer 19 prominent scientists lead by Jim Hanson released a peer-reviewed paper that predicted that sea levels would rise by 9 feet in the next 50 years and about 3 feet in the next 20 years.
As if that weren’t enough, in the Seventies scientists had figured out that when the rate of sea level rise rises above 3 feet every century, barrier beaches will start to break apart.
So if Hanson’s paper is as prescient as all his previous papers, it really doesn’t mater what we do. No amount of hard or soft engineering solutions will be able to save barrier islands and the communities they harbor.
Instead of blindly rebuilding barrier beaches devastated by such storms shouldn’t we be using each storm as an opportunity to gradually retreat from these dubious redoubts?
Read more in William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 2016, available in local bookstores and at http://www.ingramcontent.com.