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. The storm had torn up beaches and obliterated protecting sand dunes from Florida to Virginia including in Folly Beach, 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 to study beach management for almost three decades. He knew the town’s history of beach renourishment would have particular resonance for the residents of Plum Island where he was scheduled to give a talk to their storm surge group.
In the 1890’s Folly Beach’s neighbor, Charleston had constructed jetties to stabilize the mouth of their city harbor, but the jetties also cut off to flow of sand to Folly Beach causing as much as 5 feet of erosion per year. The residents of Folly Beach then built seawalls to protect their homes but the seawalls had destroyed the beach. So in 1994, the town convinced the Army Corps of Engineers to 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, although the Corps had predicted they wouldn’t have to be replaced for a decade. In fact the Corps argued that the beach was actually still there, but it was just underwater. To which the former director of the program, the irrepressible Orrin Pilkie 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 large water-loving dinosaur with fewer brains per pound of flesh than any other vertebrate.
So, 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 if 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 federal dollars to repair its beaches.
But FEMA’s determination also meant that the two artificial dunes that Massachusetts had decided to build to protect the houses on Plum Island Point would come with their own implicit guarantee. If the dunes were washed away during a declared emergency FEMA would be on the hook to replace them. Most people had not quite figured that out on Plum Island but they would as soon as Rob gave his talk on November 21st.
William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 2016, is available in local bookstores and at http://www.ingramcontent.com.
Rob Young will be presenting a Storm Surge lecture in Newburyport city hall on September 21st at 7pm.