Posted by: coastlinesproject | April 3, 2017

Plum Island; winter storm Stella.


March 14, 2017



Turns out, it is much easier to get into Mar-a-Lago without credentials than onto Plum Island without a resident ID.


I discovered this in the wake of winter storm Stella that blasted the island with driving snow and hurricane force winds on March 14th. The winds left the telephone poles that lined Plum Island Turnpike at a 45-degree angle, and over a hundred people without electricity. That number climbed to over 400 people when National Grid sent repair trucks from as far away as Alabama to start turning off the power and replacing the old poles.


Newburyport police officers set up roadblocks to stop people from entering or leaving the island then restricted the area to just people with resident ID’s. They also helped drive people with infants or disabled family members to the Salvation Army’s shelter where they could get warmth, medications and oxygen.


Some of the residents of Northern Reservation Terrace simply opted for the shelter rather than spending another cold dark night on the island. They remembered what it had been like two winters before when their basements filled with raw sewerage after the island’s famously finicky sewerage system failed. Who wanted to repeat that again?


On March 17 I went out to see the results of the storm at low tide, so I could walk on the beach. Unlike a traditional Northeaster that stalls off the coast for several days, Stella had blasted through in less than 12 hours so she had only been around for a single tidal cycle. So, like during a hurricane, the island had experienced more wind damage than erosion.


Newbury’s seawall had failed in several places and the foundation of one of her out buildings had cracked but the main houses were all intact but slightly closer to the edge than you would want to be on a cold dark night with your house shuddering with the impact of each wave.


But the Merrimack River’s South Jetty was a different story. It seemed like Stella had thrown all her forces at this single redoubt. Fourteen-foot waves had battered the jetty from both sides, washing sand through the structure from the oceanside and exploding up through the jetty from the riverside.


The waves had battered down the ten-foot high ridge of sand that guarded the jetty from ocean waves. This allowed them to wash unimpeded through a stretch of the jetty that was as long as a football field. This caused almost eight thousand cubic yards of sand to flow through the jetty.


Now that finely sifted sand lay in a pristine white sandbar over an acre in size and more than four feet deep. This was about two thousand more cubic yards of sand than had washed through the jetty during any storm the year before.


When I returned home and compared my photos with those taken the year before, I thought I could see why. It looked like Stella’s relentless battering had made the jetty settle a few more inches.


It turned out that Stella had been the perfect storm for Plum Island Beach. It had not caused serious erosion like the long period waves from storms far out to sea that we had experienced last autumn. But its relentless pounding from short period waves had been enough to cause the jetty to settle.


The storm had also put the communities of Newbury and Newburyport’s approaches to erosion control in stark contrast with each other. Residents of Newburyport were already working with the city, state and federal governments to rebuild the $150,000 sacrificial dunes that had saved them from winter storm Stella.


But the residents of Newbury had taken the law into their own hands, threatening to sue the town, state and federal government while rebuilding their multi-million dollar illegal seawall that had failed every year since 2013. And town and state officials fearing lawsuits had simply turned a blind eye to the transgressions.


But the residents had also expected the town, state and federal officials to spend over $25 Million to build anti-erosion devices and now they wanted them to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to dredge sand from the Piscataqua River in Maine and pump it in front of their houses.


But people were starting to question why the public should pay for such big government projects that were so expensive, short-lived and only protected private property. Pumping sand from under George Chiros’s dock and using it to build two artificial dunes had been less expensive and far easier to get permitted.


But they would also require yearly maintenance. They reminded me of the mayor of a Columbian City who discovered that the best way to improve a neighborhood was to plant flowers. The first time he did it people dug them up and stole them so he planted more flowers again. This time neighbors started to landscape and protect them. After several more times the neighborhood had developed a fierce pride in their plants and “Big Mommas” would shame any hoodlum who tried to harm their neighborhood flowers.


Through building fences and designing paths the residents had also gained a sense of ownership over “their beach.” They were also learning how much people who had fished on this beach for years also loved and wanted to protect it. So they had developed a consensus that it would be worth the time and effort to keep rebuilding the sacrificial dunes for as long as it took for the jetty to settle so nature could take over and rebuild the beach herself.





William Sargent is a member of Storm Surge that helps support these articles. His book, Plum Island; 2016, is available in local bookstores and at





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