Nature or Nurture for Sandy-Damaged Shorelines

May 8, 2015Winter 2015

The most enduring reminders of superstorm Sandy are erosion and, of course, ongoing expenses to repair the damages from the storm.

In Rhode Island, the storm’s immediate damage tallied $11 million, followed by some $42 million in recovery costs.

Shoreline destruction, Sandy revealed, can be sudden and dramatic, even when a storm weakens considerably before it reaches the Ocean State. Beaches in South County were hardest hit, retreating dozens of yards.

Outsized waves and coastal flooding, called storm surge, destroyed sand dunes and parking lots, and lifted homes and businesses off their foundations.

Mayor Dina Long of Sea Bright, N.J., walks by a shorefront home that was pushed off its foundation by Superstorm Sandy. The community of about 1,400 residents saw over 800 homes and numerous businesses and municipal facilities damaged or completely destroyed by Sandy. Sea Bright has since developed a revitalization plan for infrastructure, facilities, and economic improvements.
Photo © Aristide Economopoulos/ Star Ledger/ Corbis

As plans take shape to slow ongoing erosion and protect against future storms, one approach to beach repair merits consideration: letting nature run its course.

Billions of dollars in federal aid have been made available to rebuild and develop projects that protect against hurricanes and other perils of rising sea level.

However, the option of doing nothing has worked, so far, for a new channel, or breach, carved by Superstorm Sandy into the southern coast of Long Island, New York.

The storm created two breaches along the 31-mile stretch of Fire Island and one breach in Westhampton. The two smaller breaches were quickly closed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with sediment taken from nearby dredging projects. But the third breach, located within the wilderness area of the Fire Island National Seashore was allowed to stay open.

The nearly 250-foot-wide breach, named the New Inlet, delivers a direct flow of ocean water into a previously static portion of Great South Bay. It also raised immediate concern that the influx of water threatened to flood an estimated $10 billion in property along the South Shore of Long Island.

To monitor for changes, a 35-member breach assessment team, made up of coastal experts and managers from the National Park Service, was quickly assembled—and it didn’t take long to see the environmental benefits of the New Inlet. Water quality improved rapidly in the eastern portion of Great South Bay as harmful nutrients and brown tide flushed out to sea and were replaced with cleaner, clearer ocean water. Nature rebounded as striped bass, summer flounder, river herring, and even seal populations noticeably increased.

“The water used to be brown and disgusting and now it’s like the Caribbean and beautiful,” said Carl LoBue, a marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy’s Long Island office.

The improved water quality led to a surge in swimming, boating, and fishing in Great South Bay, while the breach—New York’s only unstabilized ocean inlet—drew visitors for surfcasting and recreation along the newly formed sand flats.

“It’s an amazing and different experience for a lot of New Yorkers,” LoBue said.

The width of the breach more than tripled during the first year following its formation, yet the water level remains steady in Great South Bay, easing fears of coastal flooding. Public forums led by scientists have built support among residents to leave the future of the breach to nature and not use manmade structures to control it. “They see any opportunity to improve the health of the bay as helping communities,” LoBue said.

Cost estimates to close the breach have increased along with the size of the breach to about $20 million. Currently, the National Park Service and the School of Marine Studies and Atmospheric Science at Stony Brook University monitor the water level and the size of the breach.

Jay Tanski, a senior coastal processes specialist with New York Sea Grant, was part of a team that looked at the effects of breaches on Long Island’s south shore. He has studied Long Island’s coast since 1978. Breaches, he said, are dynamic and unpredictable, and the New Inlet may fill in naturally or it may get bigger. The state can close the breach if water levels climb significantly.

“We are dealing with some uncertainty,” Tanski said. Part of the unpredictability includes maintaining state and federal funding for monitoring the breach. If it’s deemed unstable, delivering equipment quickly to the inlet in order to close or shrink the opening is also a concern.

“If you have another storm, that’s where the uncertainty comes in,” Tanski said.

A 1997 beach contingency plan written by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allows for breaches along the protected shores of Long Island to remain open, at least temporarily. Meanwhile, breaches or erosion damages in populated areas are typically filled in with sand and hardened structures.

“If it was not in a wilderness area, the breach would have been closed,” Tanski said.

Each storm-inflicted incident raises the debate over natural versus managed recovery. Coastal scientists agree that a shoreline is a dynamic system that moves, grows, and shrinks on its own.

A breach at Trustom Pond in South Kingstown closed five months after Superstorm Sandy connected the ocean with the freshwater pond. The ecosystem at the wildlife center shifted dramatically to a saltwater tidal pond and back again after the breach closed. When a manmade element, such as a seawall, groin, or other barrier is introduced, the shoreline ecosystem requires regular upkeep.

“Once you turn something from a natural beach to a managed beach, it’s something you can’t go back on,” LoBue said. “We’re going to be responsible for footing the bill forever.”

Prior to Sandy, beaches with artificial barriers and nearby development in New York, as well as Rhode Island, had fallen behind on sand nourishment and preservation, and subsequently suffered significant damage from the storm. Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly went decades without new sand.

The shoreline has a significant fixed infrastructure with roads and parking lots, as well as waterfront homes and hotels. Sandy destroyed dozens of these structures and unearthed artificial barriers, such as old cars, used to reinforce sand dunes after Hurricane Carol in 1954.

The state spent $3.1 million in federal funds to truck in 84,000 cubic yards of new sand from a nearby quarry in the spring of 2014. Much like the sediment it is replacing, the new beach sand is expected to slowly migrate east into nearby ponds through manmade inlets. It’s a cyclical process that requires periodic dredging as well as funding to keep everything in place.

“Now we need to take the sand back out and put it back into the system so it moves along the shore again,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

Fugate supported local efforts to replenish the beach with sand from Winnapaug Pond, a site decades overdue for sand and silt removal. But the prolonged permitting process for dredging required by several state and federal entities was slow, while the availability of federal funds to truck in new sand was up for the taking.

“We are a sediment-starved shoreline there, so we’ll take sand any way we can get it these days,” Fugate said.

Permitting is also underway to dredge other coastal ponds behind Rhode Island south shore beaches. The sand will renourish the beach. It will also be sprayed in a very thin layer onto salt marshes within the ponds to raise their elevation and keep up with rising sea levels. The projects aim to sustain the ecosystem and economic health of the shoreline.

“If we had another [Superstorm] Sandy on top of this we’d be devastated. So we have to maintain it,” said Amy Grzybowski, Westerly’s director of emergency management.

“Storms are on steroids these days.”

Economic vitality, in particular, is a major issue in determining Rhode Island’s response to accelerating erosion. A recent controversial decision by CRMC permitted construction of an artificial wall to protect businesses and homes along Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown. When complete, the wall will reinforce other artificial armoring and seawalls that protect road access to the beach community. Yet the artificial barrier is expected to hasten erosion along the already withered beachfront. The decision has faced legal challenges and illustrates the complicated process for addressing the threats of sea level rise and stronger hurricanes.

Homes vulnerable to surges, sea level rise, and erosion. Photo John Supancic 

The goal, Fugate said, is to make shorelines, buildings and infrastructure more durable, so that the next storm is an inconvenience rather than a catastrophe for residents. Climate change impacts aren’t going away, he said. “We’re going to be stuck with these problems for a long time.”

To address future dilemmas, CRMC is developing policy proposals through the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan, or Beach SAMP. This multi-year project will offer standards and proposals to address climate adaptation issues for local and state planners. Pilot projects for this planning approach are underway in Newport and North Kingstown.

To find the spots most vulnerable to shoreline change, CRMC is using a new modeling system that combines information on storm surge, waves, sediments, and currents to predict the impacts of sea- level rise and other effects of climate change. “As you see what the outcomes are, you attach costs to that,” Fugate said.

The modeling program, called Storm Tools, reveals where it makes sense to protect at-risk areas or “if the model shows you that this is a lost cause anyhow, you probably walk away from that situation,” Fugate said.

Paying for the adaptation costs is a major uncertainty. Federal funding, so far, supports some storm repair and prevention projects, including beach nourishment efforts like those at Misquamicut Beach.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is urging communities to create disaster response plans to ensure they receive relief funds following future storms. Funding for local preventive measures, however, is scarce.

One funding model in use on Long Island puts beach repair and maintenance costs on property owners. An erosion control district assesses fees on parcels within a waterfront region.

Parts of Southamp- ton, Long Island, are using the added property tax, stretched across 10 years, to fund $26 million in projects that deliver offshore sand to eroding beaches.

LoBue said it makes sense to shift the cost of long-term upkeep to the people who benefit most from the beach. “They tax themselves instead of everyone else,” he said.

Erosion control districts are being considered through the Beach SAMP process. But Rhode Island, Fugate said, has limitations such as a lack of offshore sand to make nourishment projects frequent and affordable. Buyouts of damage-prone waterfront property is also a concept being scrutinized. New Jersey intends to spend $300 million from FEMA to fund voluntary buyouts of high-risk coastal property.

A state-funded program would be more difficult, said Jamia McDonald, former executive director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency. “I don’t have a suggestion on a funding mechanism, but I think it’s something we should at least talk about and put into the discussion.”

The state’s Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council says a response to climate change and coastal erosion requires a combination of tools to help state and local planners, as well as private property owners, make informed decisions. Some of these tools include incentives for not rebuilding damage-prone homes and businesses, and disincentives for erecting other structures that contribute to erosion.

The council has realized, so far, that state planners would benefit from learning about successful models from other states for building better roads, bridges, and wastewater treatment facilities. Most of all, local planners need help identifying the people and places in their community at greatest risk and how to offer assistance before and after their city or town is damaged.

“You don’t want to make your policy decisions at the moment of the hurricane,” said Janet Coit, head of Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management and chair of the climate council.

More often than not, the decision remains in the hands of hazardous weather.

And, as Fugate said, “These storms are on steroids these days.”

— By Tim Faulkner
Aerial Photograph by John Supancic
Feature photography in Union Beach, N.J. Photo © Ken Cedeno/Corbis

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