Reality Check: Plum Island

I posted this on a Facebook page (it’s public; you don’t need a Facebook account to see the photos and videos) dedicated to life on my home island: Plum Island, Massachusetts. As some of you may know, Plum Island took a beating this winter, with a series of storms starting in October that eroded the beach dramatically, culminating with a nor’easter earlier this month that claimed six homes.

The political fallout continues with surviving homes being fortified with rocks, concrete blocks and other illegal hard barriers. The town of Newbury (where the damage took place) has been openly complicit with the illegal action and the state Department of Environmental Protection has basically wimped out of enforcing its own rules. The tragedy is that these fortifications, while well intentioned, will actually accelerate erosion on Plum Island and hasten the time when all the island’s residents — not just those who suffered so much this winter — will be chased back to the mainland.

Anyway, I posted the following note/column on the Facebook page, under the same title I’ve used for this blog post, on March 12:

It’s impossible for anyone with the slightest shred of human decency not to be moved by the destruction that took place on Plum Island recently. Seeing people lose their homes and their cherished possessions tears at everyone’s hearts, and realizing that so much that one holds dear can be at the mercy of forces larger than us is humbling to all who live in an uncertain world.

But in the rush to try to remedy the situation that has befallen Plum Island, people need to keep reason and perspective in place so as to not make things worse. And the first step in taking a reasoned approach to Plum Island is to remember a few facts.

Fact: All who live on Plum Island — from oceanfront to the high dunes along the spine of the island to those on the marsh — know that one day their property will be taken by the Atlantic Ocean. Anyone who thinks differently is either in denial or doesn’t know the basic mechanics of a barrier-beach island. Certainly no one expected current homes to be damaged anytime soon, but the fact remains that one day what currently constitutes “Plum Island” will be gone.

Barrier-beach islands are designed by Mother Nature to migrate in their role as protector of the mainland. And what humans refer to as “Plum Island” is really nothing more than the above-water segment of a much larger, dynamic sand structure that, in order to protect the mainland, extends well out to sea. The offshore sand bars that migrate with storm and season are in fact part of the overall structure that is the whole of Plum Island. And like those offshore (and underwater) segments, the above-sea-level segment migrates. To expect the above-sea-level segment to be static is to deny reality. Plum Island is really more of an ongoing process than a static entity, and anyone who would live for any amount of time on the island has to acknowledge that fact.

Fact: Houses on Plum Island have been falling into the sea since there have been houses on Plum Island. The first home to wind up on the beach in this storm did the exact same thing in 1976. No, not during the legendary Blizzard of ’78 but rather during a run-of-the-mill nor’easter two years prior to that famous storm. Storms in previous decades wiped out cottages, dance halls and other buildings, so the loss of property on Plum Island is nothing new. Current losses are unprecedented only in their volume.

Fact: All attempts to use rigid structure to protect human property are doomed to failure, and in all likelihood exacerbate the problem. There are countless photos on this Facebook page that document clearly the ineffectiveness of concrete blocks, huge boulders, coir bags and other human defenses against the ocean. Photos show perfectly intact defenses surrounded by greater erosion than might have occurred if the sand had been allowed to move freely. Indeed, it can also be argued that some of the structures and actions contributed to erosion by diverting and adding wave action to places that wouldn’t have sustained such activity otherwise, thus costing neighbors their property.

Some experts are adamant that the beach scraping done over the course of the fall and winter actually contributed to the erosion along Annapolis Way. “When the bulldozers had scraped the beach they had left a football-field-sized strip of depressed beach below the high tide mark,” wrote award-winning science author William Sargent in the Newburyport Current on Feb. 1. “This had simply channeled the 15-foot-high waves directly toward the houses, scouring out an additional 10 feet of former beach from beneath their foundations. The beach scraping had actually caused 10 vertical feet of erosion.”

Sargent was writing about the post-Christmas storm and his column makes clear the result of such intervention. “The fact that such damage had not happened anywhere else in Massachusetts was prima facia evidence that the scraping had actually caused the erosion. It had not been a natural disaster, but a manmade tragedy — a manmade tragedy long in the making.”

So now, in the post-storm rush to erect walls of rock and concrete, and to create manmade sand dunes with sand from below the tide line, people are likely dooming what little beach remains to further erosion. And with it, accelerating the erosion of their neighbors’ property on Plum Island.

Expect to hear calls for a sea wall or some other semi-permanent protection on Plum Island. To see what sea walls do to a beach, drive a few miles north to Hampton, N.H., where there is no beach except at low tide and where the stones that line the sea wall were tossed by the recent storm like so much confetti over the wall, onto Ocean Boulevard and into people’s yards. With every additional barrier, Plum Island’s beach erosion worsens, to the detriment of those still living there and those who would visit.

Fact: Blame is being tossed in several directions except where it belongs. Various scapegoats are being cited, especially the usual suspects: the state and federal governments. Depending upon who’s doing the talking, it’s either the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ fault for not maintaining the jetty at the mouth of the Merrimack River, or it’s the state Department of Environmental Protection’s fault with their onerous regulations regarding human activity on beaches. In reality, the real culprit is obvious and is the only one to whom there is no recourse: the Atlantic Ocean. Whether the jetties are maintained and whether or not humans can do whatever they want on the beach, the ocean and her storms are beyond the reach of all attempts to tame her.

And expect things to get worse. Politicians will argue whether global warming is caused by man or is part of the natural cycle, but no one will dispute the fact that the Earth’s climate is warming, and with that warming will come sea-level rise. As sea level rises, property on Plum Island gets ever more in range of ocean storms, even without an increase in intensity.

Fact: The March nor’easter was not an unusually fierce nor’easter. In fact, the December and February storms were more intense, with higher winds and higher waves. And the March storm occurred at a time of relatively moderate astronomical tides. So this storm that did all the damage was nothing special, nothing unusual. What made it so devastating was that it came on the heels of those earlier storms. Starting with hurricane Sandy in late October, each successive storm has further weakened the island’s natural defenses. The March storm simply took advantage of those weakened defenses to reach further into the dunes than its predecessors — all natural processes for which there is no answer. It is to be hoped that no further nor’easters strike at the currently weakened island, but keep in mind that there was an impressive nor’easter in early June 2012. This is New England; harsh weather can happen at any time.

Fact: The beach will replenish itself over time. The sand that was below and around the foundations of homes did not just disappear in the recent storms. It now sits elsewhere in the entirety of the construct that is Plum Island: it sits underwater, in the sand bar complex just offshore. That sand will wind up back on the beach over the course of the benign weather periods that are the norm at Plum Island. That’s how the island works: built up during the calm times, scoured away during the storms. There are before-and-after photos from previous storms showing just that process taking place — and relatively quickly, too. Impeding the flow of sand through attempts to protect property will lessen that natural process and further endanger the very property people hope to protect.

Fact: The damage at Plum Island extends well beyond those who have lost their homes. Houses a full quarter-mile from the ocean and never endangered will now see their insurance rates go up, in some cases dramatically, and some residents have said insurance companies have already indicated they will be canceling their policies. And if insurance cannot be secured for a property, there’s no way a potential buyer can secure a loan, making it almost impossible for anyone to sell their property, whether threatened or not. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that property values just took a huge hit as the desire to live on Plum Island wanes. Who wants to buy a home in a place that could get demolished in the next storm or two? What will that loss in property values do to the tax base in Newbury? Will people in Byfield see their services cut because the town’s revenue decreases? And what about future development on the island? Earlier this winter the town of Newbury gave final approval to the remodel and expansion of an existing home on Fordham Way that is wedged between two homes that were devastated by the recent storm and are now unable to be occupied. Will that construction project on the primary dune go forward so the town can earn some tax revenue in the short term? Or will the town decide that the short-term gain isn’t worth the money it will spend when that home is under siege in a future storm, and that keeping the dune intact is of more value to the rest of the island?

These impacts are minor compared to losing one’s home, to be sure, but they are very real financial impacts and, as such, are of profound importance to those still living on Plum Island.

It’s ironic that the damage occurred in Newbury, a town with relatively low tax rates for the area and a town that cannot even pay for its own basic services. Three times Newbury residents have voted down a tax override that would support things like schools and a normal operating budget. So Newbury residents won’t pay for their own services, services typically provided by a town, yet they want people in Worcester or Kansas to help foot the bill so they can live in a place where houses have already wound up in the ocean?

Homeowners whose property is threatened have said they don’t need state or federal money for help, they just want those state and federal governments to get out of the way. But who pays for the Corps of Engineers to do the work on the jetty those people insist will save everything? Who pays for the state police and Massachusetts Army National Guard to be present when the inevitable happens and a storm threatens? And if homeowners’ efforts to save their property cause the destruction of others’ property, who is responsible? That’s one of the reasons regulations exist regarding beach alteration: to prevent expansion of damage.

It’s understandable in these first few days after such devastation that people are doing anything they can think of to save what’s left. These are indeed desperate times and so desperate measures are called for. But in the headlong rush to save what’s left, people may actually be dooming what isn’t currently threatened. That’s why reason and a broader perspective are required rather than just knee-jerk reactions. It’s too late to save a lot of the damaged properties on Plum Island. It’s not too late to make sure we don’t accelerate the island’s demise.

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