Can the Jersey Shore Be Saved?

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist ponders the future of our imperiled coastline.

Author Gilbert Gaul surveys the dunes in Long Beach Township. Photo by Rob Cusick

Gilbert M. Gaul got his first taste of life on Long Beach Island in the summer of 1962. His family had an opportunity to house sit a small place in Loveladies. While his dad, a teacher, worked a summer job back home in Kearny, the younger Gaul, just 11, and his mother, brother and sister crammed into the small bungalow at the beach.

They arrived on LBI only a couple of months after the Ash Wednesday Nor’easter, said to be the most devastating storm of the 20th century to that point. Luckily, the Loveladies bungalow had been protected by substantial dunes. Elsewhere, homes had been washed away, but rebuilding on the narrow island had been rapid, and much was back to normal for the summer.

“The state pumped the sand from the bay back to the beaches,” says Gaul. “Sharks would come out of the pumps—skates and all kinds of fish, and sea turtles.”

Recalling that summer, Gaul, now 68 and the father of two, still sounds like an excited adolescent. “That became the place I wanted to go,” he continues. “When I was a teenager, I fled in summers to Long Beach Island, working as a lifeguard and living in surf shacks.”

Now, Gaul says, LBI is a far different place. The same is true for much of the coastal floodlands along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Gaul has chronicled the changes in a new book, The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

As an adult, Gaul became a journalist, winning two Pulitzer Prizes; he was short-listed for four others. He has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Washington Post, among other newspapers, and has written several books on assorted subjects. While The Geography of Risk sounds the alarm on what may be an unsolvable problem of living and building on the coasts, Gaul’s voice is like that of an old paramour, able to see the flaws, but hoping against hope that the end will never come.

“I have to tell you, I love the beach and have gone to the Outer Banks for vacation for 33 years,” says Gaul, who lives in Cherry Hill. “I am a geezer surfer and even take my longboard to the Jersey Shore in the winter, but I have no illusions that anything will change.”

“What I thought needed to be done was that someone had to write a modern history of the coast,” he says. “I watched LBI change over time—not just houses being bigger, but the economics changed.” These days, he says, it’s mainly the affluent who can buy or rent there. “I felt an overpowering need to write about all this.”

The final straw for Gaul was Hurricane Sandy. He had just finished another book project and plunged into watching the post-storm coverage. He felt it was missing the point.

“What happens with a hurricane is the national media flood in for a few days, helicopters hover, everyone sets a microphone in front of people who have had their houses destroyed,” says Gaul. “Everyone promises money will flow forward, and it does. Then the helicopters leave, but we never seem to answer the question, ‘What do we do next?’”

One thing is certain: More storms—and more destruction—will follow. “No place is stronger than a storm,” says Gaul. “You can’t build your way out of that danger.”

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Though Gaul goes to Texas, South Carolina and other coastal areas to gather ideas about dealing with the inevitability of storms, The Geography of Risk focuses in large part on the storm-tossed history of Jersey Shore towns on a spit of land that is seven feet above sea level at its highest point. Gaul recalls a time some 50 years ago when he and his buddies could rent a surf shack on LBI. Today, there are 19,000 properties on the island, says Gaul, and barely a surf shack in sight. The same is true for much of the Jersey Shore. With the exception of a few natural areas, like Island Beach State Park, north of LBI—almost every space possible has been built up over the years with larger and larger structures.

Of course, beach structures were never indestructible, but in the past, there were fewer of them. Gaul spends a lot of time with Shore-area mayors and developers—some of whom are one and the same. In the 1970s and 1980s, during times of relatively slow building, state regulators tried to work compromises. For example, they pushed for rules that nothing could be built within 100 feet, or even 50 feet, of the bays or ocean. 

Homeowners who were already there, and developers who wanted to build more, lobbied beach-area politicians to thwart most regulations. Dunes, like the one that protected Gaul’s first summer home in Loveladies, were leveled as well. Maps showed areas that supposedly could withstand a “100-year storm.” Alas, those superstorms now seem to come every 10 years or so.

In his book, Gaul details how billions in federal funds have been spent, often to save what, in the long run, can’t be saved. Climate change will exacerbate the problem of flooding and devastation along the coast. “As sea levels rise, larger, more powerful hurricanes will cause epic damage,” says Gaul, but even “normal” weather and water movements can sink or alter coastal barrier islands—like those treasured by geezer surfers, shoo-bees, townies and everyone else who loves the Shore.

“In the wake of Earth Day, some people tried to slow development, but they got beaten back,” says Gaul. “There are 40, 45 towns along the Jersey Shore, and they controlled zoning and permitting. They had an economic incentive to develop. There were no master plans.” 

In the mid-1980s, property values spiked upward at the Shore, creating an incentive not just to build, but to build grander. Federal insurance subsidies further encouraged the building boom. “I don’t know what you could have done at that point,” says Gaul.

In the years since Sandy hit in October 2012, federal funds have fueled beach replenishment, and insurance payments have spurred rebuilding, with many homes rising up on stilts to conform with new standards.

“The problem with houses on stilts is that is good until the sea rises,” says Gaul. “When that happens, how do you get there? By boat?”

After all his research and the continued threat of more and bigger storms, Gaul tries not to be totally pessimistic.

“I understand it, that people love to be near the water. I do, too,” says Gaul. “So maybe it is that we hope that the next big storms will not hit us. Or maybe we have 30 years until one does. The odds are, though, they will continue to hit somewhere, and, maybe at some point, people will just have to move back from the shoreline for good.” 


Longtime correspondent Robert Strauss lives in Haddonfield, but still spends summers in Stone Harbor.

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