Sea Change: Post-Sandy Rebuilding

The post-Sandy rebuilding is about to begin. How will the lessons learned change the face of our Shore?

Seaside Heights Jet Star Rollar Coaster
Seaside Heights’ Jet Star rollercoaster, swept off its pier and into the surf, became an eerie symbol of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive force.
Photo by Joseph P. Graziano.

On the morning of October 30, Scott Kelly and his wife, Amy, drove back to Sea Bright for the first time since they had been forced to evacuate in advance of what reporters and meteorologists were by then calling Superstorm Sandy. The Kellys had come to survey the damage to the Mad Hatter, the sports bar and restaurant at 10 East Ocean Avenue that they have owned and operated for seven years, as well as the nearby house that they bought from Scott’s grandparents. As they walked south along Ocean Avenue, they were dazed by what they saw.

“The beach clubs along the ocean were gone; whole houses were gone,” Scott remembers. “We walked over huge piles of debris, beach club pieces, cars sticking out of the sand. It was worse than any of the photos we’d seen—it was a war zone.” So when he found the Mad Hatter still standing, his initial response was relief. Then he walked around to the patio, which faces the beach.

The storm surge had receded, leaving three feet of standing water; the ocean-facing east wall had been knocked down. Furniture from the patio was now floating where the tiki bar once stood; TVs that had been bolted to the ceiling were submerged in seawater. There was so much sand in some places that you could stand on it and touch the ceiling.

The Kellys’ house wasn’t much better. The surge had blown in windows and doors, rushed through the house and out the sliding back doors, strewing a ragged trail of personal belongings across neighboring properties. On the town’s 1-to-5 scale of damage assessment—with 5 indicating damage severe enough to require complete demolition—the Mad Hatter and the Kellys’ home were both 4s. Still, Scott and Amy never doubted for a moment doubted that they would rebuild.

“That house is the one constancy in our lives—it’s the place that everyone in the family calls home,” Scott says. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to maintain it.” Not long after the storm, the Kellys joined a team of Sea Bright home- and business-owners and public officials charged with determining the best way to rebuild the shattered town to better survive the inevitable next superstorm. The good news, Kelly notes, is that “we have a clean slate.”

While not every Shore town was wiped clean, rebuilding after Sandy’s October 29 onslaught will require Herculean effort. At deadline, Governor Chris Christie estimated losses in the entire state at $36.8 billion, with much of the damage at the Shore. That figure is almost certain to increase as insurers, engineers and government agencies finish their inventory of the destruction. Speaking to the residents of battered Seaside Park just days after the storm, Christie said reconstruction would likely take years. “Next summer,” he warned, “is not going to be like last summer.”

Still, as daunting as the long climb to normalcy may seem, most businesses and homeowners appear to be committed to scaling that mountain.

This too could change. Kevin Sommons, an engineer who works extensively on the Shore, predicts many property owners will leave the most devastated areas when estimates of construction costs and insurance reimbursements roll in. “You go down to the beach emotionally and you’re determined to fix the house and get it right,” he says. “But then the numbers come in. That’s when we’re going to see what really happens.”

No matter how many homeowners and businesses decide to head for higher ground, the Shore will be rebuilt. Pledges to do just that have come from sources as disparate as President Obama, Governor Christie, Sea Bright mayor Dina Long and Billy Major, owner of the devastated FunTown Amusement in Seaside Park. The Shore is, after all, a high-powered economic engine, generating some $21.6 billion annually in tourism dollars.

Less certain is what the post-Sandy Shore will look like. That depends on whether Sandy is seen as a meteorological aberration or as the new normal.

“Sandy is a harbinger of things we might expect to see in a changing climate,” says Marjorie Kaplan, associate director of the Rutgers Climate and Environmental Change Initiative. As ocean temperatures rise, water vapor is increasingly drawn into the atmosphere—which could, in theory, fuel stronger and more frequent hurricanes. Even if that doesn’t happen, the rise in local sea level already documented is likely to make tidal surges—Sandy’s most destructive element—much more likely.

“The sea level is rising about four millimeters a year in New Jersey,” Kaplan says. If that doesn’t strike you as terribly dramatic, consider that experts expect it to rise by three feet over the next century. Couple that with the process known as “land subsidence”—the gradual sinking of land masses caused by the tow from retreating glaciers and depleted groundwater—and low-lying areas such as the Shore’s barrier islands look particularly vulnerable.

The science is compelling, but so is the human desire to bounce back. Within days of the storm, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection waived permit requirements in order to fast-track rebuilding of infrastructure like roads, bridges, bulkheads and culverts—a move that rankled some environmentalists. “Many of the things they’re rebuilding are in the wrong place or not built to the right levels,” says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. “Instead of just rebuilding a road where the abutments were totally washed out, maybe we should elevate it.”

Tittel and others see Sandy as an opportunity to reevaluate—keeping ideas that work, jettisoning those that don’t and devising new strategies informed by what we are learning about climate change and rising sea levels.

No strategy has received as much attention—before or after the storm—as beach replenishment. For more than 20 years, the Army Corps of Engineers has been rebuilding many of New Jersey’s storm-eroded beaches, largely by pumping in submerged sand from offshore. While replenishment does restore beaches, the process is controversial. For one thing, it’s not a permanent fix. Erosion—the wearing away of beaches and dunes through wave action, tidal currents and other forces—is a natural part of the life cycle of a beach. In undeveloped coastal areas and barrier islands, notes Hilary Stockdon of the U.S. Geological Survey, “beaches respond to sea-level rise and storms by moving upward and inland, through a process known as overwash”—the migration of sand pushed and carried inland by storm surges and large waves. If ocean currents in an area are not naturally conducive to moving sand ashore, there’s no way to rebuild beachfront lost to erosion and overwash except through replenishment.

And that’s expensive. Since 1990, beach replenishment programs along New Jersey’s 130-mile Atlantic coast have cost taxpayers $475 million, with about 65 percent of the expense borne by the federal government and 35 percent by the state, which draws from a $25 million-per-year fund. Localities generally cover 25 percent of the state’s share, though occasionally they, or the state, take on individual projects on their own. While tax revenue is renewable, sand—like water, oil and other natural resources—is not.

“There’s a finite sand resource available to us,” says Thomas Herrington, an ocean engineer at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. Replenishment can also have environmental consequences, disrupting seafloor habitats and destabilizing the shoreline by creating a steeper submerged slope—although, Herrington notes, wave action will eventually erode the beach to a more natural slope, though it can take between one and five years.

But the biggest objection to replenishment is that in storms like Sandy, it doesn’t protect lives and property very well. To do that, most experts say, you need dunes—ridges of sand at the back of a beach, optimally held in place by vegetation.

John Weber, northeast regional manager of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to beach and ocean protection, lives in Bradley Beach, three blocks from the ocean. The town’s beach was replenished by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1999-2000, along with beaches in the neighboring towns of Avon and Belmar about the same time. Dune-building wasn’t part of the project, but Bradley Beach opted to build a dune at its own expense. When Sandy struck, says Weber, “the dunes saved the town—no question.”

Though the storm took out most of the dunes, Weber’s house, like most homes and businesses in Bradley Beach, sustained only minimal damage. In Avon and Belmar, the storm surge easily swept over the beach and through the streets, leaving a trail of devastation. According to FEMA, 233 structures were damaged in Avon and 690 in Belmar, compared to 92 in Bradley Beach—where the boardwalk also escaped destruction.

Indeed, all along the Shore, towns with extensive dune systems, like Harvey Cedars on Long Beach Island, were largely spared serious damage, while towns without dunes, like Long Beach Township, also on LBI, were flooded. And the higher and wider the dunes, the better protection they offered.

Unfortunately, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the state’s beach replenishment program, doesn’t require that dunes be part of every project. That could change in Sandy’s wake. Lawrence Hajna, a state DEP spokesman, says the department, FEMA and the Army Corps plan to study “what worked and didn’t work” along the Shore during the storm. The agency might well keep in mind Herrington’s warning that, for dunes to do their best, they need to be continuous. “For many years,” he notes, “we’ve been protecting the coast on a town-by-town basis. But the coast operates as a system.” If a town lacking dunes is sandwiched between two protected towns, Herrington says, it’s susceptible to greater damage than it would have suffered had all three towns been unprotected.

One obstacle to treating New Jersey’s coast as a system is the prickly issue of private property. For dune projects to go through, residents whose homes front the ocean have to give their okay by signing easements. Many have been reluctant to do that, citing lost ocean views and concomitant declines in property value. In Harvey Cedars, in a case now before the New Jersey Supreme Court, the owners of one home won a $375,000 settlement in a lower court to compensate for the loss of their view when dunes were built. And Long Beach Township has not been able to get its own replenishment and dune-building project going because it can’t get easements from enough of its ocean-facing property owners. Sandy, though, may have made a persuasive argument in favor of signing.

“People are irate because the sand from the oceanfront is all over the neighborhood, and they have to pay to remove it,” says Long Beach Township mayor Joseph Mancini. Several weeks after the storm, the mayor’s office had already contacted 10 of the holdouts, and nine of them, he says, had agreed to sign the easements.

Most experts agree that beach replenishment incorporating dune building offers protection to life and property. But other engineering strategies, particularly in combination with sand replenishment and dune building, may help as well. Groins—rock walls built perpendicular to the beach (similar to jetties, which are most often built in inlets to keep shipping channels open) and generally constructed in groups known as fields—are designed to interrupt the flow of water and slow the rate of sand movement.

“Groin fields provide a way to manage the rate of movement [of sand] and help maintain a wide beach,” explains Herrington. That provides some protection for oceanfront buildings. Unfortunately, he says, many groin fields in New Jersey were not designed to work together. When they move sand to one stretch of beach, in some cases they steal it from another.

Sea walls—often maligned because they can increase wave strength by returning energy oceanward as waves pound against the walls (which accelerates beach erosion)—can also be part of an overall coastal protection strategy. The walls are built parallel to the shoreline as the last defense to protect the community—not the beach. “The rock seawall in Bay Head, built after the 1962 nor’easter, saved Bay Head from the [extent of] damage we saw this time in Mantoloking,” says Herrington. Mantoloking, which has no sea wall, suffered more structural damage inland than Bay Head because the surge was able to rush through the entire town, collaspsing more homes. Herrington envisions sea walls as “one layer of multiple layers of protection,” but advises placing a wide beach and high dune in front of the wall. (It’s also possible to bury a sea wall in a dune for additional protection, as has been done in Bay Head.)

Herrington emphasizes that the engineering has to be part of a wide-reaching coastal plan. “We have to look at the coast as a system,” he says. “As we rebuild, we need to think about allowing the natural system to respond to change by requiring building setback and perhaps natural floodways or dune migration paths. We have the knowledge and the tools to do this; we just have to be committed to doing it.”

One way to achieve building setback is through “strategic retreat,” the process of moving the most vulnerable homes and businesses away from the shoreline. Peter Kasabach, executive director of the land-use advocacy nonprofit New Jersey Future, believes we have to balance convenience and economic factors with smart land-use policies, such as dune building, beach replenishment and moving residences further from the water. “People may have to walk an extra block to the beach, or we might have parking areas that are a little farther away from the beach,” he says. “There may not be houses right up at the end of every road, at the end of every beach.”

That concept resonates with Dina Long, mayor of Sea Bright. “The day after the water pulled back,” she says, “Sea Bright looked like a scene from the apocalypse.” The storm waters had demolished the entire business district and virtually every other oceanfront structure in the town. Though she says she can’t divulge her proposal for rebuilding until she meets with Governor Christie, Long admits that “it does involve getting things higher and getting them farther away from the water.”

One of the iconic images of Sandy’s aftermath is the twisted remains of the Seaside Heights roller coaster protruding from the ocean like the skeleton of some extinct sea creature. It may be telling us that amusement parks should no longer be sited on fragile piers. “Each of the Shore’s 19th-century piers were gone by 1962, and even steel and concrete fail over time,” says Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Along with strategic retreat, environmentalists are calling for the restoration of natural barriers like wetlands that were drained years ago in order to build closer to the ocean. “New Jersey has drained about 40 percent of its wetlands since European settlement,” says Lenore Tedesco, executive director of the nonprofit Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor. “There was a lull in so-called wetland reclamation during the Depression and World War II, then it really picked up again until the Clean Water Act of the early 1970s.”

Tittel maintains, “We should turn some of those low-lying areas that got flooded so badly, and keep getting flooded, back into marshes and wetlands.” Tedesco agrees. “Wetland restoration is a proven flood-control strategy,” she says, noting that wetlands serve as sponges, absorbing flood waters. In fact, scientists estimate that a single acre of wetland can store 1.5 million gallons of water.

“Down in southern Cape May County, surge levels were lower than projected,” Tedesco says, “in part because of where and when the storm arrived. However, another major factor is the vast expanse of intact wetland that we have down here.”

It may be hard to build support for restoring wetlands elsewhere on the Shore, where the population is growing rapidly. In Ocean County, which includes Long Beach Island, the population (including part-timers) jumped by nearly 70 percent between 1980 and 2010. Realistically, we can’t put the development genie back in the bottle at popular mainland beaches or the barrier islands (which include, north to south, the Barnegat Peninsula, Long Beach Island, Brigantine Island, Absecon Island, Ocean City, Ludlam Island and Seven Mile Island).

“If you don’t want damage and loss, you shouldn’t build on barrier islands,” says Farrell. “But that day ended about 1810, when Brother Tucker came to Long Beach Island with his Quakers.”

Over the past decade, New Jersey’s DEP repeatedly has warned that the state needs to keep private development away from flood-prone areas. Yet development continues apace. In fact, the State Strategic Plan and the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) identify many of the regions flooded by Sandy as growth areas. A recent Sierra Club report says that in the CAFRA zone of Ocean County, “we could add 200,000 more people based on existing regulations, and [the state wants] to add another 100,000 people to Lakewood [about 10 miles inland] on top of that, more than doubling Ocean County’s population.”

“Do we really want to put more people in harm’s way?” Tittel asks. Those who preach caution argue that we should develop only in those areas that aren’t prone to flooding and storm damage. And, says Tittel, we need to rethink some of the more lenient building regulations that put Shore residents in jeopardy. A loophole in the CAFRA bill, for example, exempts from state review and approval all developments under 25 units in environmentally sensitive areas. One way to control development, suggests Kasabach, is to adapt to the Shore a process called transfer of development rights, which has been used mostly to save farmland. “You take the development rights in a very vulnerable area, like near the beach,” he explains, “and transfer them to an area that’s safer.”

Immediately after the storm, most official pronouncements—especially those of the governor—were largely emotional. Soon, calls for more careful planning began to bubble up. At the advice of the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, Christie named Marc Ferzan, a former assistant U.S. attorney and a managing director with PricewaterhouseCoopers, as “storm czar” in charge of coordinating recovery efforts. The state Senate has started to hold budget hearings in several of the hardest-hit towns to help devise an overarching reconstruction plan. The first of those hearings on November 26 in Toms River made clear the conflict between those who want to move quickly and those who favor careful planning.

“There’s a rush to give people answers that might not be the right answers,” said Senate president Stephen M. Sweeney after the hearing. He described the budget committee’s approach as “taking a step back to do it the right way.”

Still, it’s hard not to be emotional when it comes to the Jersey Shore. Nadine Behrens spent her childhood summers in the Camp Osborn section of Brick Township. It’s where she brought her kids—until a fire, most likely ignited by an exploding transformer during Sandy, destroyed the family’s bungalow and many others.
“Are we going to rebuild?” she asks. “Absolutely. We’ll do whatever Brick Township will allow us to do, whatever the government says we can do, to protect ourselves from future storms.”

Storms are powerful, but so is the human need for continuity.

“We lived in houses that weren’t large,” says Behrens. “We made do and spent most of our time at the beach. My friends are now there with their children, and my kids are now friends with their kids, so it’s just continuously progressing….We all want to bring back that feeling.”

Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a longtime contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

Click on the links below to read more Hurricane Sandy recovery stories:

How Much Will Safer Shore Homes Cost?
How we rebuild Shore homes and businesses may be as critical as where.

Building Better Boardwalks: How Asbury’s Modern Boardwalk Withstood the Storm
Here’s how Asbury Park did it—largely sparing its popular promenade from devastating damage.

The Hudson Challenge: Are Critical Infrastructure Upgrades Overdue?
On Jersey’s Gold Coast, aging infrastructure can no longer be ignored.

Comfort in Numbers: Life After Sandy
Her Bay Head home battered by Sandy, our home & garden editor learns to roll with the punches.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required not shown
Required not shown