I was a beach baby, a fortunate child who spent much of each summer at the Delaware shore. I was able to swim in the ocean by age three, mindful of big breakers and undertows because of a father who had been a lifeguard. And had met my mother when she introduced herself to a ruggedly handsome man atop a lifeguard stand at the very beach where my brother, sister and I were to later swim, built sand castles, eat Boardwalk fries and Old Bay-seasoned steamed blue crabs, took surreptitious sips of beer offered by my father’s Irish emigre mother, and endure raucous late-night poker games while tossing and turning on uncomfortable cots in the hot and stuffy attics of rental cottages.
I cannot recollect exactly when I first understood that this beach was a sort of house of cards, but I did eventually become aware that cottages, hotels, and boardwalk shops and concessions had been built chockablock on the dunes that are the environmental underpinnings of many beaches, disrupting the cyclical ebb and flow of the beach. That became obvious after the Great Nor’easter of 1962, which pretty much wiped out the beach block and dozens of ratty wood frame buildings, including the cottages where we had stayed.
When this beach town rebuilt, it was mindful of allowing the dunes free rein. Then in a second victory for common sense, in 1971 Delaware established a landmark Coastal Zone in which construction of industrial plants and high rises were prohibited. Most of the shoreline, save for a few relatively small incorporated communities, became state park where the dunes could come and go unfettered. And have provided surprises on our first trips to our particular state beach of choice each spring. Had the beach grown or shrunk over the winter? How much had the dune line moved? Toward or away from the ocean?
This so-called Dance of the Dunes was a lesson never understood — and in some cases rejected outright — by many of the New York and New Jersey shore communities devastated by Superstorm Sandy in late October. Meanwhile, communities mindful of the dunes’ crucial role that had allowed their beaches free rein, suffered substantially less damage from Sandy’s vicious storm surge.
There perhaps is no more pungent example of the wisdom of allowing Mother Nature to have her way than Long Beach, New York and three neighboring beaches on the westernmost barrier island off Long Island’s South Shore.
Barrier islands are narrow strips of sand that are parallel to mainland coasts and especially vulnerable to hurricanes. This prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to propose a $98 million plan in the late 1990s to build dunes and elevate beaches along the six miles of barrier island where Long Beach is located, but its city ouncil voted unanimously against paying the community’s $7 million initial share in the project. Surfers said a new beach would interfere with the curl of the waves, while businesses dependent on tourists railed against it because the ocean view from the Boardwalk would be obscured by new dunes.
The neighboring communities of Point Lookout, Lido Beach and Atlantic Beach approved construction of 15-foot-high dunes. Those dunes — sea walls of sand and vegetation — spared them a catastrophe, while Long Beach was flattened, suffering at least $200 million in damage.
Other examples abound.
Bradley Beach, on the North Jersey shore, began building a 15-foot-high dune barrier along its mile-long beach in the 1990s, laying 25,000 feet of snow fencing in a saw-tooth pattern, and later adding 20,000 recycled Christmas trees as traps for drifting sand. After wind pushed sand over this artificial dune, shoots of dune grass were planted to further stabilize the barrier.
When Sandy came knocking, the force of her surge flattened the dunes but left the town’s Boardwalk and houses only 75 feet from it intact. The town suffered a mere $3 million in damage, while many of its unprotected neighbors were destroyed.
(Overall, Sandy caused an estimate $65 billion in damage, second only to Hurricane Katrina at $108 billion, but this did not move 32 Republican senators who voted against giving New York, New Jersey and Connecticut disaster relief, although the senators in those Mid-Atlantic states stepped up when disaster hit the Gulf Coast and elsewhere.)
The big question for this beach baby in the weeks since Sandy has been whether those devastated shore communities have gotten religion. The short answer, fueled in part by an Obama administration that is making aid largely contingent on not repeating old mistakes, seems to be “you betcha.”
The Long Beach City Council now embraces an environmentally-friendly beach rebuilding project, while the Surfrider Foundation, an advocacy group that opposed dunes at Long Beach, has softened its stance.
Chad Nelsen, environmental director for the national group, said rising sea levels and the threat of more intense storms required a thoughtful consideration of all strategies.
“We’re more likely to have a less black-and-white view of the issue,” he said, however belatedly.
Awareness that climate change is not merely a liberal fantasy has been growing by the year. Superstorm Sandy should be a knockout punch for conservatives and industry stooges who have been in denial.
At least one can hope in the New Year.
“Report From 20 Paws Ranch,” which is the name of his mountain hideaway, appears on Mondays.