Resisted for Blocking the View, Dunes Prove They Blunt Storms
Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Long Beach, N.Y., which decided not to build protective sand dunes along its beach, experienced at least $200 million in losses.
Published: December 3, 2012
LONG BEACH, N.Y. — Surfers railed against the project because they said it would interfere with the curl of the waves. Local businesses reliant on beach tourism hated it, too. Who would flock to the historic Boardwalk, they asked, if sand dunes were engineered to rise up and obscure the ocean view?
And many residents did not care for the aesthetics of the $98 million plan — declaring that they preferred the beach wide and flat, with the soft, light-colored native sand that they had grown up with.
So, six years ago, after the Army Corps of Engineers proposed to erect dunes and elevate beaches along more than six miles of coast to protect this barrier island, the Long Beach City Council voted 5 to 0 against paying its $7 million initial share and taking part.
Many of Long Beach’s 33,000 residents would come to regret it.
The smaller neighboring communities on the barrier island — Point Lookout, Lido Beach and Atlantic Beach — approved construction of 15-foot-high dunes as storm insurance. Those dunes did their job, sparing them catastrophic damage while Long Beach suffered at least $200 million in property and infrastructure losses, according to preliminary estimates.
Joe Vietri, director of coastal and storm risk management for the corps, toured the damaged coastlines after the 12-to-14-foot storm surge of Hurricane Sandy and came to an inescapable conclusion. “The difference was dramatic for areas with vital and healthy dune systems, which did better than those that did not,” he said in a telephone interview. “You can see the evidence on Point Lookout and Lido Beach, which did much better than Long Beach.”
Mr. Vietri, who is overseeing a comprehensive coastal damage assessment, says it is too early to provide hard figures on how towns with barriers fared in comparison with those, like Long Beach, without them.
But up and down the coast, for the most part, dune barriers acted like soft sea walls made of sand and vegetation that even when flattened or breached still managed to protect places like Westhampton Beach on Long Island, Plumb Beach in Brooklyn, and Bradley Beach in Monmouth County, N.J., by blunting the attack of surging waves and tides.
Richard T. Bianchi Jr., public works supervisor in New Jersey’s Bradley Beach, said the town began building its 15-foot-high dune barrier along the mile-long waterfront in the 1990s by laying 25,000 feet of snow fencing in a saw-tooth pattern down the beach and later adding 20,000 recycled Christmas trees as traps for drifting sand. After wind pushed sand over the structure, shoots of dune grass were planted to further stabilize the barrier.
When Hurricane Sandy came, the force of the waves flattened the dunes but left the town’s Boardwalk and the houses just 75 feet from it intact. Plans to restore the Bradley Beach dunes are already under way. The town’s dune-barrier project cost about $10,000 in 1996, Mr. Bianchi said. The town suffered $2 million to $3 million in damage, officials said, while many of its unprotected coastal neighbors were devastated.
“People complained about how high they were, but now they’re not complaining,” Mr. Bianchi said. “They’re praising.”
The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with maintaining the nation’s coastline, said some of the 100 miles of barrier dunes in the region were built by the corps, others by local governments themselves. Many of the projects were built to withstand storms less powerful than Hurricane Sandy, the corps said, and even in places where the surge cut through the sand, the dunes helped to soften the blow.
Cliff Jones, a program manager with the corps’s North Atlantic division in Brooklyn, was the project manager for the 2006 barrier-island dune project that Long Beach rejected. He said the dune would have limited the damage to the town.
“It’s not to say it would have stopped everything, but it would have stopped some,” Mr. Jones said.
Now Long Beach officials say they are reconsidering. “It’s no longer a hypothetical,” Jack Schnirman, the city manager, said. “It’s a reality, and we have to rebuild in a way that takes into account catastrophic storms in the future.”
Long Beach and other vulnerable communities will have to await an act of Congress before restoration and beach-protection projects can move forward. New York’s senators, Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, have asked for a $1 billion emergency appropriation to pay for seven corps sea-barrier construction projects that have been approved by Congress but have never been financed. Included are construction on the south shore of Staten Island, Coney Island, Rockaway Beach, Long Beach and the shoreline from Fire Island to Montauk Point.
“These are projects that should get built, providing the local communities go along,” Mr. Schumer said. In Long Beach, he added, “now everybody supports it.”
The projects can include sea wall or dune building and nourishing beaches to a higher elevation with millions of cubic yards of sand. But some shoreline experts warn that anything short of relocating the buildings and development closest to the ocean only buys time as sea levels rise.
“If you put up a sea wall, the beach will disappear because you stop its ability to move landward,” said Robert S. Young, director of the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. And restoration projects, he said, need to be maintained, at great financial cost.
The Surfrider Foundation, an advocacy group that opposed artificial dunes at Long Beach, has softened its stance against armoring coastlines. 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, including relocation.
“We’re more likely to have a less black-and-white view of the issue,” he said.
Homeowners along the coast are undergoing a similar rethinking. But some experts say dunes can lend a false sense of security.
“People think that if we have a nice big dune, they don’t have to worry and can build a high rise,” said Orrin H. Pilkey, professor emeritus of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University. “I think that’s a very serious shortcoming of dunes.”
He supports dune restoration but also proposes limiting and mitigating development, including not rebuilding destroyed homes next to the beach and elevating others onto stilts to avoid flooding in the event that dunes are overtopped.
“Our preference is to put those dunes back as quickly as possible,” said Julie Schreck, the mayor of Bradley Beach. “I hope other communities will consider trying to emulate nature as much as they can, but I guess every town has to take stock of its own preferences.”
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Dec 4, 2012, 12:18 PM #1
This Will Be Interesting in Terms of How It Plays Out
Dec 4, 2012, 01:10 PM #2
Dec 4, 2012, 01:11 PM #3
i have a HUGE amount of respect for Orrin Pilkey, the man's a practically a genius & has had a massive impact on the way scientists & others interested in coastal geology think about sand, barrier islands, etc...but to ascribe the naivete of willfully blind humans as a shortcoming of dunes is absurd. it's not the dunes' fault that people don't understand how dune systems work. Pilkey should know better.
also, dunes don't have to be (& shouldn't be) mountainous & steep, but rather low & long...look at avalon, nj as an example. they've left large portions of their (relatively) low & long dune system intact & suffered some of the least amount of damage in all of cape may county. the north end of oc, nj had tall, steep dunes & those dunes were blown out by monday morning w/ the worst of the storm to come.
hard structures (sea walls, groins, jetties) are worse still...they prevent the natural migration of sand, literally robbing peter to pay paul. it's no coincidence that south jersey tends to have a dominant north-south longshore current & wildwood's beaches are so huge. oc, sea isle, avalon, & stone harbor pay millions to replenish their beaches, then a storm comes & washes it away & that sands eventually winds up on wildwood's beaches. for the last 20 years, my tax $$ has essentially paid for wildwood's ever-expanding beaches instead of a practical approach to protecting my home island.
Dec 4, 2012, 01:13 PM #4Junior Member
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- Dec 2012
The ASP and Rip Curl did not choose Long Beach randomly for the Search Event. It was chosen based on research that revealed the bottom topography of the sea floor in this region focusing swell onto this small stretch of beach creating larger waves in Long Beach than other beaches.
I think Surfline did one of their wave mechanic pieces on Long Beach. Check it out.
If ACOE blames locals for not heeding their recommendations they are jumping to conclusions as they have done in so many of their other projects along the east coast. Many of these other projects resulted in loss of beaches and created the depressing cycle of beach replenishment projects up and down the coast.
It is inexcusable and irresponsible to blame the locals for the destruction. It is unlikely that a puny fifteen foot sand dune would have made a bit of difference.
The conditions that resulted in the destruction were in place long before Long Island was even inhabited.
Dec 4, 2012, 01:22 PM #5
Dec 4, 2012, 02:12 PM #7
Sounds pretty clear what needs to be done. Dune systems work, plain and simple, the evidence supports that without a doubt. I don't see anything wrong with what was said as far as the ACOE suggesting that people voted against it and now they are regretting it, as long as it's the truth. If it's the truth, then it is what it is, learn from it and move on. No, it won't block 100% of every major storm, but it will definitely minimize the damage. That and putting the homes up on stilts, there is evidence of this working all along the coast. Nothing is 100% but you can't deny that it helps.
Dec 4, 2012, 02:29 PM #8Senior Member
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- Aug 2011
- Capo Beach
A lot of the damage was on the bayside - I don't think the ACOE plan involved any dunes or protection on the bayside. Interestingly, I don't see the ACOE mentioning this shortfall anywhere. Let's come up with a plan that makes sense instead of just knee-jerk reactions blaming people for voting against a project that may not have helped.
Dec 4, 2012, 03:52 PM #9
zrich... You're right. A lot of the flooding in Northern Mo Co was from the river side. Ignoring that is a huge oversight.
Beach nourishment alone doesn't work, just like hard structures like seawalls and jetties don't work. But engineered in such a way as to interact... the whole becomes greater than the sum of it's parts. It's the dynamic interaction of these elements that will give us the greatest return on our investment.
The seawall through Mon Beach and Sea Bright started in the 1870s... THE 1870s!!... when the railroad was built along the dune line. That tells you how old that "technology" is. They thought armoring the shoreline was the answer to eliminating erosion and subsequent retreat from an increasingly popular tourist destination. They were wrong. The 1960s saw the peak of this mindset when massive amounts of money and effort where put into building groins, jetties, and topping the sea wall without any science behind it, and without governmental restrictions. They were wrong, too.
Now we're paying for our mistakes... with our homes, our property, our businesses, out tax dollars.... our lifestyles.
Last edited by LBCrew; Dec 4, 2012 at 05:09 PM.
Dec 5, 2012, 11:26 AM #10
The People’s Beach
By ANDREW W. KAHRL
Published: December 4, 2012
“IN recent years, fences and barricades have blocked the public right to have access to our seas. We are becoming a landlocked people, fenced away from our own beautiful shores, unable to exercise the ancient right to enjoy our precious beaches.” This is how Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas characterized the relationship between the American public and its coasts in 1969. Nearly a half-century later, those same words could have described much of the New Jersey and Long Island shorelines on the eve of Hurricane Sandy.
In the years between, up and down the Eastern Seaboard, beachfront property owners, wealthy municipalities and private homeowners’ associations threw up a variety of physical and legal barriers designed to ensure the exclusivity — and marketability — of the beach. These measures were not only antisocial but also environmentally destructive.
By increasing the value of shoreline property and encouraging rampant development, the trend toward privatizing formerly public space has contributed in no small measure to the damage storms like Hurricane Sandy inflict. Tidal lands that soaked up floodwaters were drained and developed. Jetties, bulkheads and sea walls were erected, hastening erosion. And sand dunes — which block rising waters but also profitable ocean views — were bulldozed.
It didn’t have to be this way. In 1967, Bob Eckhardt, a first-term congressman from Texas, came to Washington determined to do for the nation what he had done for the Texas coastline. As a state legislator, Mr. Eckhardt had passed the nation’s first open beaches law, the Texas Open Beaches Act of 1959, which defined all land below the vegetation line as belonging to the state for use by the people.
Rather than a departure, this bill was a restoration of the ancient right of the public to the foreshore — a right dating from Roman civil law that was incorporated into English common law, transported to the American colonies and finally preserved in the new nation in what came to be known as the Public Trust Doctrine. Sadly, each state interpreted that doctrine differently. While on the West Coast, a strong tradition of public beach access prevailed, along much of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and especially along the crowded Northeast corridor, states tended to adopt a very narrow interpretation. Some states maintained that the Public Trust Doctrine covered only the public’s right to fishing and navigation, and still others largely ignored it.
While Mr. Eckhardt’s bill was, in the truest sense, conservative, its effects on the Texas coastline were nothing short of radical. The fences and jetties that beachfront property owners had constructed to restrict public access were dismantled. In some instances, buildings were torn down. Slowly, the beach returned to a more natural state.
The National Open Beaches Act, first proposed in 1969 by Mr. Eckhardt with Senator Yarborough, intended to do the same, by outlawing “any obstruction, barrier, or restraint of any nature which interferes with the free and unrestricted right of the public ... to enter, leave, cross, or use as a common the public beaches.” But opponents assembled a host of arguments against its passage. Open beaches would attract more people to the shore, tying up traffic, ruining fragile sand dunes and leaving a trail of litter. It was the classic “tragedy of the commons” thesis. Given how overrun with bathers public beaches had become, this argument seemed to make sense.
But time has shown that the biggest threat to America’s coasts is not an overabundance of public space but its absence. As the bill stalled in Congress, private development along the Eastern Seaboard accelerated. By 1974, one coastal scientist bemoaned that the “waterfront lot” had “replaced the public beach as the modern symbol of coastal America.” Beaches were no longer a public resource but a private asset, and ensuring the value of beachfront real estate came to play an increasingly influential role in shaping environmental policy.
Reaffirming the public’s right to the beach could be the first step in a more just and sustainable coastal environmental policy. The argument used to defeat the Open Beaches bill — that it would depress real estate values — is precisely the reason we need to reintroduce an updated version of this legislation now. Without the ability of property owners to wall off and claim the beach as their own, coastal real estate values would slowly decline, and the pressure to develop would dissipate (or at least become more ecologically sensitive).
I’m not calling for a full-scale retreat from the coast. Long before the modern age of coastal development, people lived by the sea. Their homes were routinely battered by storms, and they didn’t try to defy nature by constructing fortifications to preserve each attractive stretch of shore, since they knew that what was there today would most likely be gone tomorrow. We need to return to those sustainable practices, and an open beaches act could help us get there.
By dedicating beaches to the states for use by the public, Congress would be declaring an end to the destructive — and futile — attempts by private property owners to hold back the sea. It would ensure a better future for America’s coasts and restore one of our founding legal principles. We would not be confiscating private property, but merely recognizing who owned it all along: us.
Andrew W. Kahrl, an assistant professor of history at Marquette, is the author of “The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches From Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South.”