Friday, August 23, 2013

Ever since I was a wee lad I’ve been fascinated by the efforts shore communities make to preserve their beaches. I remember standing on the boardwalk at Ninth Street in Ocean City, N.J., watching as tons of sand being pumped from the bay, across town to the beach. If they didn’t dredge the bay and pump sand every few years the beaches would all get washed away like the one at Ninth Street that disappeared under the boardwalk twice a day at high tide that year. I would spend hours building walls of sand waiting for the tide to roll in and wash them away. In the end, the ocean flattened my walls and reclaimed all the sand I shoveled.
Back in May, when I talked to Dr. Edward J. Mahaney Jr., mayor of Cape May, about the cost of the recovery from Sandy he made a pretty good argument for continuing to build up our beaches. Mahaney said tourism in Cape May County alone — from Ocean City south to Cape May — is a $5.1 billion industry that pumped $484 million into New Jersey’s general fund last year. Then last week I saw a story about a seawall that was built on the beach at Bay Head, N.J. The 1,260-meter wall of stone was built in 1882 to protect the town from the furies of the sea. Over more than 120 years, the seawall was covered with sand and eventually forgotten. Forgotten that is until Oct. 29 when Hurricane Sandy scoured the sand off the beaches of northern New Jersey shore towns and in some cases destroyed most of the structures, utilities and roads. Sandy uncovered the Bay Head seawall and a team of engineers and geoscientists think it’s the reason only one structure in Bay Head was destroyed while about 50 percent of adjacent Mantoloking was categorized as destroyed. Sandy stripped away much of the sand at Bay Head but the seawall didn’t budge. Though the water washed over Bay Head the seawall took most of the power out of the waves. But the researchers said the fact the townspeople forgot about their seawall points to the difficulty of protecting at-risk shore communities when their populations are so transient. Sure, vacationers come and go, but all shore towns have a year round population, said former Congressman William J. Hughes, who represented New Jersey’s second district from 1975-95 and championed coastal causes like ending 60 years of dumping sewage into the ocean by New York City and a host of north Jersey towns. “You’ve got to continue to protect our beaches,” Hughes said. “It’s like repaving the roads.” Hughes, who lives in Ocean City, N.J., said Sandy highlighted some of the flaws in local planning and development. “Years ago they probably built houses too close to the ocean,” Hughes said. “Long term planning is extremely important.” Hughes said Ocean City has it’s own seawall buried in the sand on the north end of the island near the foot of the Longport Bridge. “No one knew about that seawall until we had a storm that uncovered it but the seawall did its job,” he said. When another part of the island not protected by the seawall was endangered by rising tides, the former mayor of the town, an undertaker, created a makeshift seawall out of concrete burial vaults and saved the day. It’s a good story but the burial vaults wouldn’t have been needed back then if the town had taken a comprehensive look at protecting all the beaches. Now they have, Hughes said. “Ocean City now has a 50-year plan for beach preservation,” he said. I, for one, am glad to hear it. I’d hate to think all those years of shoveling sand were in vain.

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