Nature or Nurture for Sandy-Damaged Shorelines

Prior to Sandy, beaches with artificial barriers and nearby development in New York, as well as Rhode Island, had fallen behind on sand nourishment and preservation, and subsequently suffered significant damage from the storm. Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly went decades without new sand. The shoreline has a significant fixed infrastructure with roads and parking lots, as well as waterfront homes and hotels. Sandy destroyed dozens of these structures and unearthed artificial barriers, such as old cars, used to reinforce sand dunes after Hurricane Carol in 1954.

Homes along Ocean Drive in South Kingstown, R.I., have been raised, an expensive option if you want to continue to live along the coast | Photo credit John Supancic

Homes along Ocean Drive in South Kingstown, R.I., have been raised, an expensive option if you want to continue to live along the coast | Photo credit John Supancic

The state spent $3.1 million in federal funds to truck in 84,000 cubic yards of new sand from a nearby quarry in the spring of 2014. Much like the sediment it is replacing, the new beach sand is expected to slowly migrate east into nearby ponds through manmade inlets. It’s a cyclical process that requires periodic dredging as well as funding to keep everything in place.

“Now we need to take the sand back out and put it back into the system so it moves along the shore again,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

Fugate supported local efforts to replenish the beach with sand from Winnapaug Pond, a site decades overdue for sand and silt removal. But the prolonged permitting process for dredging required by several state and federal entities was slow, while the availability of federal funds to truck in new sand was up for the taking.

“If we had another [Superstorm] Sandy on top of this we’d be devastated. So we have to maintain it,” said Amy Grzybowski, Westerly’s director of emergency management.

“Storms are on steroids these days.”

Economic vitality, in particular, is a major issue in determining Rhode Island’s response to accelerating erosion. A recent controversial decision by CRMC permitted construction of an artificial wall to protect businesses and homes along Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown. When complete, the wall will reinforce other artificial armoring and seawalls that protect road access to the beach community. Yet the artificial barrier is expected to hasten erosion along the already withered beachfront. The decision has faced legal challenges and illustrates the complicated process for addressing the threats of sea level rise and stronger hurricanes.

 

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