In Place Of Sandy-Ravaged Homes, ‘Living’ Beach Helps NJ Prepare For Next Storm

Part of Gandys Beach has been turned into an experiment to test resilience strategies in the face of rising seas threatening New Jersey’s famously populated coastline.

A house foundation overtaken by water and vegetation at Fortescue Beach in Fortescue, NJ last week.  Due to flood damage and destructive storms like Hurricane Sandy, scientists and engineers have identified key areas along the Jersey Shore on the Delaware Bay side for the use of preventive measures to ensure a healthy ecosystem and to adapt to the rapid rise in sea level.
A house foundation overtaken by water and vegetation at Fortescue Beach in Fortescue, NJ last week. Due to flood damage and destructive storms like Hurricane Sandy, scientists and engineers have identified key areas along the Jersey Shore on the Delaware Bay side for the use of preventative measures to ensure a healthy ecosystem and adapt to rapidly rising sea levels. (Michelle Gustafson for The Washington Post)


Ten years after Hurricane Sandy carved a deadly and destructive path down the East Coast, reminders of its impact linger on the Jersey Shore. Abandoned buildings, first damaged by the storm, now bear another decade of disrepair. There are docks missing rows of wooden planks and telltale water pipes etched into garage doors like old faded scars signs not necessarily noticeable to outsiders, but clear to storm survivors, many of whom now tower over these properties in homes chocked to comply with new insurance guidelines.

Gandys Beach, a popular fishing spot along Delaware Bay, falls into another category: places transformed and now almost unrecognizable. After Sandy’s storm surge encountered a row of houses on Bayview Road, the state bought out most of those buildings, and the street itself is now more sand than road. What remains is an unmaintained stretch of beach with a new purpose. It has been turned into an experiment, where government officials, scientists and engineers work together to test nature-based resilience strategies for the rising seas threatening the famous and heavily populated coast of New Jersey.

While climate change is causing widespread sea level rise, the Jersey Shore is experiencing it at a rate more than double the global average, according to a Rutgers University study. This is partly because the land is sinking into it, due to natural and man-made factors. In the last century Gandys beach alone has seen a foot of sea level rise, and lost nearly 500 feet of shoreline. Experts familiar with the area describe the tide there as ‘aggressive’, ‘bumpy’ and ‘crazy’ – the water swells enough to go from lapping your toes at low tide to rising above your head during an average high tide. These conditions make adaptation increasingly critical.

After Sandy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received $167 million in federal funding to restore damaged wildlife facilities and habitats. during the storm. They spent $880,000 on Gandys Beach. If a project can survive and thrive in an environment like Gandys, fish and wildlife biologist Danielle McCulloch thinks it can withstand conditions anywhere. The progress and failures encountered on this shrinking stretch of shore now inform mitigation strategies along the coast, including the creation of “living shores” made of natural materials like oysters and marshes to prevent loss. of land.

On a cloudy July day, the air thick promising rain, McCulloch summoned some members of the team behind the Gandys Beach project to review their work. Wearing tall wading boots and carrying binoculars around her neck, McCulloch apologized in advance for interrupting anyone to point out interesting wildlife – “I feel like missing out on nature is worse than being rude,” she explained. There were a number of reasons for interruptions along the beaches of Delaware Bay that morning, from squalls of shorebirds to a parade of horseshoe crabs leaving swirls in the sand as ‘they were heading for the water. Delaware Bay is home to the largest population of horseshoe crabs in the world, and Gandys Beach serves as a migratory stopover for endangered rufa red knot birds, which come to nibble on crab eggs.

McCulloch and his colleagues came to see a series of offshore structures called “breakwaters”, installed about four years after Sandy. Extending intermittently for 3,000 feet parallel to the shore, the 10-by-30-foot formations serve as physical barriers between the waves and the beach, visible at low tide and fully submerged when the water rises.

Oyster castles – strong, interlocking blocks made of a mixture of concrete and oyster shell that entice marine molluscs to cling to – form the barriers. Bags filled with oyster shells were added as reinforcement to solidify them; closer to shore, the Nature Conservancy, the non-profit that owns this section of the beach, has planted vegetation and put in compact tubes of natural fibers to “hold the line”, as they put it. McCulloch.

This design aims to serve a dual purpose: dampening waves to curb beach erosion and increasing the population of oysters, which naturally improves water quality and creates a reef-like habitat for others. marine species. To test these hypotheses, the Fish and Wildlife Service used money from the Sandy Credits to fund ongoing research at the Stevens Institute of Technology, the Rutgers Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, and the Delaware Estuary Partnership.

So far, their findings are divide. Along the wider beach and a calmer stretch of Nantuxent Creek, where the water has less wave energy, the oyster castles have been a godsend, supporting several generations of oysters and mussels. On shore, seashell bags provided stability for plants to root and grow, while compact tubes of natural fibers, called coir logs, did not have much perceived impact.

Areas of higher energy waves proved more difficult. While oyster castles were home to some marine life, it wasn’t as robust, and Stevens’ researchers found they actually amplified some of the waves behind the structures. Recognizing this, the band made some quick changes. Additional breakwater structures were added, creating a perpendicular “spine” extending from the beach. Researchers are still monitoring whether this change made a difference.

The waves also loosened the bags of shells, some of which burst open and strewn along the beach, leaving behind plastic waste. To solve this problem, the team tried to make “lemons out of lemonade,” said Adrianna Zito-Livingston of the Nature Conservancy. The bags naturally piled up close to vegetation, so the team decided to place them in areas that needed more reinforcement – ​​that way they can help protect plants and accumulate more sand. Going forward, Zito-Livingston said, they look forward to exploring options for bags made from other materials.

“We’re learning that’s not a big restriction on its own for this kind of energetics,” Zito-Livingston said. “But they make really nice little speed bumps, they trap sediment and can slow things down.”

Some of the practical lessons from the research on these coasts have been applied to other ongoing projects along the Jersey Shore, including those in more populated communities. This includes wetland rehabilitation plans, which research has shown played a key role in protecting inland areas during Hurricane Sandy. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service is using bipartisan Infrastructure Act funding to support the restoration of a marsh in Barnegat Bay. There, crews use a similar combination of wave-mitigating structures in the water and seashell bags to rebuild marsh vegetation on the shore.

When Sandy swept that area, resident Pat Doyle said, she was moved from her longtime family home. Today, she’s one of the staunchest supporters of another nature-based initiative born out of Gandys Beach research that could help prevent further erosion and flooding in her neighborhood. Another non-profit organization, the American Littoral Society, uses federal and state funds to set up seven “reefs” of baskets filled with rocks and shells along the coast to act as both sea-breaking blades and aquatic habitats.

Although a few dozen locals came to help the company build the baskets, Doyle said they were also controversial: some people complained about the appearance of the facilities, which jut out from the bay and are especially noticeable at tide. low.

“What I’m trying to say is it’s not about what we want, at this point, it’s about what we desperately need,” Doyle said. She believes there needs to be more education in riverside communities about sea level rise and more support for property owners who continually pay the price for climate change.

After Sandy, she says, she asked the city about buyouts and was told it wasn’t an option in her area. So she “emptied a bank account,” as she described it, to bring her home up to flood insurance standards. At first, its rates dropped, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new flood insurance pricing methodology sent them skyrocketing. Although she was hopeful for the reefs, she said the area was still experiencing significant flooding. Residents appealed to elected officials for funds to add more protections, including additional physical barriers.

Doyle’s experience illustrates another lesson Gandys Beach works: the need for long-term collaborative projects. It’s not just that you need experts who understand science or engineering – there’s also a need for people in government like McCulloch who can help navigate the bureaucracy and complex funding processes that can s prove prohibitive for community efforts.

“No one you meet today is going to say they know everything – that’s why we have these great partnerships, that’s why we all work together and that’s why we collect the data,” McCulloch said. said. “We need it to make sure we’re doing the right thing because people’s homes depend on it, these species depend on it, [and] we have to understand this now because we are running out of time.

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