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Jersey Shore builds new storm defenses, but are they enough?

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Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 12:09 am

Up and down the Jersey Shore, the signs tell the story.

They line the curbs in Holgate, at the southern tip of Long Beach Island, and stand in pebbly front yards all the way north to Sea Bright at the bottom of Sandy Hook. CERTIFIED HOME RAISER. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT. CUSTOM HOME DESIGN. DEMOLITION EXPERTS.

Any spot affected last year by Hurricane Sandy is getting ready for the next big storm.

Plans are under way for massive dune reconstruction projects. Houses are being raised on pilings to lift them above the next storm surge. When the next big storm comes, many buildings along the whole 127-mile stretch of the Jersey shoreline will be standing on tiptoes to meet it.

But is all this preparation going to be enough? Will the shore be ready when the next Hurricane Sandy howls in from the ocean? The answer will come, sooner or later.

Meanwhile, to drive north from Holgate, where the evidence of Sandy’s wrath is rapidly disappearing, to the affluent Ocean County borough of Mantoloking, is to suffer culture shock.

The 2000 U.S. Census listed Mantoloking as New Jersey’s highest income town. Barely a week before Sandy came ashore, Forbes magazine placed the borough on a list of “America’s Most Expensive ZIP Codes.”

But driving through it nearly a year after the storm, it’s hard not to think “war zone.”

Located a short drive north of Lavalette and south of Bay Head, Mantoloking took a direct hit from Sandy, and insufficient dune and beach protection amplified the force of the blow. Tides carved two new channels through the narrow peninsula, connecting the ocean with Barnegat Bay and rendering Route 35 impassible. Emergency repairs closed up the inlets, but the steel bulkheads holding the sand in place serve as reminders of Sandy’s handiwork.

Along the ocean shoreline, mansions that were smashed into kindling remain as piles of lumber and roofing. On both shores, houses lean at drunken angles, their foundations undermined by the storm’s relentlessly flowing currents.

All of Mantoloking’s 521 buildings sustained some level of damage, and many had to be torn down.

Chris Nelson, an attorney and borough resident whose parents live nearby, signed on as special counsel to help the mayor and the Mantoloking Borough Council with post-Sandy rebuilding. Though he had planned to take the year off, Nelson said, the time he’s spent helping his town get back on its feet has been deeply satisfying.

“When I walked through my backyard, I had to climb over my neighbor’s roof,” Nelson said. “The town was split into thirds by the inlets. We didn’t have utilities before March.”

Now, the lights are on and the Route 35 repairs are done. “We have the new infrastructure in place,” Nelson said. “I’ve been living with this all year, so I see it from a different angle.”

All hopes are now riding on the Army Corps of Engineers, which has a massive reconstruction project planned for summer 2014. Once the 4-mile-long steel bulkhead is in place along the ocean shore, the Corps will widen the beaches and replenish the dunes.

Many ruined houses along the ocean shore have gone unrepaired because their owners are waiting for the replenishment project to begin, Nelson explained.

“I really think the vulnerable period is from now to when the Army Corps project is done,” Nelson said. “We have to worry about nor’easters, which we get a lot during this season.”

One lingering problem Mantoloking shares with other well-off shore communities is the number of property owners who refuse to grant the easements that would allow the Army Corps to replenish the beaches and bulk up the dunes.

A Harvey Cedars couple, Harvey and Phyllis Karan, had jaws dropping all over the state when they continued their lawsuit against the government last year over the construction of a sand dune in front of their house.

Though the dune line kept their house — and the rest of Harvey Cedars — from being devoured by the ocean when Hurricane Sandy came through, the couple demanded compensation from the government for spoiling part of their ocean view and diminishing the value of their property.

The Karans won a $375,000 judgment in the 5-year-old case, but the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the ruling in July. The high court found that the lower court had erred in not allowing jurors to consider the financial value of protection from major storms.

Gov. Chris Christie recently authorized the state to coordinate legal action against homeowners who refused to grant easements. And Ocean City and Mantoloking are putting the finishing touches on ordinances that will allow them to seize the necessary easements through the power of eminent domain, which allows the government to buy private property for public use even if the owners object.

“We have seven property owners holding out among 128 owners along the ocean shore,” Nelson said. “We are not going to let this work be stalled.”

Sandy has kept

contractors busy

Jeffrey DeBastos, a demolition and landscaping contractor based in Beach Haven, said his business doubled after the hurricane.

“Prior to the storm, I was busy, but not as busy as I am now,” DeBastos said.

One of the most striking changes along the shore is the sight of houses — some of them rather small — being jacked up to protect them from storm tides.

“It’s pretty easy to do,” said a contractor who asked not to be identified. “You drill holes through each end of the foundation, then you push beams through and use jacks to lift it up. You can get a house raised in about a day and a half.”

One drawback to all this elevation is a simple fact of how the human body ages. In places like Lavalette and Seaside Park, or the communities along Long Beach Island, many homes are on small patches of land, without much elbow room for elaborate ramps and tiered staircases.

For some elderly householders with dreams of spending their retirement by the sea, the prospect of mounting 15- to 20-foot staircases several times a day may be a deal-breaker.

“I lifted my floor to a 12-foot elevation,” Nelson said. “We’re OK for now, but we have to wonder what happens when we get older. We’ve re-framed the house so we can install an elevator. A lot of the houses here are multigenerational — the same families have been coming back to the same houses for generations. It’s a concern.”

“My house is now so high off the ground that I can almost park my SUV under it,” said Kenneth Miller, who has a vacation home in Waretown, Ocean County. “My elderly mother was going to come live with us there, and she’s got to reconsider that now. People have to decide if they want to spend $10,000 or so for an elevator, and add that to the cost of rebuilding and wondering when it will get washed away.”

Seaside Park’s double whammy

South of Mantoloking, Seaside Park became the unwilling poster child for Sandy’s devastation not once, but twice. The storm surge destroyed the Seaside Heights boardwalk and collapsed an amusement pier, leaving the JetStar roller coaster partially submerged just beyond the surf line. The surrealistic image of the twisted rails and girders rising from the waves became the symbol of the havoc wrought by the storm.

The roller coaster was removed in May and the boardwalk rebuilt. Then, in September, a massive fire devoured four blocks of the boardwalk — a fire eventually traced to some wiring damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

The charred remnants of the boardwalk served as an unwanted tourist attraction in Seaside Heights, cordoned off with chain link fencing. Some enterprising sightseers have tried to circumvent the barriers by walking along the beach, only to be chased back behind the dune fence by a police officer in a beach buggy.

“What are they guarding us from, splinters?” asked one beachcomber, a 70-ish man who preferred to be known only as Tom. He quickly said he had sympathy for the Seaside Heights police, who have traditionally dealt with “knuckleheads in their teens and 20s” drawn to Seaside Heights’ libidinous image.

Tom said he knows. He was one himself, having been in love with the Seaside Heights boardwalk since he was a teenager.

Though he owned a rental property in Beachwood, just across the causeway near Toms River, Tom said he won’t even consider leasing to “losers from Seaside Heights with tattoos on their necks.” He saw the impact of Hurricane Sandy as a net positive for Seaside Heights if what he called “the bad element” moved elsewhere.

“The government assistance pays 80 percent of the monthly rent,” he scoffed, “and they sit around figuring out how much Oxycontin they have to sell to cover the other 20 percent.”

Though he traced the resort town’s decline to the 1970s — (“All the drug dealing really came out in the open then”) — Tom said he thought the town had a bit of a comeback in the late 1990s.

“Wanna see the charcoal line?” he asked. Sure enough, right at the high tide line, there was a noticeable line of black particles paralleling the ocean.

“That’s the debris from the fire,” he said. “The ocean is chewing it up just like sand. The same thing happened after the storm, only then it was wreckage getting chewed up.”

Looking ahead to 2014

As Seaside Heights gears up to rebuild — again — merchants and communities up and down the shore can only hope for a break next year.

Summer 2013 opened with high hopes and photo ops. President Barack Obama and Prince Harry toured the area, surveyed the damage and offered help and encouragement.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate.

June 2013 was the wettest on record since 1895. July was punishingly hot. A midsummer survey by the Associated Press found that revenues and attendance were down drastically in eight major Shore towns as of July 21.

Manasquan, for example, reported that beach revenues — including beach badges and parking fees — had dropped by $290,000 from the previous summer. Beach house rentals are usually nailed down in November, right after Sandy hit, and rentals plummeted as vacation planners decided to go elsewhere. The question for next summer is, will they come back?

Kenneth G. Miller, a distinguished professor in the Rutgers University Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, has made a career of charting changes in sea level and the effects of human-generated climate change. He has even condensed his findings into a popular lecture titled, “Shall I Sell My House at the Jersey Shore?”

Miller, who was born in Medford and now lives a Pennington, isn’t thinking of selling his Waretown property, but he does worry that researchers have underestimated the effect of sinking land levels, as a result of the Earth’s movements, coupled with rising sea levels.

He notes with approval that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Shore communities have gotten religious when it comes to replenishing the dunes and widening the beaches — the first, and, he said, the best defense against storm surges.

“There were over 25 holdouts in Beach Haven and Holgate and the mayor didn’t want to use eminent domain,” Miller said. “That’s why they were the hardest-hit on LBI.”

Miller led a research team that published some sobering findings in the journal Geology last year. The team concluded that even if humanity can limit the increase in global temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, future generations will have to deal with sea levels 40 to 70 feet higher than present, though this will take hundreds of years.

Those houses rising on pilings may have to rise another couple of feet to be truly safe, Miller said. Taking sea level rise into account, he said: “By 2100, you’ll have a three-foot sea level rise and the storm surge on top of that. Your house should go up three and a half feet above the 100-year flood level for your area.”

Miller’s prognosis was somber enough to have brought down the wrath of climate-change deniers. But Miller said he is more concerned with a sensible response to the next big storm.

“The next Sandy will come along and we have to be more resilient in dealing with it,” Miller said. “In a major storm, the Seaside Heights boardwalk is going to go again. We have to assess the economic benefits of preserving development versus retreating.”

With billions of dollars in real estate on the edge of the ocean, to say nothing of the economic benefits of tourism, Miller said he isn’t advocating a full-scale retreat. But there are some areas where the ocean will have the last word no matter how hard people fight back with dunes and wider beaches.

But what about commitment? Isn’t New Jersey “stronger than the storm”?

“No, it’s not stronger than the storm,” Miller said. “Nothing is.”

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