Some of the images from Superstorm Sandy’s devastation are indelible — boardwalks shredded into splinters, beached tankers, entire neighborhoods submerged along the North Jersey coast.
But Sandy’s reach also curled to remote parts of the state, beyond the national spotlight. In southwest New Jersey’s Cumberland County, along the Delaware Bay, a number of residents of tiny Bay Point lost their homes to the storm.
Now they’re trying to decide whether to sell their flood-prone property to the state.
Bay Point seems to be from another place and time. On the last few miles to the tiny community, acres of salt marsh edge the road. There’s no traffic, and just a few structures way off in the distance.
The Bay Point Marina’s small, gray weather-beaten office is one of them. Part owners Kate and Mike Nelson and their customers seem to be like family.
After 30 years with the Delaware River Port Authority, lifelong Point Bay resident Mike Nelson is retired. He and Kate make their living now at the marina.
A tank for shedder crabs stands out back. Some will be used for bait, others become coveted blue claw softshells, but the bay these days isn’t providing like it used to.
“It’s not as good as we like it to be, that storm affected them also,” Kate Nelson said.
More than a year and a half ago, “that storm” blew 100-mph winds across the Delaware Bay.
There was nothing to slow Sandy down, said Andrea Friedman of the state Department of Environmental Resources.
“It’s a little spit of land that sticks out into the bay, so it’s very vulnerable to erosion. During Hurricane Sandy, 33 homes were severely damaged, and 10 of them were actually completely demolished, and pushed into the bay,” he said. “In some places, storm surge rose 10 feet.”
One of those homes belonged to the Nelsons.
Before the storm leveled their home, Mike Nelson described the place where he grew up as “a little piece of heaven on earth.”
In the place of that paradise, all that remains are pilings, rubble and a few rotting horseshoe crabs.
For 20 months, the Nelsons have been living in a trailer, which they paid for themselves, on the creek side of Bay Point.
Returning flood-prone property to nature
As part of its Blue Acres program, the state DEP has offered to buy out homeowners on the bay whose homes have been flooded out again and again, then return the land to its natural state. It’s set aside $10 million, basing the offers on the value of the homes before Sandy, Friedman said.
The state also intends to remove structures designed to hold back the bay’s advance.
“The beach along Bay Point had been eroding for many years. And over time, there were attempts to stabilize that beach,” Friedman said. “So there are wooden bulkheads, there is cement, there are big blocks of rubble, and all of that will be removed, in order to do the restoration.”
Sand, sediment and native grasses will be put in to create wildlife habitat, which Friedman says will offer more spawning ground for the horseshoe crabs. This, in turn, will help restore the red knot bird population, which feeds on the eggs of spawning horseshoe crabs.
Bay Point is part of Lawrence Township, which Mayor Erwin Sheppard can weather the financial hit if residents take the buyout..
“There’s about $6 million worth of ratables down here, that will disappear, and the rest of the township will have to absorb $130,000 worth of annual taxes,” he said. “That will be spread around the rest of the community.”
Participation in the Blue Acres program is voluntary, and those who choose to stay in Bay Point will be grandfathered in to the wildlife refuge. For those who accept the buyout, Friedman said, the process can take up to a year-and-a-half to complete.
Making a tough decision
The Nelsons have decided to sell. However, in order to comply with federal rules, flood insurance money they have received from Sandy will be deducted from whatever Blue Acres pays out.
The Nelsons have started to renovate a small shack they own on the creek side, which is not as prone to flooding.
But that project has been put on hold as local officials figure out new septic and elevation rules.
At this point, Mike Nelson said, it looks like another winter in the trailer.
“I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown. You’re lucky I’m giving you this interview, because every time I speak to someone, my blood pressure goes up,” he said. “We aren’t living right, we’re not eating right … it’s terrible.”
But not terrible enough to leave Bay Point.
“My God, we’ve got everything right here. You know, sun’s beautiful, sunsets, all the agriculture you would want,” Nelson said. “The beautiful birds, the osprey, the red knot birds, you know?”
State officials plan to make formal buyout offers to interested Bay Point homeowners by the end of the summer.