Three years after Sandy, a fight over coastal protection

    Seawalls in front of homes on the beach in Margate. (Anthony Smedile/for WHYY)

    Seawalls in front of homes on the beach in Margate. (Anthony Smedile/for WHYY)

    After Superstorm Sandy left the New Jersey coastline in ruins three years ago, residents and officials were left with two big questions.

    After Superstorm Sandy left the New Jersey coastline in ruins three years ago, residents and officials were left with two big questions: first, how would the communities rebuild? And second, how would they protect the coastline along the Atlantic Ocean from the next big storm?

    But after communities started getting back on their feet, putting preventative measures in place for future storms wasn’t made a priority as much as some would have liked. 

    “I expected there to be a consensus out there that dunes and shore protection features are important and worth having in place,” says Brad Smith, an environmental field specialist with Stockton University’s Coastal Research Center.

    Smith’s expectations weren’t met, though, because coastal management became a contentious issue after Sandy, in part because the scientific community itself didn’t agree on the best methods.

    One strategy is to create a “living shoreline,” using natural elements to strengthen the coast by adding more sand to the beach or constructing artificial sand dunes.

    Another option is to build hard structures like wooden or cement seawalls and rock jetties.

    Smith says there’s no one-size-fits-all plan for every beach in New Jersey.

    “It’s very area-specific. Some areas would say yes, maybe you need a hard structure. But generally, if you build a dune to the standard the [Army Corps of Engineers] sets, that would be more than adequate. Some places need that. Some places don’t. Some places are entirely unmanaged.”

    But the fact that coastal management strategies can change depending on the profile of the individual beach can make it difficult for everybody involved to agree on a solution.

    After Sandy, the federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding beach protection projects in New Jersey. The state and the Army Corps of Engineers got right to work building dunes and seawalls from Cape May in the south to Union Beach up north.


    Work continues on the seawall project in the South Inlet, Atlantic City. (Anthony Smedile/for WHYY)

    But some towns were skeptical of whether these projects would actually benefit the local residents, so they started saying no to projects along their shores.

    “I continue to be frustrated — and I speak only for myself — but I continue to be frustrated by the opposition of some folks in this state to us completing the dune system,” Gov. Chris Christie said at a press conference on Hurricane Joaquin earlier this month.

    He said opponents of the dune project are only out to preserve their oceanfront views, and that refusing the dunes endangers their lives, and the lives of people in nearby towns.

    Opposition in Margate

    One high-profile example of a town that refused new preventative measures is the town of Margate, an affluent community of more than 6,000 people just south of Atlantic City.

    “I’ll say again quite candidly to towns like Margate,” Christie said, “You know, you are amongst the most selfish people in the state of New Jersey.”

    But the issue looks differently to the residents of Margate.

    Dan Gottlieb is one of the residents behind the group Margate Citizens Questioning the Beach Project, which has been fighting the dune proposal for three years. He says one thing many people don’t know about Margate is that it has had a seawall along its beach for decades. The seawall makes an additional sand dune unnecessary, Gottlieb says.

    “Appears to me that that is a more robust structure that stands seven feet high and is made with big, thick pieces of wood that are anchored by pilings that go deep into the sand,” Gottlieb says. “It would be a lot more difficult to wash that away than it would be to wash a pile of sand away.”


    Dan Gottlieb talks about the dune project in front of a seawall on the beach in Margate. (Anthony Smedile/for WHYY)

    And a majority of the town agrees. Margate residents voted in two separate referendums to fight the state on its dune project there.

    Gottlieb readily admits he’s no geologist, but says that living in Margate his whole life has given him a perspective the state doesn’t have. He says the state is focusing on the oceanfront beach where there is already protection, but ignoring the other side of the island along the bay, where homes quickly flooded during Sandy.

    “I wish [state officials] would sit down and come to some type of compromise, some type of negotiation, where the resources that are being thrown at trying to push the ocean back are thrown at maybe trying to keep the bay from coming up over the back bay sea walls,” Gottlieb says.

    The ocean always wins

    While there might not be consensus about how to manage the coastline, there seems to be agreement that something needs to be done to protect coastal towns.

    Since Sandy, state and federal agencies have spent $560 million on beach protection projects in New Jersey, and that number is expected to jump to $1.3 billion after additional projects get underway, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

    Just last week, work began on a $32.5 million seawall to protect the northern end of Atlantic City from storm surges from the Absecon Inlet.

    But will dunes, seawalls and pump stations be enough?

    “If the world keeps warming and sea levels keep rising, this is a fight the ocean is going to win,” explains Princeton climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer.

    Oppenheimer says the first priority should really be reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to slow or stop sea level rise. But he says what’s more practical is for New Jersey to think less about short-term fixes and more about the complex and costly projects that have been successful in protecting coastal towns.

    One example he cites is a series of huge, dam-like surge barriers that the United Kingdom built on the River Thames, which cost billions of dollars and took decades to build.

    “It’s not clear that even those solutions — which are big and expensive and work to some extent — are feasible because we’re sitting around daydreaming while the Earth is warming and the sea is rising,” Oppenheimer says.

    And it may take another Superstorm Sandy to wake the United States up.


    The dunes abruptly stop on the Buffalo Avenue beach in Ventnor. (Anthony Smedile/for WHYY)

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