Rebuild or Retreat from the Jersey Shore?

Monday, January 28, 2013


Three months after Sandy,  some New Jersey shore communities remain uninhabitable, without utilities and other amenities. There’s a rush to rebuild, but some geologists endorse what they call "strategic retreat" from the ocean front, especially on barrier islands.

In Ortley Beach, New Jersey, residents are still figuring out what to do with houses that are partially destroyed and contents still jumbled together.

“That’s my refrigerator, but that’s someone else’s freezer, and I don’t know where my [kitchen] island is,” said Ortley Beach homeowner Kathy Cevoli. 

The first floor of her two-story house on the beach block of Fielder Avenue is splayed open like a doll house.  She doesn’t know whether to tear her house down, or hold off.

“The government tells me to get rid of this [house], but the insurance company said it can’t be gone because it would restrict their right to re-inspect it,” she added.

Cevoli hopes to get a mortgage and rebuild her five-bedroom home. 

But some experts say climate change and rising sea levels mean there’s a very good chance that if she rebuilds, her house will be destroyed again by another Sandy-like storm.

“It’s just madness to rebuild right back where the buildings were destroyed before, and where they will be destroyed in the future,” said Orrin H. Pilkey, Professor Emeritus of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Nicholas School of the Environment, at Duke University.

Pilkey said buildings that are damaged by more than 50 percent should not be rebuilt. 

“As nasty as that may sound, that’s still a more merciful way than making people demolish or move their [rebuilt] houses,” added Pilkey.

But most Ortley Beach residents want to rebuild.  They blame small dunes and a narrow beach for much of the destruction Sandy wrought in their community.

“Ortley Beach had the worst dune in the county.  We predicted that dune would fail in a ten year storm event, and this was a 100-year storm,” said Stewart Farrell, director of the Richard Stockton College Coastal Research Center in Port Republic, New Jersey.

Farrell is “almost certain” that dunes and wider beaches saved most shore towns that escaped Sandy’s storm surge. 

Most geologists agree that dune engineering projects that add sand to beaches are an effective way to protect houses and other structures near the shoreline from hurricane damage.

But the strategy is expensive.  Sand moves, so beach nourishment projects have to be repeated every few years.  One estimate puts the dollar figure spent on all beach nourishment projects in the country at $1 billion.

“That’s since we’ve been able to accumulate records,” said Rob Young, director of the program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, who collected the cost data.

For the past few decades, about 65% of the funding for beach nourishment projects completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has come from federal tax dollars. 

According to the Corps research, Sandy removed about 10.5 million cubic yards of sand from New Jersey Beaches. 

That sand will have to be put back if the state wants to protect itself from the next storm, and maintain its summer tourism business, estimated to pump about $37-billion dollars into the state’s economy. 

It might be a reasonable investment for New Jersey, but Professor Young said it’s not such a good one for taxpayers outside the state.

“If [New Jersey’s] coastal economy is so robust and is generating that kind of money, why can’t they pay for their own beach nourishment projects,” asked Young.

While the tiny shore communities that pepper the Jersey shore make their rebuilding decisions, the larger issue of how to protect big cities may eclipse the debate.

“It’s my view that the cost of saving New York will be so great, and that includes Philadelphia, Boston, Miami and so forth, that barrier islands will become low priority and people will be forced to retreat whether they like it or not,” said Pilkey.

Photos and video by Amy Pearl.


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Comments [18]

BK from Highlands, NJ from Highlands, NJ

In 1965, conservationist and land planner Ian McHarg wrote his famous "Design With Nature". It was a Textbook and Bible for many of us in that profession and still is to this day. In it he advises, if you want to build by the sea, study the Dutch because if you build in the wrong place you perish. As some here have stated it is possible to build by the sea but, only with respect for nature and with the natural dunes of significance that provide such protection. Ironically, in the same chapter where his teaching and diagrams of where (behind the back dune is the only safe area) it is possible to build, he provides an example of what Not to do,.....the Jersey Shore.
The grand National Landmark Structures of Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook, while abandoned for over forty years remain intact and still potential for renovation and reuse as has been proposed. The only way it remains possible is because of their original siting on the inward side of the peninsula,....behind the back dune. The lessons are there.

Jan. 30 2013 11:15 PM
Iowans from Ortley beach

We have done everything right as far as insurance is concerned and for years we have asked for beach replenishment and we were ignored that is why we got hit so hard we are not asking for anything that we are not entitled to we pay very high taxes and deserve to be protected I was 10 th house from the beach dunes were gone by 11 am we will take the proper measures but if the town doesn't do their share it won't mean anything when the next storm comes . This has been very stressful but we will rebuild we are not in a position to just walk away we still own the property and have mortgages to pay so we will just have to trust in god that at least it doesn't happen in my lifetime

Jan. 29 2013 11:51 PM
Roger Cohen from Lancaster PA

Your reporter is a bit imprecise in describing the dune option. Not all dunes are alike. Big sand piles get wiped out; but dunes that are located sufficiently far back from high water and are large enough and restricted from human access so vegetation can take hold and thrive proved very effective in protecting the communities behind them. That may mean taking the ribbon of properties that now abut the shoreline, but well planned and well managed dunes along the shore will protect the majority of residents, and will make the beaches even more appealing and environmentally sound. It would represent more a tactical retreat than a strategic one.

Jan. 29 2013 09:46 AM

Highlands, New Jersey sits on the inside of the barrier island that is Sandy Hook which is part of US National Park service. Prior to Sandy the Park service was unsure what direction should be chosen for the future of Sandy Hook. After Sandy having Federal and State agencies deciding on the barrier island, Sandy Hook, and what those decisions and the actions and non actions it will leave for the rebuilding of the non boardwalk, working class town of Highlands, New Jersey need to be explored and understood by all the parties involved in deciding what will will best for the future.

please STOP IN AND LOOK AT THE SITUATION of Highlands, New Jersey

Jan. 28 2013 04:13 PM
davie from new jersey

If it can't be built to withstand hurricanes like Sandy it shouldn't be rebuilt.

Jan. 28 2013 03:37 PM
Donald Passantino from Queens, NYC

Janet, Be sure to speak to the National Park Service, all their facilities were heavily damaged. Home page!/pages/Gateway-National-Recreation-Area/172526666126896
New Exhibit

The NPS Great Kills Marina will not be re-opened (lease will not be renewed, all boats must be removed by April)and the community is upset. Working Harbor is an excellent blog.
Don Passantino

Jan. 28 2013 01:20 PM
kate from Los Angeles

it's time to face the challenges of climate change. check out "Nation Under Sige" on the website, architecture 2030. best of luck to all of those who have lost their homes.

Jan. 28 2013 11:55 AM
tim from nyc

this is a mixed bag. on the one hand, there are people really hurting after HS.
on the other hand, it's not the first time.
these communities tend to be tourist money makers, but not all of them are.

i would guess these communities have been aided more than once, but this aid has not been repaid.
either we build to protect the entire region, or localities decide to support their own way of life.

Jan. 28 2013 10:34 AM

the barrier beaches are a protection to the mainland and to the larger island in the case of Long Island. The barrier beaches should be restored but not as a place for vacation homes - they should be restored as the natural barriers they were intended to be. They can and should still be used as public recreational areas but not as just summer vacation homes. I know that people will be sad but ... climate change is real. I live 1/2 mile from the great south bay and I know my area was protected by the barrier beach of Fire Island and especially that of the national seashore. And even so there was still a lot of major damage in the town -many people who were just finishing work because of damage from "Irene" were hammered again. I did evacuate during "Sandy" and was lucky to have no damage to my actual home The block maintained electricity except for a few hours of outage and about 3 days w/ no gas.

Jan. 28 2013 10:34 AM
rosemary from Highlands from Highlands, NJ

Please tell your reporter who is making her way up the coast today to stop in Highlands which is right next door to Sea Bright. We have gotten no recognition from the Governor and little media coverage yet we need help desperately. I will be there tonight to attend a town meeting if she would like to meet residents and our mayor. Please contact me via email.
Thank you.

Jan. 28 2013 10:31 AM
tom Simmons

I live in north Middletown which lies between port Monmouth a.d union beach wIchws

Were both devastated. The difference? Large dunes and a pump station. Drive through these towns and the difference. Becomes obvious

Jan. 28 2013 10:24 AM
Lisa from Forest Hills, NY 11375

What would it take for inhabitants to realize these places of likely devastation should no longer be rebuilt? It seems beyond belief to me that anyone would want to risk their sanity by living here. What specifically has to happen for people to understand it makes no sense to keep rebuilding here?

Jan. 28 2013 10:24 AM
Will in Chelsea from Chelsea

Please see the barrier island -- Fire Island... which has sustained damage but did help protect many Long Island towns from receiving more damage. Go to The Pines, Fire Island! There are no roads there and is only accessible by ferry from Sayville. It is a must see for all the reasons being discussed now ie beach replenishment vs retreat!

Jan. 28 2013 10:17 AM
Sophia from Broad Channel

PLEASE come to Broad Channel between Howard Beach and Rockaway. The entire Broad Channel community was affected and the rebuild is VERY slow, most of us have not yet returned.

Jan. 28 2013 10:12 AM
Peg from Willseyville NY

As a landowner and homeowner in a quiet rural community, I can sympathize with those who have lost their homes and land to Sandy' power. However, we will not be compensated for the loss of our home values, for the fact that no one will buy our properties except gas speculators (who do not care if there is a $400,000 home on the property), for the fact that our clean rural way of life will be turned into a filthy industrial zone...

Yes, I sympathize - but no government agency will be compensating us. And meanwhile, the shale gas beneath us, the oil from the tar sands, the coal that's being shipped to China and India continue to belch out the carbon that is causing Climate Change and the sea rise that is drowning the homes and towns on the coast.

Jan. 28 2013 09:32 AM

My husband and I lived (past tense) in Mantoloking NJ - the epicenter of Hurricane Sandy. The community has been devastated; utilities are barely back as of today; there are military checkpoints to get in and out; a curfew has been established. The place looks like a war zone. We are probably never going back.

Beside the obvious financial destruction, the storm has wrought tremendous mental and emotional consequences. Sure, New Jersey will rebuild - but in the meantime, residents and former residents have been traumatized - shaken beyond belief.

Jan. 28 2013 09:02 AM
Ileana ingram from Ortley beach

If we would be offered a fair price for our land maybe that would be an option but tons river wants everything and gives ver little back so we have no other option but to stay we have worked very hard for our house can't just throw it away

Jan. 28 2013 08:44 AM

If proper government agencies declare an area to be undesirable for housing, then I think anyone who rebuilds should do so at their own risk. Citizens have the right to make poor choices but those citizens should not expect other citizens to correct their mistakes. I suppose we could plead ignorance before Sandy but it is pretty clear now that we need to pull back. I feel sorry for those who love their community and dearly wish that it could be the same as before but that is not going to happen.

Jan. 28 2013 07:23 AM

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