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In Superstorm's wake: Erosion and questions on government-funded sand

Hurricane Sandy caused major erosion along the New Jersey coastline, slimming beaches significantly. Some question the wisdom of using federal funding to build up beaches that just get washed away.

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A bulldozer pushes piles of sand around on the Ocean Grove N.J. beach in front of its storm-buckled boardwalk and damaged fishing pier on Nov. 15. Superstorm Sandy took a bite out of the Jersey shore, washing away millions of tons of sand and slimming down beaches along the state’s 127-mile coastline.

Wayne Parry/AP

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Towns along the Jersey shore that made use of federal money to build up beaches came through Superstorm Sandy with far less damage than those that didn't, findings that are sure to intensify a debate that has raged for years over the wisdom of pumping millions of dollars' worth of sand onto the coastline, only to see it wash away continually.

That dispute pits coastal advocates for some of the most valuable shoreline in the country against elected officials from inland states who say it's unfair to ask taxpayers from, say, the Great Plains to pay to keep rebuilding beaches they don't even use.

The storm caused major erosion along New Jersey's famous 127-mile coastline, washing away tons of sand and slimming down beaches. Some lost half their sand; the average loss statewide was 30 to 40 feet of beach width, according to findings that are not yet public but were revealed to The Associated Press.

Routine storms tear up beaches in any season, and even normal waves carry away sand. Over the years, one prescription for insulating communities from the invading sea has been to artificially replenish beaches with sand pumped from offshore. The federal government picks up 65 percent of the cost, with the rest coming from state and local coffers.

"It really, really works," said Stewart Farrell, director of Stockton College's Coastal Research Center and a leading expert on beach erosion. "Where there was a federal beach fill in place, there was no major damage — no homes destroyed, no sand piles in the streets. Where there was no beach fill, water broke through the dunes."

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