When Cape May County constructed the system of roads and bridges that make up most of Ocean Drive in the 1940s, it was a monumental demonstration of man exerting his will on the coastal environment.
When Hurricane Sandy ripped the road apart three weeks ago, it showed that the route exists at the mercy of nature.
Ocean Drive starts in Cape May Point and travels north on various roads along the coast, linking every barrier island from the Wildwoods to Atlantic City, and Sandy’s surging tides overtopped and undermined it in several places.
The worst damage was in Avalon, where water broke through a seawall and gouged a 4-foot hole through the roadway just south of the Townsends Inlet bridge.
The bridge and road on either side will not reopen for months as engineers try to find a long-term solution to repairing the heavily damaged section.
“It’s just amazing the power of the waves that crashed in that area,” Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster said.
Several feet of sand blocked Ocean Drive for days between Sea Isle City and Strathmere. It was also restricted to one lane between Strathmere and Ocean City until last week because the northbound lane eroded and crumbled.
The same happened in Egg Harbor Township, between Ocean City and Longport, when the storm pummeled the shoreline there and dug out the soil from underneath the asphalt. A contractor for the state Department of Transportation made immediate repairs, and it reopened 11 days later.
In Ocean City, the road is being rebuilt with steel sheathing in the ground along the sides of it, to protect it from eroding in the future. In Avalon, Foster said a plan is still being developed to re-engineer that section of the route.
He explained that in recent decades nature has been trying to widen the inlet there, and engineers have done everything they can to prevent it. A seawall built after the March Storm of 1962 is apparently no longer enough to protect the road.
If refortifying the roadway with steel sheathing will not work, one option would be to extend the bridge farther into Avalon.
Foster estimated replacing the old bridge with one longer, completely new bridge would be a $70 million project.
“And I don’t know anybody that has that kind of money lying around,” he said.
Another solution would be to rebuild a beach in front of the seawall, or install something in the inlet to slow down the waves. Both of those ideas would also be expensive and are not guaranteed to work.
“Whatever option we end up moving forward with is going to come with a very high price tag,” he said.
Foster said it is also unlikely that the project would be a priority for federal funding given the much more extensive damage from the storm in Ocean and Monmouth counties.
While Sandy was more powerful than many people expected, it was not surprising that Ocean Drive bore the brunt of the storm. The road has constantly been battered by the elements since its construction, and there is no realistic way to keep that from happening in the future.
Surrounded by water, the route is, in some places, barely above sea level let alone high enough to escape even minimal coastal flooding.
To build it, construction crews had to remove huge sections of wetlands mud and replace them with a more solid base, such as gravel and sand that could be compacted to hold the weight of cars. In that way it resembles a standard road, but the asphalt is constantly subject to corrosion by saltwater and air, dramatically reducing its lifespan.
It is not an ideal environment, by any means, but such roads exist up and down the coast.
Raymond Roberts, a project engineer with the firm of Remington, Vernick and Walberg, said the best way to protect a coastal road would be to build a bridge instead of a roadbed, but that comes with higher costs.
Doing so requires a level of planning and forethought that is also not always possible.
“One thing you can never do is identify what nature is going to do to you,” he said.
Besides the portions of Ocean Drive that collapsed when the roadbed was eroded away, the road was impassable immediately following the storm in many places because of extensive debris deposited by floodwaters.
In the Whale Beach section of Upper Township, between Sea Isle City and Strathmere, the sand was several feet high in places. That has been a problem in that area of Ludlam Island since the road’s construction.
The state DOT looked at plans in the 1980s for closing off the section of road because it was so flood-prone. A geotube was later installed to shore up the dunes there, and at least kept them from totally breaching during Sandy.
“I think no matter what you put in there, I don’t think you would have been prepared for this past storm,” Upper Township Mayor Rich Palombo said.
Palombo pointed out that mere sand was no match for Sandy, which was powerful enough to toss around riprap stone. Foster said many of the boulders along Avalon’s northern seawall were found 60 feet from where they were before the storm.
Of course, raising the road would prevent it from flooding, but Foster said that is all but impossible in developed areas. Raising the road would just cause flooding on adjacent properties, damming off the water rather than letting it flow into storm drains.
Such constant problems raise the question of whether building Ocean Drive was a prudent decision in the first place. Roberts noted that difficult conditions have not historically stopped people from developing, whether it’s along the Jersey Shore or through the Florida Everglades.
“You have to get from here to there,” he said. “People want to travel in as straight a line as possible.”
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