Sand dunes standing 18 feet high act essentially as a wall between the ocean and houses along many sections of Long Beach Island, a barrier that has existed for only a few years.
Atlantic City’s dunes are 14.75 feet high, tall enough to obscure views of the sea from the city’s famed Boardwalk.
In other municipalities, however, engineered sand dunes built by the Army Corps of Engineers do not exist due to lack of funding or because homeowners argue that the dunes will block their view.
Arguably the best protectors of beachfront property are a wide beach and a sand dune built to federal specifications. Beaches naturally form dunes when wind and waves push the sand back from the waterline. The sand grains gradually get trapped and form mounds that continue to grow. But in areas where the beach has been eroded, the dunes have no space to grow naturally.
New Jersey had no systematic shore protection program when the 1962 storm hit. Only two beaches — Atlantic City and Ocean City — had been widened artificially prior to the storm, said Jeff Gebert, chief of the coastal planning section of the Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia district. “Storm protection was not viewed as a major component, in a sense, of the mission that we, the corps, were authorized by Congress to address.”
Margaret Thomas Buchholz was a child in 1944 and remembers natural dunes that were wide and tall protecting the Harvey Cedars beach. But the storm surge from the 1944 hurricane flattened those dunes.
When the Storm of 1962 hit, the Harvey Cedars beach was not exceptionally wide and the natural dunes that had formed since 1944 weren’t nearly as high, she recalled.
“Once the waves washed the sand away, then it just came all the way across (the island.) There was nothing to stop it,” she said of the storm. “Each successive tide brought more waves. The first tide weakened the houses, the second tide made them wobble and the third tide just washed them away.”
Beaches elsewhere in Margate, Ventnor and Sea Isle City, to name a few, had similar conditions. Bulkheads had been erected in many areas, but there was little else to hold back a raging sea once it rose high enough to breech the wooden structures that stood only a few feet above the sand.
Several months after the March Storm of 1962, a report by the corps was published in a scientific journal describing the emergency shoreline protection efforts needed to bring back at least some sense of stability, including filling in the new inlets that had formed on Long Beach Island. The federal government allotted $17.1 million for the corps to conduct emergency repairs — a gigantic sum at the time, equivalent to $128.3 million in today’s dollars.
The emergency work done in the months following the storm had to follow specific guidelines: New sand berms and dunes were built to withstand a 10-year storm; if dunes or berms could not be built, the corps would instead build bulkheads. All work followed this basic tenet: “The work was required and essential for the protection of health and safety of the inhabitants of the locality” or was necessary for evacuation or escape.
Most controversially, dunes were to be built where the shoreline now existed. In Sea Isle City, the new sand berm was built along what was the front row of beach houses. Families signed away easements that effectively gave their entire property to the city. The same thing occurred on Long Beach Island. The Corps warned in the journal article that “buildings which were relatively undamaged and which were in the way of the dune line had to be moved or destroyed.”
The corps also would pay to repair boardwalks that were damaged, but only if they served an economic or commercial purpose; boardwalks solely for recreation were not eligible. The corps set a target completion date of Aug. 15, 1962; about 75 percent of the job was completed, the article stated.
An ominous and familiar warning came from the corps, however: “The warmth and sunshine of the beaches in the summer of 1962 will tend to erase the memory of March 1962. Now is the time for local communities to pass intelligent zoning laws to forbid the construction of homes and motels in front of existing or proposed future dune lines, to make it a serious offense to destroy these dunes and, most important of all, to plan for permanent, long-range types of protection.”
Some municipalities complied with those recommendations relatively quickly, including Ocean City and Avalon, which enacted ordinances making it a crime to damage the sand dunes. Harvey Cedars was among the first to pass the ordinances and even noted the 1962 storm in the code.
But other municipalities, such as Margate, did not follow the advice so soon. Margate did not adopt an ordinance regarding sand dunes until 1991, according to public records, and before then, destroying dunes that developed naturally was a frequent occurrence.
New storm, new dunes
A larger shoreline protection system that included the entire New Jersey coast and involved the Army Corps and the state Department of Environmental Protection was not considered until the early 1990s, when the state was battered by two devastating northeasters barely a year apart. In fact, the December 1992 storm is considered second to March 1962, in terms of severity and damage, even though the tide-level peak was slightly higher.
“The way we designed (the dunes) and engineered them is through knowledge of historical events,” Herrington said. “We try to make these shoreline protection systems wide enough and high enough to protect from a ’62 storm.”
As those dunes were proposed and planned, residents along the barrier islands protested, saying a dune’s height would obstruct their view. While that may seem like a trivial matter to those who live inland, the view from the property is the reason those houses have so much value, said Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College.
As Farrell worked with the municipalities on Absecon Island as a consultant, he would ask those property owners why they were opposed to building a dune. Atlantic City and Ventnor have Army Corps dunes. Margate and Longport do not.
The response? “‘I don’t want it to block my view.’ I say, ‘Well, what are you going to do when the ocean comes to bring the view into your living room?’ ‘I don’t care. I can write a check for this house any day of the week,’” Farrell said. “The house is worth $4 million, but it doesn’t cost $4 million to build it. It’s the location that makes it worth $4 million.”
Officials in Margate and Longport also figured the sand pumped on the beach in Atlantic City and Ventnor would gradually migrate down to them, thus widening beaches through a more natural process, Farrell said. But an analysis of the shoreline on Absecon Island conducted in 2011 shows sections of Margate and Longport are most at risk of ocean flooding from a storm because the dunes or beach height are lower than base flood elevation, according to a study conducted by Farrell and the Coastal Research Center.
The process to widen the beach and build up a sand dune was more complicated for those living in many sections of Long Beach Island, where many beachfront property owners also own the sand to the high tide line. In order for the Army Corps to build the dune and replenish the beach, homeowners were required to sign easements allowing the Corps access forever. Some homeowners argued that granting the easement effectively was giving their land away and would not sign.
“This is why LBI is only partly complete and only after a fairly lengthy battle,” Farrell said.
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