Half-submerged off Seaside Heights, the Star Jet roller coaster has been so widely photographed that the image now symbolizes the Jersey Shore left shellshocked in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The fate of the coaster and the rest of Casino Pier, however, doesn’t represent the performance of all piers in South Jersey. Most of them withstood the storm’s fury with only minimal damage.
Part of that is because the storm slowed down as it moved north, where its longer stay caused far more destruction. Design, however, also played a role, engineers and pier owners say.
Commercial piers, such as Steel Pier and others in Atlantic City, are made of concrete and are designed to support buildings. Other, smaller structures, like the Ventnor Fishing Pier, rely on engineering that accounts for the force of wave action, engineers say.
Tony Catanoso, owner of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, said the 106-year-old, 1,000-foot-long amusement icon made it through Sandy without a scratch.
Not so for his Skyscraper ride, which also sat on Casino Pier until Sandy ripped through Seaside Heights 60 miles north of Atlantic City. Catanoso surveyed the coastline in between the two resorts after the storm.
“It just looks like someone came with a bulldozer and chopped the back of (Casino) Pier off,” Catanoso said. “It’s pretty daunting.”
Surging tides were higher and were sustained at near-peak levels for a longer duration near Seaside Heights than Atlantic City, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meteorological data show.
Even in those conditions, however, Steel Pier could have prevailed.
Made of timber, Casino Pier was built in phases starting in 1938 and never underwent a complete reconstruction like Steel Pier, National Amusement Park Historical Association historian Jim Futrell said.
A 1982 fire heavily damaged Steel Pier. Within six years, it was demolished and rebuilt, reopening in 1992.
“Steel Pier is ... built for a 20-story hotel,” Catanoso said. “It’s steel-reinforced concrete pilings go almost 100 feet into the seabed. It’s built … (to) handle a Category 5 (hurricane).”
Design standards and materials are the same for The Pier at Caesars, a mile south of Steel Pier, said Atlantic City Director of Planning & Development Keith Mills.
Originally built as Million Dollar Pier in 1906, the structure was rebuilt and reopened in 2005 as a $145 million dining, shopping and nightlife complex rising four floors up and extending 675 feet out from the Boardwalk opposite Caesars Atlantic City.
“Piers are primarily designed to support the load they are required to carry,” said Tom Herrington, Stevens Institute of Technology professor of ocean engineering. “This translates into the number of required piles and how deep they need to be driven into the sand. In addition, since they are built over the ocean, the lowest horizontal member — string or joist — is required by FEMA to be at our above the highest wave crest elevation expected at the pier during the 100-year flood event.”
Casino Pier in Seaside Heights was built of timber to support amusement rides, as was Seaside Park’s Funtown Amusement Pier, which Sandy destroyed, Futrell said.
“For some reason, it seems like the timber piers seem to be the common material,” Futrell said. “A lot of it might have been that back when piers first came around, wood was more common.”
Concrete piers cost more to construct, said Longport Engineer Dick Carter, who started his career with a three-year stint in Atlantic City in 1981 followed by 25 years in Ventnor.
The $3.2 million reconstruction of Ventnor’s fishing pier in 2008 would have cost about $10 million if the city rebuilt the timber fishing pier as a concrete one, said Carter, who oversaw that project. Instead, the city rebuilt using rainforest wood.
Although more costly and less suited for cold weather and salt water, concrete’s rigidity more easily withstands the battering of waves, Carter and Herrington said.
To compensate, engineers rely on design methods such as height and deck spacing.
“If you watch … waves crash against (a wooden) pier, it actually goes upward,” Carter said.
That pulls on the piling connecting the decking to the seafloor. In addition to being high enough so that decking is above wave action, the pier’s decking must be spaced to disperse the force of waves crashing below, he said.
New Jersey’s Uniform Construction Code does not have rules for building piers. Instead, it’s up to engineers to assess building projects on a case-specific basis, Carter said.
The state also has more dune building and beach fill projects than other coastal states. The consistent sand supply helps to naturally fill in scalloping, as erosion around the bases of pier piling is known, Carter said.
More importantly, such shoreline protection projects cause waves to break farther away, thereby decreasing wave action closer to the piers, Carter said.
Seaside Heights and Seaside Park didn’t get the same attention as Ventnor and Atlantic City, both recipients of multiple such multimillion-dollar projects over the years. Those have benefited Ocean City, Avalon and Wildwood as well.
Little damage in Cape
With the worst damage from Sandy occurring farther north, Cape May County’s piers escaped significant damage. The Ocean City Music Pier sustained about $100,000 of damages, but the structure is sound, said city director of community services Jim Mallon.
Broken windows were repaired within a week of the storm, while water damage and roof leaks should be taken care of in time for the holiday programming scheduled for the pier, city spokesman Mark Soifer said.
Wildwood piers also fared well, including Morey’s Adventure Pier, which is made of concrete.
Jack Morey, executive vice president of Morey’s Piers, said the piers saw some problems, including electrical issues, but no damage to their actual structures.
North Wildwood City Council President Patrick Rosenello credited the dunes there with preventing more serious damage to the piers and property citywide. But in the process, about 1,000,000 cubic yards of sand disappeared from the beaches and sand mounds, Rosenello said.
Staff writer Trudi Gilfillian contributed to this report.
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