With Hurricane Sandy bearing down on Cape May Point, borough officials made an early decision to activate the pump.
One week and 10 million gallons later, almost the entire town was still dry.
The 95-horsepower pump, which can move 6,500 gallons a minute, drains 13-acre Lake Lily in the center of town. The lake is where all the water from rain or high tides flows.
The pump, installed after three coastal storms in 1991 and 1992 left the borough underwater, had been activated only once before. On Oct. 27, with Sandy two days away, a decision was made to lower the lake in advance and give the water a place to collect.
Installed partly with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the pump ran off and on through Friday, moving water to the nearby Delaware Bay.
“If it wasn’t for us draining all the water out of the lake, we definitely would have flooded,” said Public Works Director Bill Gibson. “That’s 10 million gallons of water. Where are you going to put it?”
Neighboring Cape May ran its three pumps, which combined move 130,000 gallons a minute, for two days. The pumps played a part in the two towns at the southern tip of New Jersey avoiding much damage from Sandy. The area known as Cape Island had some minor flooding, spotty power outages and some wind damage, including downed trees, but no devastation.
It wasn’t just because of the pumps, which mostly moved freshwater from the heavy rains. There was almost no saltwater moving ashore in Cape May and Cape May Point. The major reason is the center of the storm stayed to the north, passing over Atlantic City several hours before the worst high tide the night of Oct. 29. That resulted in southern Cape May County experiencing westerly tail winds, which blow water away from the coast, instead of the easterly head winds that bring water in. The west winds actually deposited sand on some area beaches, such as The Cove Beach in Cape May.
“We got the westerly winds at high tide at 8:32 p.m. The winds were holding back the tidal surge,” Cape May City Manager Bruce MacLeod said.
Gibson said that if the storm were 20 miles to the south, “we would have been in for a hurting.”
Officials said another big reason storm damage was minimal is that both towns get regular beach-replenishment projects from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Cape May Point even has concrete artificial reefs and rock-filled gabion walls armoring its coastline compliments of the Army Corps with help from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“Without beach replenishment, we would have had a much more difficult time,” MacLeod said.
The city has received beach sand about every two years since 1990. The first big project in the borough was completed in 2005. The Army Corps even constructed an 8,000-foot-long dune between the two towns, which also protects Lower Township and West Cape May.
A contract was awarded in September for the latest replenishment, a $9 million project to bolster both towns with more sand this winter. The Army Corps is still surveying damage from Sandy, but after flying over the coast Wednesday, Army Corps officials said areas with replenishment sand from Cape May Point to Long Beach Island fared better than those without engineered beaches.
“It shows the worth of these projects. The places with beach replenishment fared better but were not perfect because of back-bay flooding,” said Stephen Rochette, a spokesman for the Army Corps.
That’s where southern Cape May County lucked out again. The area doesn’t have traditional back bays. The backdoor flooding that affected so many towns along the coast did not happen there.
“It definitely helps, though Cape Island Creek does have some back-bay effect,” MacLeod said.
The tidal creek did flood even though tide gates are meant to block saltwater and possibly did not work. This resulted in flooding in the Perry Street area. Schellenger’s Landing along Cape May Harbor also experienced flooding.
Beach projects do not address back-bay flooding, said Jeff Gebert, chief of coastal planning for the Army Corps, except when sand dunes prevent water from washing over a barrier island and going into the bays. Gebert, however, said inlets slow incoming water and bide time. The fact that the storm moved faster than projected helped reduce back-bay flooding. Cold Spring Inlet reduced flow into Cape May Harbor by channeling the water, and the twin jetties reduced wave action at the U.S. Coast Guard base.
Gebert said seawalls, such as the one at North Wildwood, also helped reduce damage. Cape May has a concrete Promenade protecting much of the city.
Gebert is still reviewing data from tide gauges, buoys and other measurements but said the intensity of the storm increased as it moved north. The biggest factor saving Cape Island, he said, was the “path, intensity and time history of the storm.” He said the sand dunes helped.
“The bigger the pile of sand you have between you and the ocean, the better your chances are,” Gebert said.
Besides the contracted beach project on Cape Island, Gebert said projects are also slated for Brigantine, Ocean City, Avalon and Stone Harbor but may be modified based on damage from Sandy.
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