SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Jim Szymanski remembers when a parking lot and road, 50 feet of beach grass, and a wide expanse of soft sand separated this colony of summer shacks from the pounding Atlantic surf.
Now, waves lick at the first row of cottages at Roy Carpenter’s Beach following years of erosion and last month’s Hurricane Sandy, which carried off thousands of tons of sand along Rhode Island’s south shore. Now, the cottages closest to the ocean are being moved back. Szymanski’s third-row cottage will soon command unobstructed ocean views, a luxury that’s likely to be as fleeting as a New England summer.
‘‘Front row now, no row tomorrow,’’ said Szymanski, a contractor who has been coming to Roy Carpenter’s beach since the 1960s. ‘‘In two years, am I going to be the one with water hitting the house?’’
Sandy swept away or carried inland much of the golden sand that is the centerpiece of Rhode Island’s south shore, a 45-mile ribbon of humble beach hamlets, secluded bays, and upscale resort communities. Now, residents and business owners are wondering whether the beaches can be made whole in time for next summer, and whether they are fighting a losing battle against storms and rising sea levels.
‘‘Should we retreat? How far?’’ said Frank Tassoni, an attorney who owns a cottage in Misquamicut. Tassoni wants to see the state combat erosion by installing devices just offshore that trap sand and prevent it from washing away. ‘‘We’re the Ocean State; we can’t just remove this part of Rhode Island. We’re fighting for a way of life down here.’’
While there’s not yet official damage data on Rhode Island beaches, the toll is obvious.
At upscale Watch Hill in Westerly, several feet of sand washed away, exposing the foundations under beach cabanas and leaving steps that once ended on the beach hanging five feet in the air.
Up the coast at working-class Misquamicut, Sandy picked up most of the beach and deposited it chest-high on the community’s main road. Crews excavating Misquamicut are dumping the sand in parking lots, creating dunes more than 10 feet tall and turning the seaside community into a stand-in for the Sahara.
In the Matunuck beach area of South Kingstown, Sandy consumed as much as 50 feet of beach. Some cottages at Roy Carpenter’s Beach were destroyed when the sand underneath them was swept away. All that was left to show the location of a former cottage was a water pipe rising from the sand.
While conceding the state got off easy compared with New Jersey and New York, Governor Lincoln Chafee said Sandy left an imprint on Rhode Island’s shoreline that may never fade.
‘‘Sandy just pounded our coastal areas,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a completely different beach. The shoreline will be different.’’
Local and state officials have already begun discussing ways to restore the beaches, but no plan — and no funding — has been approved. Sand that was carried into streets and yards can be sifted to remove debris and replaced.
New sand could be dredged from bays and offshore waters. But large beach replenishment projects are costly and typically temporary.
‘‘We know where the sand sources are and we know how to widen a beach,’’ said Janet Freeman, a geologist at the Coastal Resources Management Council, a state agency that oversees the coastline. ‘‘In the long term, unfortunately, sea levels are rising so we’ll get more of this. If you want the beach put back exactly the way it was, it’s a losing battle.’’
The cost of renourishing the one-mile beach in Narragansett using sand from offshore was projected to be as much as $9 million, according to a study last year. One estimate cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests it costs about $6 million to replenish one mile of East Coast beach for 10 years, after which more sand will be needed. New sand added to the Ocean City, N.J., beach in 1982 — at a cost of $2.5 million — was gone three months later.
Sea levels in Rhode Island are 10 inches higher than they were a century ago. Levels are expected to rise because of climate change, which is also expected to mean more damaging storms such as Sandy.
Even without a hurricane, beaches change subtly from year to year as currents and storms bring in sand, or carry it off. It is a dynamic environment not always suited to roads, parking lots, hotels and homes.
Erosion has posed a constant struggle for Roy Carpenter’s Beach and its 377 small cottages. The beach gets its name from the previous owner, who began allowing beachgoers to pitch tents on his beach nearly a century ago. The first cottages were built after the hurricane of 1938. Many of the small homes have been owned by the same families for generations.
Some of what Sandy took away may return on its own. Misquamicut beach has already recovered some of the sand that was washed out to sea, and officials hope more will return before tourists arrive in the spring. Otherwise, disfigured beaches could mean a bad year for businesses already struggling in a down economy.