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On Plum Island, another punishing storm

NEWBURY — It is an all-too-familiar story on Plum ­Island, just off the coast of Newbury. A storm arrives. The coastline of the barrier island is reshaped. Waterfront houses are threatened. Band-Aids are applied, and long-term solutions are debated. All the while, the ocean keeps churning.

“It’s a beautiful place, but when it’s bad, it’s bad,” Kathy Connors said as she looked out the window of her beachfront home at what was left of her neighbor’s deck. “That’s why I call it Misery Island.”

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On Thursday, a heavy storm surge decimated a string of neighboring houses on Annapolis Way, forcing four to be evacuated after their foundations were exposed to the sea. Connors, who lives next to the damaged houses and had the supports to her home exposed by the waves, said it was the worst storm erosion she has seen in the 30 years her family has had a home there.

Just a few months ago, this stretch of sand had undergone a controversial beach-scraping procedure, paid for by the homeowners, in which bulldozers used ocean sand to build a massive dune at low tide in front of the houses to protect them from the sea. Studies have found that beach-scraping actually exacerbates the erosion problem. The practice has been banned in Massachusetts, but homeowners were able to navigate a myriad of regulations to get emergency approval to build the dune.

The storm washed it all away. And then it took more. The storm erased sand that was 20 feet high and began eating away the soil under the foundations. The homes are now teetering precariously over the beach below.

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Sam Joslin, the building commissioner for Newbury, said the beach-scraping had “at least saved us until the next event.”

“But right now there’s a lot of discussion of a permanent fix and not a lot of solutions,” he said. “It’s basically a tide-by-tide monitoring process.”

On Friday, crews were busy tearing down the damaged portions of the four homes. Decks were crumpled and dangling. One house had much of its finished basement washed out to sea, and it was possible to look up through the foundation into the house. It was unclear whether any of the homes would have to be razed. Joslin said the hope is that removing the debris would prevent it from crashing back into the houses and doing further damage if another storm hits. Forecasters say that could be as early as Saturday.

A man looked out at the ocean on Plum Island, where a familiar story played out as another storm rolled in and took its toll of the coastline.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

A man looked out at the ocean on Plum Island, where a familiar story played out as another storm rolled in and took its toll of the coastline.

Bulldozers were busy moving sand around to begin the process of filling giant sandbags in an effort to protect the exposed foundations. Joslin said some of the homes were too dangerous to enter, and construction crews would need to find a way to temporarily stabilize the foundations so home­owners could enter to claim their possessions.

Plum Island has been continually reshaped by storms over the years, and residents and officials have tried all sorts of measures to stem the erosion, from sandbag walls to a $5.5 million dredging operation in 2010 that deposited more than 110,000 cubic yards of sandy sediment onto the beach.

But every measure is controversial, from environmental and economic standpoints, and many argue that a barrier island, which reshapes itself organically, is simply not meant to support beachfront homes. Continually pouring taxpayer money at the shifting sands is throwing good money after bad, they say.

Property owners don’t see it that way. Many have lived there for decades after moving into what were then dune-front homes, a few hundred yards from the shoreline. They want action from local and state officials to preserve their beachfront community.

Bill Sargent was one of the many people who had come out to survey the damage Friday, though he has a particular stake in this argument, one that he says was being proven in front of his eyes. An Ipswich resident, he is the author of several books on sea-level rise and barrier-beach erosion.

Workers moved sand in front of damaged houses on the beach in an effort to protect them from the next high tide.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Workers moved sand in front of damaged houses on the beach in an effort to protect them from the next high tide.

“It’s a tragedy, but it’s a man-made tragedy,” he said as he looked at the gorgeous houses. Many were small cottages that were rebuilt into million-dollar homes after water and sewer lines were installed on the island a little over a decade ago. “You shouldn’t have houses on barrier islands, and I don’t think there’s any engineering solution that will make it work,” Sargent said.

The latest incident at Plum Island follows a period of relative quiet in the battle against the shifting sands.

Last winter was fairly gentle, but in the period before that, from 2008-2010, Joslin, the building commissioner, said emergency crews were tearing down damaged decks almost daily just up the beach on the central part of the island. One home was lost.

But that part of the beach repaired itself, leaving the homes well back from the ocean. He believes that is a result of a sandbar that has migrated north, to that section of the beach.

What happens next, what the ocean will bring, is impossible to predict.

“It would be nice to have a crystal ball,” he said. “I can tell you tomorrow what happened yesterday.”

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
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