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Plum Island homeowners pin hopes on sandbags

Stephen Bresnahan cleaned under the family house on Plum Island after it was undercut by waves at high tide Friday.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Stephen Bresnahan cleaned under the family house on Plum Island after it was undercut by waves at high tide Friday.

Work crews scrambled over the weekend and Monday to ­secure massive sandbags in front of endangered beachfront houses on Plum Island, while homeowners hoped for a change in sand patterns that could reverse beach erosion from last week’s devastating storm.

Eight houses are in danger; four of them have been closed to their owners by order of the town of Newbury. The other four could be next.

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“The fact that the homeowners are currently not out of their houses is good for them, but there is certainly a concern now,” said Sam Joslin, the building commissioner in ­Newbury. “They are not out of the woods.”

On Thursday, a heavy storm surge decimated the string of houses on Annapolis Way. ­Another storm of that magnitude, officials say, could send those homes into the out to sea.

Just a few months ago, the shore in front of the houses under­went a “beach scraping,” paid for by the homeowners, in which bulldozers built the sand into a massive dune to protect the dwellings from the sea. The practice is banned in Massachusetts, but homeowners were able to secure emergency approval.

Thursday’s storm washed away that reconstructed sand and then some.

“It was a much greater storm than anyone anticipated,” said Jane Batchelder, whose 90-plus-year-old house on Annapolis Way lost its deck to the surging tides.

Batchelder, who lives in Newburyport, said her daughter planned to move back to the Plum Island house as soon as necessary repairs could be made.

“The sandbags will give a sense of security, at least through the winter,” Batchelder said.

She said the house has been in her family for 22 years, making for fond memories that are hard to part with.

“When you raise your children and have your grandchildren there, it’s more than just a house,” she said. “It’s a place your family has gone since they were young, and it’s very hard to walk from a house like that.”

The cost and effort to save the dwellings is being borne by the homeowners, town officials said.

“The town’s role is to support them anyway we can and enable them to save homes in any legal way possible,” said Doug Packer, Newbury conservation agent. “But it’s really up to them.”

Laying the sandbags is an extensive job, put on hiatus yesterday as private crews searched for more materials. The bags run up to 30 feet long and are about 3 feet in diameter, Packer said. They will be placed end to end in front of the houses that face the greatest risk, making for several hundred feet of bags, he said.

Packer said the bags should help hold off water and stem erosion temporarily. But they would be no match for another storm like last week’s.

“These houses don’t have another storm in them,” Packer said. “Halfway through the storm, they could fall into the ocean.”

The hope is that before ­another storm comes through, sand deposits return naturally, shoring up the dwellings and preventing further erosion.

“We have been back this far before, so this could turn around and material could ­migrate ashore; the beach could rebuild,” Packard said.

Town officials pointed out that in the center of the island, the erosion of the beach had left other houses in danger starting in 2007. Sandbags were placed, but little changed until a month ago, when sand deposits returned.

“The sand is settling down and’’ accumulating, said Joslin, who added that there is no way to know if the sand will stay put or disappear again.

The same may or may not happen for the houses along Annapolis Way.

“It’s a barrier island, and they move,” Joslin said. “We ­really don’t have a fix for it, just temporary Band-Aids.”

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@
globe.com
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