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Blizzard blasts away parts of beaches, dunes, cliffs

Surfer Kenny Merrill of Dennis walked along dramatic dune erosion at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. The weekend blizzard damaged many of Cape Cod National Seashore’s dunes.

JULIA CUMES FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Surfer Kenny Merrill of Dennis walked along dramatic dune erosion at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. The weekend blizzard damaged many of Cape Cod National Seashore’s dunes.

The bottom section of stairs down to Nauset Light Beach in Eastham? Gone. The Sandy Neck Beach handicap ramp in Barnstable? A chunk of that is gone, too, sucked into the Atlantic. Plum Island’s squishy sand, a crucial buffer for homes? Tons met the same fate.

The weekend blizzard savaged the coastline of Massachusetts, with many communities on Cape Cod reporting that 15 to 20 feet of beach disappeared. The bluff coast – the 20 miles or so from Eastham to Truro with steep dunes soaring up to 140 feet -- suffered some of the most visible, and dangerous, erosion. The ocean scoured out the bottom of the bluffs, leaving sandy cliffs jutting over the beach with no support.

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While many residents and coastal experts were expecting erosion and flooding, the powerful nor’easter still managed to stun them.

“The town took quite a beating,’’ said Chris Miller, natural resources director in Brewster. He said the town’s entire coastline experienced at least 15 feet of erosion, and the storm washed away dunes, twisted stairs to homes from their bolts, and devoured the foundations of three houses. Longtime residents, he added, “say they haven’t seen anything like this.”

The storm indiscriminately peeled away beaches, decks, snow fences, docks, parking lots, and roads from Salisbury to Provincetown and tossed twisted remnants on other beaches, salt marshes, and tidal rivers. While most communities were still assessing damage on Tuesday and no repair estimates were available, state and local officials received reports of uninhabitable or washed away homes in Plymouth, Sandwich, Scituate, and Hull.

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On the Outer Cape, coastal experts said the perilous bluffs could give way as snow melts and weighs down the top material -- or if gawkers, unaware of the danger, stood on them. Authorities were placing barricades and signs at many beaches to warn people away. No injuries were reported.

“For the uninitiated, they are quite dangerous,’’ said George Price, superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore. He said one slump 15 feet deep already occurred on Marconi Beach, which also had its stairs washed out. Officials in some communities said they would likely wait for the cliffs to fall in coming weeks.

Mark Adams, the national seashore’s geographical information specialist, said Hurricane Sandy and other storms had already taken most of the beach, so the bluffs were extraordinarily vulnerable by the time the blizzard hit. Normally, about three feet of bluff are eroded each year. In some places, last week’s storm took 20 feet.

“If you walk to the bluff you can see below that shrubs and small trees went sailing down to the beach,” said Adams. “From the top it looks steady.”

In Hull, the sea carved out the bottom of a dune, creating a wall eight feet high on a small section of Nantasket Beach, said Anne Herbst, conservation administrator. The ocean overtopped the seawall and crashed into homes, she said, and it raised water levels in nearby Straits Pond.

Sandwich lost about 15 to 20 feet of dune and had significant damage to its boardwalk, said Brian Gallant, emergency management director. He said about a half dozen homes are off their foundations and several others are structurally compromised.

In Eastham, portions of parking lots were gone at four beaches, and the storm moved a shipwreck -- the tugboat Hammer, which sank in 1965 -- said Neil Andres, public works director. “It was in Cooks Brook and it got dislodged and broken up; it’s moved,’’ Andres said. In Salisbury, the Newburyport Daily News reported, the skeleton of an 1894 wreck, the Jennie M. Carter, is now easier to see.

Most community and state leaders on Tuesday talked of rebuilding homes and important infrastructure, but some struck a different tone, saying that perhaps it is time to let the sea reclaim some of the coast -- or rebuild in a smarter way.

Sea level rise is accelerating as glaciers melt and ocean water heats up and expands because of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases accumulating in the atmosphere. With climate change expected to bring more fierce storms, these officials said, it may not make sense to rebuild parking lots or even roads.

“We want to make (places) whole again, but there may be opportunities for reducing risk in the future by eliminating seawalls ... buildings,’’ said Bruce Carlisle, director of the state Coastal Zone Management office.

Retreating from the sea is a difficult concept in a place such as Hull, where property owners are elevating homes and building on pilings. That’s because “it’s not a small section of the town” that would need to go, Herbst said. It’s most of the town.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeBethDaley.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story incorrectly described damage at Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable. Portions of the stairs and the ramp for strollers and wheelchairs were lost.

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