NEWBURY — They expect big storms to do big damage on Plum Island, where beach erosion has long threatened oceanfront homes. They just weren’t expecting this storm to be that bad; ultimately, it was the most damaging to hit the island in recent memory.
As high tide arrived Friday morning, an $800,000 house was ripped from its foundation by the crashing surf and toppled onto the beach. Two others were so damaged that they were expected to be a total loss. And another two could end up condemned. All told, 12 homes are in jeopardy on this small barrier island, according to Newbury building inspector Sam Joslin.
“This is absolutely the worst damage I’ve seen” in eight years as building inspector, Joslin said. “We weren’t expecting this, especially because [Thursday] night’s high tide was so mild.”
By Friday, the surprisingly powerful offshore storm turned much of Annapolis Way near the beach into a high-priced junkyard. Concrete fell from house foundations. Decks swung in the breeze like torn curtains. And a stainless-steel refrigerator bobbed in the surf, occasionally smashing into homes that used to be protected by dunes.
All around, in what has become a sad tradition for the community, neighbors came to the beach to watch the destruction.
The most dramatic damage occurred shortly after the 8 a.m. high tide, when a home on Annapolis Way was torn from its foundation and toppled onto the beach below, coming to rest at a 45-degree angle. Stephen Bandoian, the owner, spends his winters in south Florida for health reasons, but said by phone that he felt the damage was something that could have been prevented.
“There should have been steps allowed to protect these properties,” Bandoian said, echoing a complaint from many neighbors, who say that environmental red tape has prohibited them from protecting their own homes with their own money. “We’ve been trying since December to get approval to rebuild the sea wall that was damaged in a storm. The house had no protection.”
Two other nearby homes on Annapolis Way suffered enough damage that town officials said they would be condemned. Two more, on Fordham Way, could also be condemned, Joslin said.
The section of beach in front of the Annapolis Way homes underwent a controversial beach scraping procedure in late fall, paid for by the homeowners, in which bulldozers pushed ocean sand to build a protective dune in front of the houses. A string of storms has taken all that sand back, and with the dune gone, Friday morning’s high tide eroded the foundations of several homes.
The Atlantic has been chewing away Plum Island beaches for years, with at least two waterfront houses being demolished since 2011. Homeowners have pointed angry fingers of blame in many directions, and controversy has been plentiful, especially after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on waterfront homes all up and down the East Coast. Many critics argue that it is futile to fight Mother Nature. But most of the homes that are jeopardized on Plum Island were built when the sea was hundreds of yards away, on the other side of dunes.
State Senator Bruce Tarr, who represents Plum Island, was at the scene Friday, defending the homeowners and their right to protect their property.
“The fact of the matter is the environment is changing, but these homes weren’t in any danger when they were built,” Tarr said. “These are folks who aren’t asking for public money; they’re asking for public regulation to allow them to protect their homes. The problem is that because of environmental regulations, there are some tools that are off the table that we need to look at seriously. People have to come first, and these are people’s homes.”
Two doors down from Bandoian’s property, Thomas Nee’s foundation was dangerously exposed to the ocean. At least one support beam had snapped in half, and large slabs of concrete broke off the foundation and fell on to the beach. Inspectors anticipated it would be condemned.
As the receding tide granted a few hours of relative calm, Nee tried to salvage what he could from the property.
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” he told a Globe reporter. “I’ve been talking about it for two months. It’s over. It’s gone.”
Next door, a house owned by Bob and Kathy Connors was damaged but structurally sound.
The house had become something of a nerve center, with media filming the damage from the back porch, neighbors bringing food and condolences, and workers preparing to rush to the beach at low tide to remove any debris “so it doesn’t become a projectile for the next tide,” Bob Connors said.
Connors has been one of the most vocal residents calling for major action to protect the homes, and he said Friday’s events were the result of a failure of action from federal and state government.
“We’ve been predicting this since 2010, and all we get is red tape and no solutions,” he said. “We have been precluded from taking tried-and-true actions to protect our homes because of environmental restrictions.”
When asked about critics who argue that it’s no one’s fault but their own for building homes on the coast, Connors said the Commonwealth has been encouraging coastal development for centuries, but has now decided to turn its back on those in need.
“Back in 2007 and 2008, there was hundreds of feet of beach and hundreds of feet of dunes,” Connors said. As the waves smashed into the supports holding up his house, causing the building to shake each time. “But people see us here now and say, ‘Why would you build a home here?’’
“The entire coast of Massachusetts has been compromised and needs to be refortified,” he said. “We keep being told we need to wait for studies. We’re out of time.”