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Plum Island residents trying to stave off erosion

Jimmy Gravel removed posts from a house on Plum Island Tuesday. The lumber was to be used to shore up a garage.

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF

Jimmy Gravel removed posts from a house on Plum Island Tuesday. The lumber was to be used to shore up a garage.

Residents of storm-battered Plum Island continued to buttress their seaside houses against erosion Tuesday, as two more damaged homes were lost to last week’s wintry blast.

Doug Packer, an environmental official in Newbury, said residents are doing whatever they can to protect their houses against further damage from the gnawing waves.

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“Some are using stone; some are bringing in sand,” Packer said. “Many are securing portions and corners of homes and decks. It’s a potpourri.”

Six houses have been lost; at least 40 more are at risk of damage from continuing erosion.

Some of the fortification ­efforts, such as adding concrete barriers, are prohibited under state environmental regulations, which coastal residents have long criticized as overly strict. But Bob Connors, a Plum Island resident, said the extent of this winter’s erosion has forced people to take matters into their own hands.

“Everybody that has a home that’s damaged is taking ­action,” he said. “People are ­doing whatever they have to.”

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection said it understood that residents were working to secure their homes, but that regulators would later review the reinforcements to determine whether they meet environmental standards.

“If the work fails to meet the standard, the [agency] may ­require work to bring the area back into compliance,” the agency said in a statement. A spokesman said the agency did not anticipate fining violators.

Packer said he believed that state regulators “understand the dire circumstances” along the eroding coastline, adding that short-term efforts can fortify homes through the winter.

“We’ve recovered from it ­before,” he said.

Jack Clarke, director of public policy for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said “highly dynamic” barrier beaches cannot be held in place and that property owners are ultimately fighting a losing battle.

“The beaches will continue to migrate irrespective of what people do on them,” he said. “. . . There should be no false sense of security.”

Plum Island and other barrier beaches are not being washed away, he said, but are moving in response to wind, waves, and rising sea levels.

Clarke said previous efforts to replenish the Plum Island dunes with sand from the lower part of the beach, a generally banned approach known as beach scraping, can be counterproductive.

“It accelerates an already rapid erosion rate,” he said.

At residents’ urging, regulators have signed off on efforts to shore up the dunes. But in light of the recent erosion, environmental leaders say it was probably a mistake, leaving the beach more vulnerable to the surf.

“We feel it may have exacerbated the problem,” said Bruce Carlisle, who directs the state’s Office of Coastal Zone Management.

Packer, who said the dunes had been scraped three times in the past year, said the efforts have had some “limited success.”

He said the state was allowing residents to bring in reinforcements for their homes .

Carlisle noted that this winter has been marked by a series of unusually intense storms, each of which left the beach more vulnerable than the one before.

He said patterns of coastal erosion are extremely difficult to predict and that the Plum ­Island system is especially complex. What is clear, however, is that erosion has accelerated ­after decades of stability. In the past decade, the beach has lost roughly 150 feet, he said.

“In the 1990s, these homes were hundreds of feet from the beach,” Packer said.

Connors criticized the state for what he called a “let nature take its course” approach, but said he doubted property owners would face sanctions for trying to save their homes.

“It would absolutely be a ­political nightmare for the Commonwealth if people trying to save their homes were penalized for doing that,” he said.

In all, 13 houses have been declared uninhabitable. The owner of one house demolished Tuesday was able to remove some personal belongings ­before the structure was ­destroyed, said Susan Noyes, ­assistant town clerk.

“It really wasn’t [inhabitable], so he decided that rather than invest more money, he would determine what his next steps would be,” she said.

Correspondent Todd Feathers contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.
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