The sooner we face this, the less painful it will be: Those beach houses on Plum Island are doomed. They shouldn’t be there in the first place. And we should be planning for a future when they won’t be.
The images we’ve seen coming out of Newbury over the past couple of weeks have been heartbreaking: homes sliding into the water during the March 7 storm; others demolished; residents desperately trying to protect those that remain, with stone barriers the state will likely declare illegal come summer.
The ocean has eaten a whopping 100 feet of Plum Island’s precious coast, on average, since 1994, most of that in the last five years. That’s as much land as was lost over the entire previous century.
We tend to think of climate change as a distant phenomenon, a thing of geological time frames. As Plum Island’s woes show, it’s happening right now. Warming waters and melting glaciers mean higher sea levels and probably more frequent fierce storms. Communities on barrier beaches will feel their force repeatedly as the ocean encroaches.
New Englanders used to fear the sea, says Jack Clarke, legislative director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Until the 1920s, they steered clear of the water’s angry edge. But then they started converting shoreline camps into proper houses, then into large, year-round affairs. And for decades, state and federal governments encouraged people to build houses upon sand, providing roads, sewer systems, and flood coverage for places private insurers wouldn’t touch.
Who could blame Bob Connors for settling on beautiful Annapolis Way 33 years ago? He remodeled his house in 2007 and put it on pilings, so it survived the March storm. His neighbors are now bringing in tons of boulders in an attempt to protect their more vulnerable homes, even though state regulations prohibit hard barriers (they hasten erosion). Last week, the Department of Environmental Protection sent a letter warning residents that the boulders would likely have to be removed.
This incenses Connors. “This is a time for leadership,” he said Wednesday, “not sending a threatening letter to 40 people in the midst of an emergency. . . . The genie is out of the bottle.”
True. The houses have been built. And, because we’ve failed to fix a catastrophic situation, the sea will keep rising. There’s no going back.
“You don’t say to us, ‘We can’t do anything, but other communities’ sea walls can stay,’” he said. “You don’t go to a fully-developed area and say ‘Now we’re changing the rules.’”
State officials counter that the hard barrier prohibition has been in place since 1978. Their advice: Instead of building walls, residents in vulnerable communities should move their houses back and put them on pilings.
But if the coastline continues to recede at its current rate, water could soon surround even houses like Connors’. The big question is, do we go forward with short–term fixes, or is it time for much harder, long-term solutions?
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is reaching for the latter. After Superstorm Sandy laid waste to coastal communities in October, he proposed a buyout program to encourage residents in flood plains to abandon their neighborhoods. Their houses would be demolished, the land left undeveloped.
Even if the federal government gets behind the program, it will take some doing to encourage people to leave places they love. The problem is, we’re hurtling toward a point where they won’t have a choice.
This is not about just Plum Island, or New York, or any of the other communities built where they shouldn’t have been. It’s about us racking up environmental bills so steep that the only ways left to pay them are gut-wrenching: relinquishing what many of us see as our God-given right to gas guzzlers; enduring unsightly wind farms amid pristine vistas; changing our concept of habitable land.
This painful moment is also a critical one: Do we keep our heads in the sand, or finally draw a line in it?
Of course, if we were good at planning for the next century, instead of the next few years, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.