ROCKPORT — As certain as the ice-blue sea, winter storms send ocean waves surging over the sea walls protecting the craggy coastline at the tip of Cape Ann.
The nor’easter on Feb. 8 and 9, which ranks among the worst in Massachusetts history, is the latest example of Mother Nature’s fury, leaving damage not seen since the Blizzard of ’78.
Flooding washed out the road at Gap Head, a scenic spot on Marmion Way. Popple stones — flat rocks lining Pebble Beach — were swept onto Penzance Road, covering 800 feet or so of the coastal road where a half-dozen homes were destroyed or heavily damaged. DPW crews used backhoes to clear the road last Wednesday.
But there is still a lot more work to do, even as the threat of more bad weather this weekend loomed like dark clouds overhead. Granite boulders broke away from a breakwater at Bearskin Neck, where the asphalt roadway had crumbled in places. Rocks tossed from a sea wall in Old Harbor landed in the backyards of private homes.
“It’s just a big field of boulders,” said Joe Parisi, Rockport’s public works director, surveying the damage.
At White Wharf and Pigeon Cove, pounding surf chipped at tightly stacked sea walls. At Long Beach, where the sea wall has been weakening for decades, heavy waves eroded land, creating a deep gap cordoned off with yellow caution tape.
The destruction raises new questions about the ability of Rockport’s sea walls to protect millions of dollars’ worth of public and private properties. It also has intensified concern that the town soon must act to restore or replace them.
“I think our community is really recognizing that this small coastal community ends up having a burden to maintain these sea walls that are quite expensive, especially in the last couple of years, when we’ve had more and more big storms,” said Erin M. Battistelli, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen.
Rockport still is tallying damage estimates from this month’s storm, but it will be in the millions. Once compiled, the numbers will be sent to the state’s emergency management office, which will determine if there is enough damage statewide to apply for federal disaster relief money.
“We’re still assessing the damages, to determine what assistance we may qualify for,” said Phillip Griffiths, the state’s undersecretary for environment at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
If a federal disaster is declared, any money that may flow into Rockport or any other community would have to be spent to repair damage caused by the storm. “It could be used to build things back to the way they were,” Parisi said. “It wouldn’t allow us to do any more than that.”
A 2009 state report identified $600 million in needed repairs to sea walls along the Massachusetts coast, including $20 million in Rockport. The state plans to update the report and expand it to include estimates on private and federal lands along the coast, Griffiths said.
Since the report was issued, Rockport repaired a sea wall at Back Beach, which was not damaged in this month’s storm.
“It held up well,” Battistelli said. “The water came over the sea wall, into the street, and back out again.”
The town now is focused on Long Beach, where the sea wall dates to the 1930s. A study completed last May estimated it would cost $13.5 million to repair the wall, which shields 151 private homes from the Atlantic.
“It’s a staggering amount of money,” Battistelli said. “The town has done what we can, within our operating budget, to maintain our sea walls. But we just can’t afford to repair them all.”
A new $17 million state loan pool to repair sea walls and dams could provide some help.
The fund, created by the Legislature in December, must be divided equally between sea wall and dam projects. The state is developing regulations for the loan pool, Griffiths said.
“It is not a huge amount of money right now,” Griffiths said. “But it is something we hope will increase over time. We recognize this is a longstanding issue.”
In Rockport, some think winter’s latest blast is the worst since 1978, when structures toppled along the shoreline, including the original Motif #1 fishing shack.
“I’d say Sandy was a zero,” said Police Lieutenant Mark Schmink, the town’s emergency management director, referencing to the October hurricane that barely stirred a ripple in Rockport. “The Blizzard of ’78 was a 10. I would put this one at a 6.”
And yet, in many ways the storm’s destruction seems old hat in this town of nearly 7,000 residents. “The strength of each wall diminishes with each storm,” Parisi said, while a crew worked to repair a stretch of Marmion Way. “If you don’t stay with [repairs], it will just get weaker and weaker, and then another storm comes up, and does more damage. . . . What we have to determine, ultimately: Is it capable of protecting the land behind it?”
Town workers have been busy clearing debris, mostly rocks and the odd lobster pot swept onto roads. But washed-out roadways won’t be repaved until after the spring thaw.
“The town hasn’t seen damage like this in a long time,” Parisi said, standing on rocks covering Penzance Road. “There really was no way to prevent it. You can’t have any equipment here to try to hold it back.”