Sandy puts South Shore’s seawalls in spotlight

In Scituate, waves slammed against the sea wall on Turner Road before Hurricane Sandy’s full fury struck the East Coast.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
In Scituate, waves slammed against the sea wall on Turner Road before Hurricane Sandy’s full fury struck the East Coast.

In the days after Sandy pummeled the Atlantic coast, Tom Reynolds had more on his hands than just downed trees and flooding in Marshfield.
Reynolds, superintendent of the town’s Department of Public Works, also roamed the coastline, giving a once-over to the 2.7 miles of sea walls separating dry land from the sometimes frothing sea. He inspected cracks that may have deepened; the tops of the sea wall — called caps — that are constantly crumbling, and cosmetic patches that had been obliterated by the pounding of the ocean on Monday night.

“There are some locations where some of the cap, which was starting to crumble, had crumbled a bit more, and some spots where we had patched it have deteriorated from the pounding of the surf,” he said.

In Scituate, where US Senator Scott Brown and his opponent, Elizabeth Warren, toured the coastline after the storm, along with US Representative Stephen Lynch and state Senator Robert Hedlund, officials had heightened concerns about what Sandy had done to an already ravaged coastline.


“What we’ll do in the next couple of weeks is try to go out and walk the sea walls and see if there is any damage,” Kevin Cafferty, Scituate’s town engineer, said on Tuesday. “But it’s a daunting task when you have nine miles of seawall and you have to walk every section. The tides were pretty high, some sand and stones could have shifted.”

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So far, however, no residents had called to report problems, Cafferty said.

Early prognosis was good for Quincy as well, but officials said engineers would go out to see if any new damage had added to the $12.9 million laundry list of sea wall fixes the city already has.

In Hull and Plymouth, sea walls stood up to the task of holding back the sea Monday night, recent repairs holding steady, officials reported.

But despite the positive reports that Sandy had mostly spared the South Shore coast, concern about area sea walls remains high.


“We need to pay attention,’’ said state Representative James Cantwell, a Democrat who represents Scituate and Marshfield. “We need to be making strategic investments and we need a long-term strategy that we’re having ocean-level rise due to climate change and that we’re having more ferocious storms also due to climate change. We need to be preparing now.”

One cause for concern is aging infrastructure. According to a 2009 statewide study of all public infrastructure along 1,730 miles of the Massachusetts coastline, almost 80 percent of coastal structures have outlived their 50-year lifespan. Furthermore, this infrastructure has gone unrepaired — 85 percent of public infrastructure had no major repairs from 1958 to 2009, the study said.

The age and lack of attention has caused some walls to deteriorate, with 8 percent, or 193 seawalls, falling into the “D” or “F” category for condition, with “A” being the best condition, and “F” the worst.

Based on 2006 figures, officials estimated it would cost $31.5 million a year for 20 years to make high-priority fixes. And fixing all problems could run into the billions of dollars.

Even more troubling is that the condition of some walls may be worse than analyzed.


“The problem is many of the walls appear to be in good shape and in fact might not be, you have to bore into them before you find out what’s inside,” said Scituate Selectman Joseph Norton. “The wall down near Turner Road — the one on Oceanside that breached two years ago — that was in our surveys [as] not a bad wall.”

‘We need a long-term strategy that we’re having ocean-level rise due to climate change and that we’re having more ferocious storms also due to climate change.’

Additionally, with other intensive storms in the last few years — the December 2010 Nor’easter that devastated parts of Marshfield and Scituate, and Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 — the frequency of these more intensive systems has some wondering if storms like Sandy are the new norm.

Brenda Ekwurzel, a Washington-based climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research and advocacy group, said there are strong links between extreme coastal events — such as coastal flooding and intense precipitation — and climate change.

Although there is limited evidence that climate change contributes to the frequency of hurricanes, certain factors can influence hurricanes that do occur, she said. In a storm like Sandy, she said, warmer ocean waters “provide fuel” and make the storm more powerful.

To make matters worse, storms are riding in on higher sea levels, Ekwurzel said. A US Geological Survey study, published earlier this year in Nature Climate Change, suggests that sea level is anticipated to rise roughly two to three feet or more by the end of the century. Additionally, that rise will occur three to four times faster along portions of the Atlantic Coast.

“Ordinary storms and powerful storms are continually chipping away and eroding coastal defense structure, whether it’s beaches or walls or other types. That pounding, if you’re riding in on higher storm surges and higher seas compared to our climate of our grandparents, it means our infrastructure is not up to snuff when it comes to these powerful storms,” she said.

The severity of storms should serve as a reminder to residents that infrastructure repairs, such as sea walls, are not items that can go undone, said Cantwell, who called the recent breaches in Scituate and Marshfield sea walls — which also were damaged in the December 2010 Nor’easter — a “canary in a coal mine.”

“Our structural engineer said [the Scituate sea wall] was sound . . . but the resulting damage, we had two homes burned to the ground because water rushed in so fast — and about 100 homes had varying levels of damage,” he said of the 2010 storm.

Cantwell has put forth legislation to enable the state to provide funding for dams and sea walls. He said the Legislature also is looking for ways to give grants and low-interest loans to towns to perform some of this work. There is additionally an effort to secure federal disaster funding for sea walls.

“My dismay is the federal government built these structures and in large measure haswalked away. . . . We need the federal government to help to come up with a comprehensive state solution. It is a tremendous burden on local towns,” Cantwell said.

Out of necessity, some towns have begun these types of repairs on their own. Last year in Quincy, officials delegated $500,000 to study the 11.7-mile stretch of coastal infrastructure and $4.5 million to fix a stretch of wall in poor condition. Those repairs are under way. Hull spent some of its own money five years ago to repair sea walls on Jerusalem Road.

Plymouth spent $300,000 on a revetment repair last year at Long Beach, near a road that doubles as an evacuation route for the nuclear power plant. Without any state or federal funding, the town was left to dig up the money on its own.

In Marshfield, officials had sought $2.8 million to begin repairs on a stretch of sea wall in the Fieldston area that are expected to cost $4.8 million. Town Meeting, however, provided only $750,000, and officials plan to seek additional funding. Two years ago, Marshfield also spent $1.9 million fixing a section of sea wall on Farragut Road.

And in Scituate, the town has designated $500,000 a year for infrastructure fixes through a Proposition 2½ override. Larger repairs were done with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Despite the federal help, Selectman Norton said the repairs are just too much.

“We are putting asides hundreds of thousand of dollars a year, the town is, for sea wall repair in anticipation of storms like the one we just had. But again, if that sea wall breaches or breaks, it doesn’t take long to go through [a half-million] or a million dollars,” he said.

However, Bruce Carlisle, director of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, said the state is doing much to aid the problem — updating inundation maps, forecasting sea level rise, creating technology to anticipate storm surge, and discussing future planning to mitigate problems.

All in all, Sandy is just more information. “I don’t think anything has really changed,” he said. “In some ways, it’s just a question of time.”

Visit to see a photo gallery of Hurricane Sandy on the South Shore.

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett Globe correspondent Natalie Feulner contributed to this article.