, Newburyport, MA

December 28, 2012

Dire straits

Severe storm leaves several PI homes at risk of collapse

By Dave Rogers
Staff Writer

---- — PLUM ISLAND — Four Annapolis Way homes were deemed uninhabitable by the Newbury building inspector yesterday after a surprisingly powerful winter storm washed away much of the sand separating the structures from the ocean.

One of the homes, located at 31 Annapolis Way, was so compromised that yellow tape was placed across the front door and its occupants and owners barred from collecting any of their belongings.

In addition to the four houses deemed uninhabitable, officials said there are four more Annapolis Way homes in danger of meeting a similar fate.

Occupants of the three other homes — 29, 35 and 37 Annapolis Way — will be allowed to pick up belongings under the supervision of town officials, according to Newbury building inspector Sam Joslin.

Yesterday afternoon, 31 Annapolis Way co-owner Steve Bresnahan was in his driveway looking at the house he could not enter.

“It’s an absolute nightmare,” Bresnahan said.

The powerful storm, which dumped several inches of rain on the region beginning Wednesday evening, caused extensive flooding, especially during yesterday morning’s high tide, and temporarily closed Plum Island Turnpike and Plum Island Boulevard.

Plum Island Center was closed to the public for most of the day and night and a police officer stationed there to keep curiosity seekers away from the affected homes and the beach itself.

During a pair of emergency meetings held at 2 p.m. and again at 4 p.m., Newbury selectmen met with state Sen. Bruce Tarr, who represents the town, to discuss what could be done to prepare the island for the next high tide, scheduled for roughly 11 last night. They also considered measures that could be enacted in the future to save the houses from sliding into the ocean.

In between meetings, Tarr and other officials walked along the beach assessing damage. At least two of the houses suffered significant damage as the ocean ripped open gaping holes in the structures, sucking out furniture in the process. A whipping wind and surging surf made walking in a straight line difficult and those without hats left the beach with sand in their hair.

Police officials in both Newbury and Newburyport were expected to release a Code Red emergency telephone call alerting Plum Island residents that Plum Island Turnpike may be flooded during last night’s high tide, essentially stranding them on the barrier island for several hours. Police officials were also predicting that Plum Island Boulevard would be closed during periods of last night’s high tide.

Newburyport Department of Public Service workers were on call in case the high tide caused enough flooding to compromise the island’s sewer and water services. Should a large-enough breach occur, the DPS was prepared to shut off service to affected sections of the island to prevent a massive failure of the system, according to Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday.

Newbury selectmen Chairman Joe Story said he placed a call to Gov. Deval Patrick’s office yesterday asking the state for immediate help, but was told there was very little, if anything, officials there could do.

During yesterday’s meetings, exasperated Plum Island homeowners implored selectmen to take immediate action to save their properties, including placing large boulders by the threatened properties or at the very least deploying coir bags. Such a measure was recently done farther north in the Newburyport section of Plum Island and has been deemed successful by officials there.

Residents talked about the importance of not only protecting the homes, but protecting the island’s infrastructure and tax base.

“We have a catastrophic event under way; we need to defend what we have and we need the town to step up and take the lead,” said Annapolis Way resident Bob Connors, who was holding back tears at one point during the first meeting yesterday.

As recently as October, state and local officials expressed confidence that Annapolis Way homes were safer thanks to recent beach replenishment efforts.

Placing thousand-pound boulders in front of homes would not be an easy task legally, according to officials, who said the state Department of Environmental Protection would likely not allow such a maneuver over fear that it would permanently destroy large sections of beach area.

Newbury conservation agent Doug Packer said obtaining legal authority to permit hard structures such as boulders or walls along the beach would be extremely difficult.

“As far as rocks go, it’s a very hard sell, no pun intended,” Packer said.

But with a chuckle, Tarr said there was little the DEP could do to stop the town from placing the boulders in the dead of night and dealing with the legal fallout later.

On a more serious note, Tarr pushed for the idea of obtaining coir bags and placing them around the endangered homes as soon as possible.

“It’s something we can do relatively quickly,” Tarr said.

Earlier in the day, Tarr said the town would be well served to hire an engineer to look into any and all proposals to save the Annapolis Way homes and nearby homes on Southern Boulevard as well as immediately send a letter to state and federal officials imploring them to explore any options.

Residences on the Newburyport side of Plum Island appeared to have been undamaged by the storm.

In recent months, the high tide had been getting within a half-dozen feet of several houses at the easternmost end of 55th Street. But a visual inspection indicated that by mid-afternoon yesterday, at least, no damage had been done. The public parking lot at the north end of the island, however, was under 4 to 6 inches of water.

Elsewhere in Newburyport, there had been no reports of damage at mid-afternoon yesterday, Harbormaster Paul Hogg said.

“The parking lot at Cashman Park was flooded, but no report of damage along the river has been received,” he said.

Hogg noted that recreational vessels had been taken out of the Merrimack River and that commercial fishing boats had been firmly tied up at municipal facilities.

Daily News reporter Dyke Hendrickson contributed to this report.