PLUM ISLAND — Residents who decided to stay on the barrier island to face the brunt of superstorm Sandy awoke yesterday to patches of blue sky and diminished winds — a dramatic change from the day before when gale force winds and a pelting rain threatened to wash away large chunks of beach, and with it, several homes.
Newbury and Newburyport authorities Sunday had called for a voluntary evacuation of the island as they grew fearful that emergency personnel may not be able to reach stranded residents should the storm surge flood Plum Island Turnpike. One official estimated about 20 percent of people heeded the call, many of them elderly and those with small children.
While there were reports of sand being lost along Plum Island Center and a half dozen or so residences losing power after high winds ripped power lines from their homes, for the most part, Plum Island fared better than expected.
“Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief,” Newburyport Ward 1 City Councilor Allison Heartquist said yesterday.
Heartquist, who represents Newburyport’s section of Plum Island, said coir bags placed by homeowners to protect their properties did what they were supposed to do.
“The coir bags definitely have held up,” Heartquist said.
Hurricane Sandy made landfall Monday evening along the central New Jersey coastline causing massive flooding in New York City, Atlantic City and some communities in Connecticut. More than 33 people were killed as a result and flooding shut down portions of New York City’s subway system as well as forcing officials to shut off power to large chunk of Lower Manhattan.
“I really think, that by the grace of God, we were really really blessed considering what has happened to other states,” Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday said yesterday.
While the eye of the storm stayed hundreds of miles south and a high pressure system farther north, the storm covered most of New England and generated winds as high as 80 mph in Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service in Taunton. Winds in excess of 50 mph were recorded on Plum Island.
As the storm drew closer to hitting the eastern seaboard, communities across the state including most in Greater Newburyport canceled school for the day and closed municipal buildings. The American Red Cross set up a shelter inside Newbury Elementary School for displaced residents and a pet shelter was established at the Newburyport animal shelter on Perry Way.
On Saturday, Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency allowing him to activate the National Guard and apply for federal disaster assistance in terms of rebuilding and clean-up costs.
Holaday said Newburyport was able to avoid more serious damage in part because the hurricane’s track shot farther inland but also because of preparation efforts that began well before the storm arrived. Emergency meetings with several departments were held Friday, Sunday and Monday.
“We were well prepared. We had every single contingency planned for and helps. When you’re faced with potential disasters like Hurricane Sandy and to be able to pull a team together, and have them all work so well together it what’s makes us get through these emergencies. It all worked so well, there’s no question about,” Holaday said.
Holaday said given what information emergency officials had and the hearty nature of Plum Island residents, a voluntary evacuation made more sense than a mandatory one.
“Those who want to get off, get off and those who feel they can ride it out do. That’s why we made it voluntary. But again, people are used to the island and the weather and elements and I think there are some you’d have to get off kicking and screaming,” Holaday said.
In preparation for the impending storm, Plum Island homeowners in danger of seeing their homes fall into the Atlantic Ocean secured emergency permits with help from local, state and federal officials to scrape sand and pile it up to the dunes in front of their properties.
Yesterday, Newbury Selectman Joe Story said the beach scraping efforts most likely saved homes on Annapolis Way from falling into the sea.
With the highest winds expected to hit the Greater Newburyport area starting around mid-afternoon Monday, communities across the region cancelled school and businesses closed earlier. Boats were removed from the Merrimack and many placed sandbags in front of their front doors and closed curtains. By 4 p.m. Monday, downtown Newburyport was a virtual ghost town.
As evening wore on and the winds increased, Newburyport experienced a phenomenon that has been recorded multiple times in the past 200 years during hurricanes. Strong easterly winds prevented the Merrimack River basin from draining. Water levels in the river became alarmingly high, and were driven by fierce winds that created waves of 5 feet or more. Those waves crashed into riverside structures, such as the Black Cow restaurant and the boardwalk, sending great plumes of salty spray onto buildings and the land.
City police Marshal Howard said at that point, conditions along Newburyport’s waterfront were worse than along Plum Island’s beaches. A crisis of sorts developed around 9:30 p.m., when police and firefighters responded to the boardwalk when a large whale watching boat began crashing along the docks causing significant damage. They considered the risks of moving the 75-ton vessel off the dock and out into the open water.
Then suddenly, around 11 p.m., the high winds diminished, and with it the threat to the waterfront.
At yesterday’s afternoon high tide, hundreds of people streamed in and out of Plum Island Center to grab a glimpse of the raging green water crashing against the beach. Earlier in the day, the Newbury Highway Department had deposited a large pile of sand near the center’s message board in preparation of spreading it around the general area after high tide had gone.
Officials in both communities had prepared for the worst yesterday afternoon expecting the coast to be hit with an 8-foot-swell along with high winds at high tide. But the high tide came and went without much fanfare. The hordes of emergency officials, television news trucks and city and town officials that had crowded into Plum Island Center were gone, replaced only by curiosity seekers almost none of them wearing rain gear Only a lone Newbury police officer was at the center during high tide, his job to make sure none of the visitors jumped into the ocean. Earlier, police responded to a 911 call regarding a surfer who tried to hang 10 but only managed to lose his board.
Minutes later, the officer left the scene to response to a possible house fire reported at 4 Forham Way. As it turned out, the house’s main power line had been blown off by high winds causing some smoke. As firefighters inspected the small house only a few yards away from the foam-crusted beach, its owner, who declined comment, was standing against a parked car.
“We prepared for the worst, hoped for the best and it was something in between,” Story said, yesterday.