, Newburyport, MA

November 2, 2012

Taking heed of Sandy's warning

Bill Plante's North Shore
Newburyport Daily News

---- — The ancient Tainos of the Caribbean islands got the name right when they called ocean storms of the kind that all but paralyzed New York City and coastal New Jersey a ``huracan’’ (evil spirit).

We have added another one to our history with hurricanes, and this one is called “Sandy”.

Considering the spread of its devastation, as well as its assault on the final week of a presidential campaign, “Sandy’’ is not likely to have been what the Tainos might have called it.

“Terminator” would have been more like it.

Four days from now we will either re-elect Barak Obama for another four years of deadlock, or elect Romney in the hope that his political elasticity might actually get Congressional elephants and donkeys to share common ground.

But for the weekend, millions of Americans will be dealing with outcomes along Sandy’s path.

Mother Nature’s lesson of recent days is that projection of absolute outcomes of storms as momentous as this one is a giant step on our learning curve because, collectively, we have never been hit this hard.

As for our responses to local expectations, nothing done that could have been done at Plum Island would have saved it had the landfall of Sandy been at Rhode Island instead of Long Island.

Had that happened, not only would Plum Island have been swept almost clean of construction. Most of Salisbury Beach, and much of Newburyport and Amesbury waterfront properties along the Merrimack and Parker rivers and low lands would have been decimated.

The short of it is that this storm was a shrieking freak of what we had come to expect of nature’s making. There is nothing by way of history to suggest that this was not unique. Neither, however, is there anything to reassure us that it was a one-off that will never happen again.

Therein lies Plum Island’s uncertain future.

If this is a one-off our successors can do what we’ve been doing over three centuries - making what we can of what’s at hand by making use of seaside properties. If that depends on relying on higher governmental authority to respond to our needs in times of bad outcomes, well, so be it.

If, however, such storms become a part of our future, all bets are off because our barrier beach will have increasingly uncertain longevity.

Erosion is a natural force. We seem to have forgotten that. The coast line of Massachusetts once stretched far seaward and we live with nature’s work in progress.

The front page photograph of Wednesday’s Daily News caught my eye because it appeared the storm had removed the sand covering of the westerly end of the stone groin emplaced more than a half century ago when the condition of the jetties was in far worse shape.

Former Mayor Albert H. Zabriskie had seen to the origin of all of what were called “groins,’’ an innovation now held in some disrepute because in some cases they have accelerated beach erosion. For most of a half century they did their job well enough between the years when the north and south jetties remained relatively intact.

That was especially evident in the creation and extension of plant covered dunes extending from the Newburyport-Newbury area, but the best evidence of their value comes with the burying of the groin stones. The uncovering of those at the center is disquieting, and it is well that the restoration of the jetties is an action in process.

All matters considered, Sandy, this “evil spirit’’ has delivered a message. Seaside settlers along the Atlantic coast take heed.

Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and a staff columnist.