, Newburyport, MA

March 11, 2013

On Plum Island, old ways are in jeopardy

Newburyport Daily News

---- — There’s been a steady drumbeat of dire warnings for many months, if not years. And over the past few days, the long-warned disaster finally came to pass.

Plum Island’s Annapolis Way neighborhood took the brunt of a savage storm, leaving three homes utterly destroyed and several others in jeopardy. Residents of that part of the island have been sending up the warning signals for months, as the beach they once knew steadily disappeared and the dunes on which their homes sit were eaten away.

There had been a number of steps taken to try to save the homes, mostly paid for by the homeowners themselves. Those efforts failed against the power of the sea.

Today there are recriminations and anger directed against state government in particular for not allowing more to be done, and against the federal government for not acting more swiftly to make repairs to the Plum Island jetty, repairs that many believe would have had a beneficial effect on the island’s seashore.

Those accusations may have some merit, but it is clear that manmade efforts to stop erosion are not guaranteed. There is nothing that will stop the sea from raging against a barrier beach.

This is a sad time for many on the island. Friends and neighbors have lost their homes; neighborhoods that many grew up in and have fond memories of have been altered. The once-familiar beach itself is a different place, alien in some ways. And there is no clear end in sight — many more homes now sit perched on the edge of a badly eroded dune. Another storm like this one will no doubt have a ripple effect of devastation.

All residents of Newbury will feel the fallout of this past week. For years the expensive shorefront properties of Plum Island have paid a large share of the town’s property tax bills, while at the same time there are relatively few school-aged children on the island and thus few expenses to the town. The island has been a cash cow of sorts for Newbury, but that will change now.

In many ways, we are returning to the island of the mid-1970s, when it reeled from erosion crisis to erosion crisis. At that time, there was a serious discussion of having the entire island bought by the government, the homes torn down and the land restored to a wild barrier beach. But by the late 1970s, the beach did what it often does — sand moved, dunes rebuilt, old wounds disappeared and the crisis ended.

We can be hopeful that we have seen the last of the storms and that the healing process will begin as the gentler tides of the summer “grow” the beaches, as they have done in the past. Perhaps the other forces at work on the island, such as the movement of offshore sandbars, will once again rebuild the beach and dunes.

But no one can be sure of any of these things.

The longterm discussions need to be taking place, even as we deal with the short-term damage and emergency measures. Is it wise to allow homes to be rebuilt so close to the edge of a dune? Should there be a stronger effort to create a seaside buffer zone free of houses, one on which a healthy and protective dune can be established?

Times are changing. No longer is Plum Island a collection of small cottages and shacks that can be easily moved, or pose little loss when swept into the sea. There is a much heavier investment there now, and the plan moving forward ought to reflect that.