The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

The Sandy Dialogues: Takeaways from New Jersey

Posted by Wells Reserve Contributor | June 23, 2014

Coastal destruction after Hurricane SandyDown in sunny Tuckerton, New Jersey, a contingent of coastal Maine residents and Wells Reserve associates heard firsthand the accounts of locals affected by Hurricane Sandy. The meeting was designed to be an exchange of experiences and suggestions in regard to storm preparedness and coastal resilience. The discussion was geared toward vulnerable areas in Maine, specifically Drakes Island and the Saco-Biddeford area, both of which sent representatives down to NJ. The trip included dinner at a restaurant damaged by Sandy, a few tours of destroyed coastal communities, and an informative panel discussion with residents and municipal officials involved in the recovery efforts.

DinnerGathering at 8 am on Sunday, June 15th, the Maine crew consisted of Tin Smith, Dana Cohen-Kaplan (me), and Mike Mahoney of the Wells Reserve, Owen Grumbling of the Wells Conservation Commission; Jon Carter, Wells Town Manager; Bob Foley, Wells Selectman; and Cathy Stackpole of the Ferry Beach Park Association. We were later joined in New Jersey by Loretta Hoglund of Drakes Island and Dan Feeney of the Old Orchard Beach town office.

After the 7-hour drive from Wells, we headed out for dinner at the Panini Bay restaurant in Tuckerton. This oceanfront establishment had been completely destroyed by Sandy, but had been rebuilt and elevated, and construction had finished not long before our arrival. The Maine contingent discussed the itinerary over a fantastic dinner of fresh seafood with a few of our New Jersey counterparts, including John Schwartz, President of the the Tuckerton Beach Association, and Lisa Auermuller, Outreach and Watershed Coordinator at the Jacques Cousteau Reserve. Discussion ranged from the itinerary for the trip to the differences in the attitudes of Mainers versus Coastal New Jersey residents on issues like sea-level rise and climate change.

Rise

Afterwards, John took us on a tour of the surrounding neighborhood, pointing out houses, gas meters, and construction crews, telling stories for each. Some houses had been rebuilt high above the ground, while other lots had been clear and abandoned entirely. Small piles of debris remained here and there, and the neighborhood was largely deserted save the contractors working into the evening to raise houses. This was the first dose of tangible Sandy reality that most of the Mainers had ever had. On a few different occasions, NJ residents pointed out how the rest of the country had turned attention elsewhere and forgotten about the storm after the final few headlines tapered off last winter. In Tuckerton, and in communities all the way up the coast to Long Island, they said it was still difficult for some to think of anything but the problems the storm had created.

The next morning at the Jacques Cousteau Reserve, the group met with a full panel of New Jersey residents who had been on the front lines of the recovery effort. Leading the discussion were Lisa Auermuller; Elissa Commins, Brick Township Floodplain Manager; Mike Fromosky, Little Egg Harbor Association Business Administrator; and Angela Anderson, Long Beach Township Recycling Coordinator and Sandy Recovery Coordinator. They painted a vivid picture of the state of affairs pre-Sandy through to the present. It would be an understatement to say that the residents had a lot to say about preparedness and aftermath management.

Meet

One of the first things to note are key similarities between the geography of two areas in question. The first is the nature of the geology that the communities interface with.  Both coastal Central New Jersey (Long Beach Island-Tuckerton area) and coastal Southern Maine (Drakes Island to Saco Bay) are vulnerable to changes brought on by coastal erosion. Additionally, these areas are also economically dependent on the state of their beaches and have populations that swell in the summer. Lastly, these are both communities that have historically not worried much about large storm events, particularly hurricanes, which typically affect areas further south. They reiterated a few times that their attitudes toward large storms will have to change, as should the attitudes of coastal communities all the way up the coast, Southern Maine included.

Subjects of discussion ranged from debris removal to FEMA cooperation, provision of shelter for volunteers to the psychological health of damaged communities, social media communication to the importance of updated floodplain mapping. While the NJ residents voiced a stready stream of considerations, obstacles, and preparedness tips, the Maine contingent melange of town officials, scientists, and insurance managers alike scribbled away, noting with particular urgency the matters concerning their respective positions.

The subject of FEMA in particular seemed to arouse a wide range of feelings around the room. These feelings were not warm and fuzzy to phrase it mildly. There seemed to be a lot of complaints about FEMA, mostly stemming from the manner in which the agency rotates staff. Most FEMA employees do not hold permanent positions, and are hired on a disaster-by-disaster basis. This makes the establishment of point-people and knowledgeable, trusted contacts within the agency near impossible. A woman who had been wonderfully sympathetic and attentive to the needs of the people in her district had been replaced in short order by a colder, less involved, unfamiliar employee. Sandy victims had been instructed to fill out aid applications in very specific ways, and had been told the next week that those ways were incorrect, and the forms must be redone. Another stumbling point were the SCIFA (Several Complicated Important FEMA Acronyms) that anyone applying for aid had to be familiar with. If you lost the acronym reference booklet, you were SOL.

The physical clean-up process did not go so well either. Apparently, some of the cleanup companies were paid by the ton, and left most smaller items where they lay. The disposal of the debris ending up costing a small fortune.

Long Beach Island

Floodplain managers and insurance workers had a particularly intense discussion on the matter of flood mapping and zoning, and how those maps govern insurance requirements. The NJ residents informed us that many of the FEMA floodplain maps for the area had not been updated since the late 80's, and that areas were finally in the midst of being completely remapped when Sandy hit. This had caused a lot of issues, with some people covered under policies that did not take into account nearly enough storm surge. The worst part to me seemed to be that these people had not been reckless and ignorant in their policy selection, but had been told by insurers what to plan for.

The NJ folks rounded off the discussion with the explanation of what they felt were the three most important steps toward putting a damaged community back on its feet: the removal of debris, the resumption of schools, and effective communication of sound information.

Debris removal sounds like a straightforward task, loading trash into a truck and bringing that trash to a dump. I was wondering why they continued to mention debris, figuring they were talking about downed trees and windblown shingles, so I asked about it. Why couldn't you just dry out the wet things? Angela gave me the long answer. Hurricane Sandy was more than a battery of wind and rain. The storm destroyed septic systems, and flooded hundreds of square miles in seawater. The streets were filled with a soup of a hundred different things. Household items did not simply get wet. They got ruined. The debris piles on the street were not composed of spoiling building materials, but the contents of entire houses, and the houses themselves. The accumulated wealth of the better part of a lifetime for many sat stinking and soaking on the curb, and the sooner it was gone, the sooner they could start again. On Long Beach Island, it didn't help when people flooded in after the bridge opened and drove by, gawking at residents piling their possessions high on the curb.

The reopening of schools also proved far easier said than done. Beyond repairing a broken furnace system or replacing textbooks, the schools had to emptied of the thousands of volunteers that had begun flowing in shortly after the last storm surge had flowed out. The housing of volunteers had proven to be another tough questions in and of itself. Myriad organizations and groups rushed to the aid of coastal New Jersey towns, our own recent Americorps visitors included, helping with everything from damaged house deconstruction to counseling for the psychologically distressed. And they needed housing. Schools and churches led the charge, which was an elegant solution until parents began to wonder when their kids would go back to school so the parents could go back to work, or fill out FEMA forms in peace. Long Beach Island Public Schools had been the last, reopening only this year.

Addressing the final point, the residents related that they had had considerable success in communicating crucial information. Town websites had done a good job informing residents about things like how to get their debris removed and how to seek assistance with aid and loan applications.

LBI

After a brief lunch, the group headed over the bridge and across the bay to Long Beach Island, a huge barrier beach and summer vacation hot spot east of Tuckerton. We were joined by Jenna Gatto and Chris Huch, Resilient Community Specialists at the Jacques Cousteau Reserve. As we toured the bustling towns and beaches of the island, we saw a robust community gearing up for the high season. Our guides explained how the island hadn't looked like this last season, but a huge effort had been put into making the island attractive to visitors, including several beach nourishment projects. That effort seemed to have borne fruit, as LBI seemed to be headed toward a busy, profitable, normal summer.

During a conversation with Jenna and Chris, I asked about their jobs working in the community. As I mentioned earlier, regional differences in climate change attitudes can be vast, even across the northern East Coast. Jenna and Chris said that they were very careful not to mention the term "climate change," but instead used the superficially unrelated term "sea-level rise." Apparently, climate change was quite a buzz-word in many Jersey Shore neighborhoods, and made some residents recoil like a startled Littorina littorea. They said that sometimes, sea-level rise seemed like a good reason to elevate or relocate, but climate change was a goddamn lie.

ErosionThe tour ended at the far south end of the island, where hundreds of acres of beach had been washing away in storm events over the years. The timeline our guides laid out for us underscored the processes of beach sand movement called longshore transport. Sand had been washing off the southern end of the island and settling on the northern end for as long as anyone could remember. That's how barrier beaches work, they explained. Different forces are constantly driving change in our oceans and on our beaches, some forces working faster than others. And things will continue to change.

As the tour wound down and people had their last looks at the eroded beach, I snuck a furtive glance at my phone, and saw a couple of notifications on the screen. My social spheres seemed to be humming along back home. They were normal. It was then that I realized how I took normal for granted every day. I turned to our guides and asked what social media looked like just after the storm. Their response was heartening.

We had all heard or seen a Sandy joke or two made on social media, by a friend, or in the news. I can tell you the storm was easy to take lightly, sitting high and dry in Maine. In New Jersey, it had of course been a different story. Hundreds of thousands of outpourings of solidarity, sympathy, and love reached Sandy victims in all shapes and forms. Facebook groups, tweets, web posts, and even billboards and storefronts across the country voiced support. Victims would regularly post their questions and get thoughtful, comprehensive answers on area-based forums. Victims would post needed items wherever they could, and receive by the boxful. One particular example, a family whose need for infant winter clothing was promptly and enthusiastically met, was particularly evocative. After a day of hearing of tragedy after tragedy, I was reminded that the core of a community runs deeper than its house foundations or gas mains.

The folks from Jacques Cousteau bade us farewell at the southern beach, and recommended a late afternoon stroll at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park on the northern end of the island. Upon taking their suggestion, we saw beautiful dune systems covered in beach scrub, a stark contrast to the latter stop. This end of the island had hardly been touched by Sandy; the undeveloped dunes had protected the vegetation and adjacent houses. After a pleasant jaunt on the jetty, the group headed back to the hotel for dinner, reflecting on and contemplating what we had seen that day, and what it meant for the beaches of Maine.

DunesThe Sandy Dialogues are scheduled to continue in the fall, with the hosting of a group of  New Jersey residents here in Maine. The exchange will likely include a few tours and discussions, as there is plenty more to say on the matter of storm preparedness and coastal resilience.

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