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Rebuild or Retreat from the Jersey Shore?

In devastated Ortley Beach, residents struggle to decide next move

This story originally was originally broadcast by WNYC, an NJ Spotlight partner, and also was published on the WNYC website.

Three months after Sandy, some New Jersey shore communities remain uninhabitable, without utilities and other amenities. There’s a rush to rebuild, but some geologists endorse what they call "strategic retreat" from the ocean front, especially on barrier islands.

In Ortley Beach, New Jersey, residents are still figuring out what to do with houses that are partially destroyed and contents still jumbled together.

“That’s my refrigerator, but that’s someone else’s freezer, and I don’t know where my [kitchen] island is,” said Ortley Beach homeowner Kathy Cevoli.

Video by Amy Pearl/WNYC

The first floor of her two-story house on the beach block of Fielder Avenue is splayed open like a doll house. She doesn’t know whether to tear her house down, or hold off.

“The government tells me to get rid of this [house], but the insurance company said it can’t be gone because it would restrict their right to re-inspect it,” she added.

Cevoli hopes to get a mortgage and rebuild her five-bedroom home.

But some experts say climate change and rising sea levels mean there’s a very good chance that if she rebuilds, her house will be destroyed again by another Sandy-like storm.

“It’s just madness to rebuild right back where the buildings were destroyed before, and where they will be destroyed in the future,” said Orrin H. Pilkey, Professor Emeritus of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Nicholas School of the Environment, at Duke University.

Pilkey said buildings that are damaged by more than 50 percent should not be rebuilt.

“As nasty as that may sound, that’s still a more merciful way than making people demolish or move their [rebuilt] houses,” added Pilkey.

Ortley Beach homeowner Kathy Cevoli.
Credit: Amy Pearl/WNYC
Ortley Beach homeowner Kathy Cevoli.

But most Ortley Beach residents want to rebuild. They blame small dunes and a narrow beach for much of the destruction Sandy wrought in their community.

“Ortley Beach had the worst dune in the county. We predicted that dune would fail in a ten year storm event, and this was a 100-year storm,” said Stewart Farrell, director of the Richard Stockton College Coastal Research Center in Port Republic, New Jersey.

Farrell is “almost certain” that dunes and wider beaches saved most shore towns that escaped Sandy’s storm surge.

Most geologists agree that dune engineering projects that add sand to beaches are an effective way to protect houses and other structures near the shoreline from hurricane damage.

But the strategy is expensive. Sand moves, so beach nourishment projects have to be repeated every few years. One estimate puts the dollar figure spent on all beach nourishment projects in the country at $1 billion.

“That’s since we’ve been able to accumulate records,” said Rob Young, director of the program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, who collected the cost data.

For the past few decades, about 65 percent of the funding for beach nourishment projects completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has come from federal tax dollars.

According to the Corps research, Sandy removed about 10.5 million cubic yards of sand from New Jersey Beaches.

That sand will have to be put back if the state wants to protect itself from the next storm, and maintain its summer tourism business, estimated to pump about $37-billion dollars into the state’s economy.

It might be a reasonable investment for New Jersey, but Professor Young said it’s not such a good one for taxpayers outside the state.

“If [New Jersey’s] coastal economy is so robust and is generating that kind of money, why can’t they pay for their own beach nourishment projects,” asked Young.

While the tiny shore communities that pepper the Jersey shore make their rebuilding decisions, the larger issue of how to protect big cities may eclipse the debate.

“It’s my view that the cost of saving New York will be so great, and that includes Philadelphia, Boston, Miami and so forth, that barrier islands will become low priority and people will be forced to retreat whether they like it or not,” said Pilkey.

Janet Babin is a host and reporter at WNYC.

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