A Line in the Sand


Tom and Jennifer Erichsen bought their family an oceanfront home on Nantucket, Massachusetts, 34 years ago.

They were charmed by the sense of community on the small island — and because they loved raising their kids amid so much nature. A decade later, the whole family permanently moved into the gray-shingled 1 1/2 story house that they had named Sea Shell.

The whole family would gather at the home, at 34 Rhode Island Avenue, after work and school to head out on adventures along the beach. They’d take their boat out to check on lobster traps and spend all afternoon outdoors.

In the evenings, the family would watch the sunset. The house was right on the western edge of the island, and the vibrant blend of orange and pink light would envelope their home.

“It was very nice to raise them in such a natural place,” Tom Erichsen said.

But nature is what ultimately forced them from their idyllic home.

In 2008, after a series of storms battered the land that held up the home, the family was forced to move out.
When the Erichsens bought the house in 1982, it was situated behind a dune and about 500 feet from the water’s edge. There was always erosion, but Erichsen said, that increased ferociously over the past 10 years.

By the time the family fled the home, it was perched precariously above the crashing waves. The water that had been nearly two football fields away was now tearing through the first floor of their home.

Erichsen, 65, said he knew the situation had become dire "when you see waves that are 20 or 30 feet tall breaking on the beach and you’re standing on your deck about to evacuate, hoping your house will be there the next day."

"I left at 10 at night, and we thought when I returned in the morning, our home may not even be there," he said of that storm that forced him to pack it in.

The forces chewing away at the nation’s beaches are only getting worse as climate change fuels rising seas — not just in Nantucket but also in the Rockaways of New York and other oceanfront communities all along the East Coast of the United States that are being held together through a patchwork of federally funded programs that are inherently temporary.

It’s why places like Nantucket and the Rockaways — two very different communities facing different socioeconomic realities — have become battlegrounds for opposing views on how to stem the erosion: fighting nature head-on or trying to buy some time. And it’s why many of the beaches Americans will be flocking to this summer are disappearing under their feet.

Rob Young, a coastal geologist from the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University, said "Coastal communities have to understand that any of the solutions that they’re thinking of to hold the beach in place for a little while are all temporary solutions."
PHOTO:  The eastern seaboard is shown here from The Rockaways, N.Y., to Nantucket Island, Mass.

When the Erichsens bought their Nantucket house, in the Smith Point neighborhood of Madaket in 1982, they consulted a resident scientist, who thought erosion would cause 5 to 10 feet of loss of their beachfront property every year.

The roughly 13,000 residents who live on the island full time are a tight-knit group. Those who live year round in Madaket — a roughly 350-home community where the vast majority are unoccupied until the summer months — are even closer.

"We really enjoyed the small community of Smith Point because we knew everyone. It was like when I grew up. Everyone knew everyone," Tom Erichsen said.

Storms and erosion are inevitable to some degree when you’re talking about life on an island off the Northeast Coast, facing the brunt of the Atlantic’s wrath.

At first, the damage wasn’t bad, and Erichsen said they lost a few feet in the fall storms, but the degree of loss got progressively worse and started reaching 50 to 70 feet per year.

"It really was a bad thing really quickly. From 1982 to 2000, we hardly lost anything, but from 2000 to 2005, there was this change," he said.

The day after the storm that forced them to evacuate their home, Erichsen said, he returned in the morning to find that 40 percent of the solid ground beneath his house was gone, or, as it’s known technically, undermined.

"We made a phone call to about two or three of our friends, and we ended up with about 18 to 20 people with pickup trucks out there, and that afternoon everyone was carrying everything out of the house — furniture, boxes, chandeliers. Then about six or eight football players [arrived] who carried out our refrigerator, our washer-dryer," he said.

Erichsen said that in the winters, his family was the only one living in Smith Point, so he and his wife would check on all the houses for any damage from winter winds and nor’easters.

"We would tell people if they didn’t hear from us, then everything was OK," he said.

Everything was not OK for them after that last big storm.

The house had to be moved to a plot of land the Erichsens bought in the middle of the island, and they now live in the same structure, but their view is of a dusty road and trees all around.

Winter storms are always a threat for Nantucket, but more deadly storms like Superstorm Sandy present bigger problems for other coastal communities like the working-class New York City neighborhood of the Rockaways, which is also grappling with the same double-pronged problem of sea level rise and erosion.

The long peninsula was a popular resort destination back in the late 1800s, and although it is having a resurgence with a strong surfing community, it is also home to a range of lower- to middle-class homes, with brick high-rise public housing units mixed in with bungalows and stand-alone multifamily homes.

In the Rockaways, it’s hard to say exactly how quickly the beaches are being eroded, because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been replenishing the sand there for about 80 years. The most recent figures, from the Army Corps for 1966 to 1988, estimated erosion rates along the western Rockaway Peninsula of about 2 feet per year and about 5 feet per year along the eastern peninsula.

Kathy Richardson is a 32-year-old single mother whose family home was lost in Hurricane Katrina a few years before she made the decision to move to New York. When Superstorm Sandy arrived, she was there waiting for it in the Rockaway home her mother inherited.

"I started hearing people say, 'Here comes the water, here comes the water.' It started rolling up the street," Richardson told ABC News.
When she started smelling the fires triggered by Sandy, she recalled thinking, "Here we go again. Fires and destruction. Water and destruction."

In the years since, Richardson and later her daughter, who was born in 2014, had all their belongings crammed into the second floor of the house as the whole first floor was ruined from the storm water.

It took three years and the help of charitable organizations to make the first floor habitable again.

The biggest reason she says she won’t be leaving the Rockaways anytime soon is her daughter Charleigh Jolene, who is nearly 2 years old and was born with a heart defect. Richardson wants to remain close to Charleigh Jolene’s doctors at New York University. Also, she says, this is home.

"Katrina prepared me for Sandy. Katrina made me a stronger person. Slowly, in time, I’ve started [realizing] that I don’t have control — to just go with the flow," she said.

Her family lived in a FEMA trailer after Hurricane Katrina, and her grandmother died from complications due to a stroke that she had when they were evacuating during that storm. Richardson is well aware of the risks.

"You have to be afraid of it," she said of the ocean, "because if you’re not afraid of it, you don’t have respect for it."
PHOTO:  Kathy Richardson's home in Rockaway, pictured here in the summer of 2015, was damaged by Superstorm Sandy and took years to bring back to livable conditions with the help of local charities.

When it comes to staving off coastal erosion and the impact of sea level rise, the generally accepted proposals fall in two categories: soft and hard solutions.

Soft solutions are considered more environmentally friendly, though they tend to offer less protection than their harder counterparts. Some examples are planting beach grass to hold down sand dunes and lining the shore with biodegradable jute bags, which capture wave energy but still allow sand to drift naturally along the coast. Beach nourishment programs, in which copious amounts of sand are dumped onto eroding shorelines, also qualify as soft solutions, despite the ecological damage caused by dredging and dumping sand in such vast quantities.

Hard solutions, like seawalls and plastic geotubes, offer more protection but can be catastrophic for local ecologies. Such structures disrupt the natural flow of sediment, on which sea life depends for habitat and nourishment. Plastic geotubes can be even deadlier when they are exposed to sunlight and become brittle, potentially leaking toxic plastics into the tide.

In the Rockaways, officials have turned to a combination of hard and soft solutions, inserting groins — wall-like structures that are built into the water and run perpendicularly from the beach — and frequently nourishing the beaches to hold the shoreline and protect nearby homes. In Nantucket, the community has come up with a hybrid model that uses geotubes and beach nourishment. But neither solution, say scientists, is a permanent or perfect one.

Almost 40 percent of Americans live in coastal communities with high population densities, all of which are either already trying to solve the impending problem or ignoring it for cost or other reasons, according to a 2010 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report.
Young, from Western Carolina University, said 95 percent of communities that are addressing the problem are turning to soft solutions like beach nourishment.

"Everybody’s building beaches, from Maine all the way around to Texas," he said.

But building beaches is expensive.

According to a database kept by Western Carolina University associated with the United States Geological Survey, there have been 36 instances of beach nourishment in the Rockaways since the 1930s, which have cost $253 million, adjusted to 2014 dollars.

They’re not the only ones racking up nine-figure beach nourishment bills. Ocean City, New Jersey, has accrued a nearly $183 million bill, and neighboring Atlantic City’s total is just over $121 million.

Florida has the highest beach nourishment bill of all states, with $2.17 billion covering the cost of 495 instances. New Jersey is No. 2, with $1.5 billion for 325 instances.

These figures are largely focused on federally or state-funded projects, in which most of the bill is footed by taxpayers who don’t live anywhere near the beach, according to Young.

Steve Ellis, the vice president of nonpartisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that roughly 65 percent of the initial cost of beach nourishment programs is paid by the federal government and then 50 to 65 percent of the maintenance and upkeep is federally covered.

"Long term, it’s not sustainable, either moneywise or sea-level-rise-wise or the-actual-finding-the-sand-wise for the beach replenishment," Ellis said.

Parts of Florida have run out of beach nourishment sources and have floated the possibility of buying sand from the Bahamas to use on Florida beaches.

On Nantucket, residents are self-funding their solution.

Along the eastern side of the island, homeowners have banded together to come up with something of a hybrid fix for their disappearing beaches.

The Sconset Beach Preservation Fund pushed to install a stretch of geotubes along the toe of a 75-foot-high bluff, much to the chagrin of local environmentalists. But it also agreed to an extensive beach nourishment program, in which it piles 1,000 dump truck loads of sand on top of the geotubes every year.

The idea is that the waves and storms will take the sand from on top of the geotubes before taking the sand from the areas beneath them and from the bluff, staving off further erosion.

The bluff happens to host a stretch of homes with some of the best views on the island, situated along the only road that goes up to the historic Sankaty lighthouse.

Right now, there are 950 feet of geotubes that directly protect two homes. After striking a deal with the town, the group has secured permission to expand to 4,000 feet of geotubes in 2018, which would protect 27 homes.

Josh Posner, the current president of the SBPF, started visiting Nantucket with his family when he was 10 years old. He lives in Boston most of the year, but his family has been returning to the same home looking out over the Atlantic for more than 50 years. His home would be among those protected after the project expands.

"The idea that we’re just going to throw up our hands and say 'It’s Mother Nature’s will for us to be washed away under all circumstances' doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us," Posner said in the backyard of his Nantucket home in 2015.

"For us, it’s very personal, because I’ve been in this house — it’s been in my family pretty much from the beginning, and we love it there," he said.

Another unusual aspect of the SBPF’s plan is that it is not taking any federal or state funding. The residents self-fund.

"We raise money, like a school," Posner said.

"Eventually, once we have expanded the project to the size that it needs to be … then we will put in place a regular legally binding system of cost-sharing, where all of the people that have been getting protection from erosion would be contributing to the construction and maintenance," he said.
Sarah Oktay has a Ph.D. in oceanography and worked on the island’s Conservation Commission for nine years. She was one of the most vocal opponents to the geotube project, arguing that by installing structures that act like a wall, you’re effectively giving up on the beach itself.

"This is an established scientific fact that if a seawall is built, the walkable beach in front of that will go away. When waves come in, they are going to take all the sand away and cause the beach to drop," she said.

"When you put a permanent hard structure, you are stopping erosion from occurring, but you’re also starving a down-drift beach of sand that would normally come from your beach. So it’s basically saying, ‘I’ve got mine. I’m going to keep this line in the sand. But if people want my sand, [they] won’t be getting that sand.’ So it’s a last resort," she said.

Oktay was not reappointed to the Conservation Commission in the summer of 2015, and she moved to Colorado to work at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in February. She remains unsold on the geotube projects and feels that coir or jute bags — which are similar to geotubes but are made of natural materials and break apart during storms — would be better alternatives.

"The jury’s still out on whether it’s going to slow erosion," Oktay said last month of the geotube project.

Posner believes that since the geotubes are stopping some sand that would naturally float back into the ocean, the SBPF’s commitment to dump 150 percent of that sand amount will substitute for the natural process.

Young, who has done environmental consulting in Nantucket, isn’t thrilled.

"Nantucket is a little bit different than some of the other places," he told ABC News, noting that "there’s a lot of room" there and residents "have the means to pretty much do whatever they want."

"We’ve always hoped and suggested that places like Nantucket are the best candidates for developing a model of how you might take a step back from the eroding bluff, from the eroding beach, rather than try and hold that eroding beach forever," Young said.
PHOTO: Rockaway Beach is in a unique situation because it is a barrier island located very near the largest city in America.

The test for Sconset will be if the erosion stops along the bluff and fewer houses have to be moved in coming years. But even Posner accepts that this is not a permanent solution.

"Forever is an awfully long time, but I think that this is probably a system that could very well work for the next 50 to 100 years. It’s not just buying a few years. It could really last a long time, but it’s really going to depend how much [the] sea level rises," he said.

The question of whether all this is sustainable is a question with which scientists, including James Hansen, a man considered either a climate change guru or alarmist, have been grappling.

Hansen, who was among the first to alert the world about global warming, set the scientific community abuzz when he released his latest report early last summer with more extreme sea level rise predictions — in terms of both speed and degree — than had been commonly accepted. The report was peer-reviewed and published in March.

Among Hansen and his co-authors’ fairly alarming predictions is that because of climbing global temperatures, due in part to increased carbon emissions and fossil fuel usage, ice sheets are melting at a quicker rate than previously.

The report says that sea levels will rise several meters in the next 50 to 150 years.

The independent scientific organization Climate Central has created interactive maps that help users visualize what that all means. Its map of the Rockaways makes it clear that with 2 meters (about 7 feet) of sea level rise, the peninsula will be all but gone and with 3 meters, it will be completely underwater.

All three New York City–area airports — JFK, LaGuardia and Newark — will be all but gone as well. Miami, New Orleans and Charleston will be underwater at that point, along with sizable portions of Boston and Philadelphia.

Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lemont Earth Observatory, fully expects there to be 6 feet of sea level rise by 2100.

"That is a considerable sea level rise that is comparable with the flood surge from [Superstorm] Sandy," he said. “So you can get a feeling for what that means, that a permanent solution day to day looks like what we saw more or less during Sandy."

All the scientists consulted for this article agreed that the outlook for sea level rise and threats to coastal communities is not going to improve.
"Every coastal erosion issue that we have today is only going to get worse in the future, not better," said Young.

"The hard reality is that even if we were to wrap the Rockaways in a seawall, it’s still fairly low elevation, and with sea level rising on both sides … it’s not going to be the kind of place that people are likely going to be living in in 100 years from now in the same fashion that they are right now. That’s a hard reality to envision," he added.

"It’s not about abandoning the coast. It’s about living within the reality of these dynamic shorelines in a way that makes sense," he said. "And it’s about realizing that we cannot hold every single shoreline in place forever."

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Executive Producer DAN SILVER
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