Storm of ’62 was a valuable lesson in shore protection

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PORT REPUBLIC – If the Great Atlantic Storm of 1962 were to put in a repeat performance in 2012, experts say the resulting damage would likely be far less severe because of the work being done on the frontlines of shore protection.

Daniel Barone, left, chief of geospacial analysis at the Coastal Research Center, and B. Steven Howard, geospatial analyst, are two scientists working on the frontlines of shore protection. Daniel Barone, left, chief of geospacial analysis at the Coastal Research Center, and B. Steven Howard, geospatial analyst, are two scientists working on the frontlines of shore protection.

Almost every coastal community in the Cape-Atlantic region, from Brigantine to Cape May Point, has benefited directly or indirectly from beach-building shore protection measures. The Army Corps of Engineers, in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the local municipalities, have spent millions keeping the ocean at bay.

Much of the science that supports the more than half-billion dollar shore protection investment in New Jersey originates from a small research station along Nacote Creek in Port Republic. For 25 years the Richard Stockton College Coastal Research Center, founded by current director Stewart Farrell, has been keeping constant tabs on the everchanging coastline.

“Right now we're in the 25th year of surveying the state’s beaches at 120 profile locations throughout the state,” said Daniel Barone, chief of geospacial analysis at the CRC. “With the field work and research that we've been doing, we've been able to successfully identify problem areas that need dune maintenance or shore protection structures.”

The definition of structures has evolved since 1962.

CRC’s website notes that early structural solutions included timber bulkheads and piles of brush inside a double row of cedar pilings (early groins). During the 20th century large stones were trucked in and placed along eroding shorelines and concrete seawalls were built. These hard structures are still being used, but on a much more limited basis.

“With hard structures (groins and jetties) you get shoreline offsets, updrift and down drift from the structure so it creates pockets of accretion on one side, and erosion on the down-drift side,” said Barone, giving the classic description of what jetties and groins commonly look like from the air. “In the cases of seawalls, typically what you get is no beaches away from the seawall mainly due to wave reflection.”

What protects the coastline is "soft engineering structures," known to the layman as wide, healthy beaches and dune systems.

But not all beaches are created equal, and rarely do they stay put. That’s why the CRC is needed to monitor their every move.

“Typically in Cape May and Atlantic counties the areas that are on the northeast corners of the barrier islands erode much more because they are open to the northeast wave actions,” Barone said. “In North Wildwood, the north end of Avalon, Ocean City and the Atlantic City Inlet, there’s quite a few areas that suffer greatly from storm activity and intense waves.”

Conversely, the central parts of barrier islands tend to accumulate sand.

In cases like this, the center and Farrell advocate what is called sand back passing: harvesting sand from areas of accumulation and moving it back to from where it eroded. Avalon is doing it right now, and it is being tried in the Wildwoods. North Wildwood has an erosion problem, and Wildwood Crest has an accretion problem, noted B. Steven Howard, geospatial analyst.

While the ’62 storm may have been the mother of all nor’easters, it is 1985’s Hurricane Gloria that helped give birth to the CRC.

“When towns asked for FEMA funding (after Gloria), they had no basis of measuring how much they lost and couldn't actually give hard numbers for a presidential disaster declaration,” Howard said. “One of the things we’ve been supplying to the state and towns is this information so they can understand storm losses."

That understanding starts with the collection of data using nine full-time employees and six Stockton students every semester.

CRC collects data twice a year from its chosen sites after the winter storm season has ended and before the storm season resumes in the fall. Electronic measurements cover such variables as position coordinates, elevation, temperature, atmospheric pressure – up to 55 individual data points to calculate precise sand volume change.

In the future the center will be making greater use of high-tech resources such as LIDAR (light detection and ranging) which can collect high-resolution elevation data throughout the entire New Jersey coastline and create a three-dimensional analysis using millions of data points collected from the air by the U.S. Geological Survey or the Army Corps of Engineers.

Also nearing completion is the New Jersey Dune Vulnerability Assessment. The modeling effort uses past storm events, existing dune parameters and beach characteristics to predict the impacts of two-, five-, 10- 20- and 50-year recurrence in storm events, Farrell said.

According to Farrell, the 1962 storm taught some valuable lessons.

“The lesson learned was that (having) little perspective on what big storms could do was truly devastating when one happened. The dunes had been pushed down for a better view; the homes placed 25 feet from the high tide line. No regulations on building codes site selection or damage avoidance.”

And we have learned that shore protection works.

“The 1962 storm is not unique,” he said. “The 1992 storm had the potential, but moved away in just two high tides, not five. The December 1992 event followed the 1991 Halloween Storm (the Perfect Storm) and showed dramatically the impact of beach nourishment with an example in Ocean City.

“In 1991, prior to the beach fill project they suffered $4 million in just boardwalk damages. Following the beach fill in the spring of 1992, the December event caused exactly zero damage to the boardwalk, so the city collected their part of the beach fill investment in the form of no boardwalk damage in less than eight months. There has been no further damage to Ocean City infrastructure public or private since the start of shore protection in the form of beach restoration.”

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