“I lost my first home in the Nor’easter of 1992, but since the restoration we have been protected.” John Reilly, Cape May homeowner
Hurricane Sandy was an unprecedented storm in our region, causing billions of dollars of damage and heartbreaking loss of life, livelihood and property. Almost no one went unaffected. And yet, even from those dark days, a positive lesson emerged about using natural defenses to protect ourselves from natural threats in the face of increasingly frequent and intense storms.
Our Cape May Meadows preserve, restored to a healthy natural state in 2007, played a vital role in safeguarding its surrounding communities, a contrast to the devastation the region has seen during storms prior to that restoration. Several other coastal towns that have historically embraced nature survived Sandy with minimal effects as well.
South Cape May
Storms and invasive vegetation assaulted South Cape May so badly from the 1950s onward that the populace moved inland. The Nature Conservancy acquired the South Cape May Meadows Preserve in 1981, and with the help of various partners, restored it to a healthy natural state in 2007 by building dunes, re-establishing wetland water flow and controlling invasives.
Since then the ecosystem has been a model of resilience. Wildlife flourishes and homes are protected from storm damage and sea-level rise. Hurricane Sandy was no exception—the preserve environs emerged unscathed, and the only local flooding was an area where residents had resisted dune restoration.
Cape May homeowner John Reilly says the natural defenses are what saved his property. “I lost my first home in the Nor’easter of 1992,” he says. “But since the restoration we have been protected.”
Less than three miles from the Seaside Heights boardwalk, where a rollercoaster fell into the Atlantic Ocean and 90 percent of homes were damaged or destroyed, is Midway Beach, a community whose residents returned from mandatory evacuations to find their houses intact and dry. Nature and good stewardship made the difference.
Smart town planning years ago allowed for a wide, flat beach. Residents took simple but effective action to encourage dune formation by erecting wooden fences, planting native vegetation and letting nature take its course.
“We’ve engaged in 30 years of dune building through natural processes, fencing and stewardship,” says Dominick Solazzo of the Midway Beach Association. “We have some of the largest dunes in the state—in fact our dunes after the hurricane are larger than the dunes of many towns before the storm.”
How did the community rebuild dune loss from Sandy? With fences and old Christmas trees. Solazzo says the dunes grew by several feet within just a few months after the storm.
Long Beach Island was a story in contrasts at its northern and southern tips following Hurricane Sandy. At the southernmost end where beaches are flat and narrow, the town of Holgate was hit hard; many other communities along the island’s 18-mile length were damaged. But Barnegat Light, the northernmost borough, emerged virtually untouched. Again the answer was man and nature working harmoniously.
From 1988 to 1991, improvements to the Barnegat Inlet’s south jetty made the waterway’s banks evenly parallel instead of arrowhead shaped. The result is a sand accumulation pattern that creates and naturally replenishes a wide beach with a vigorous dune system. Local residents regularly enhance nature’s work with native plantings to help combat wind and water erosion.
“Barnegat Light represents one of the most robust dune systems for a developed barrier island on the entire East Coast,” says Christopher Huch, executive director of Alliance for a Living Ocean, which concentrates its conservation work on the island. “Residents nurture the diverse ecosystem, including dunes, young maritime forests and freshwater wetlands. It’s clearly beneficial.”