In place of Sandy-ravaged homes, a ‘living’ beach helps N.J. prepare for next storm

A stretch of Gandys Beach has been turned into an experiment to test resilience strategies for rising seas threatening New Jersey’s famed and highly populated coast.

A home foundation overtaken by water and vegetation at Fortescue Beach in Fortescue, N.J., last week. Due to flood damage and destructive storms like Hurricane Sandy, scientists and engineers have identified key areas along the Jersey Shore on the Delaware Bay side for the use of preventive measures to ensure a healthy ecosystem and to adapt to rapidly rising sea levels. (Michelle Gustafson for The Washington Post)
8 min

Ten years after Hurricane Sandy charted a deadly and destructive course up the East Coast, reminders of its impact remain across the New Jersey shore. Abandoned buildings, first damaged in the storm, now wear a decade of further disrepair. There are docks missing rows of wooden planks and telltale water lines etched into garage doors like old, faded scars signs not necessarily noticeable to outsiders, but clear to storm survivors, many of whom now tower over these properties in houses propped up to comply with new insurance guidelines.

Gandys Beach, a popular fishing area along the Delaware Bay, fits into another category: places transformed and now almost unrecognizable. After Sandy’s storm surge met a row of homes on Bayview Road, the state bought out most of those buildings, and the street itself is now more sand than road. What’s left is a stretch of unmanicured beach with a new purpose. It’s been turned into an experiment, where officials, scientists and engineers work together to test nature-driven resilience strategies for the rising seas threatening New Jersey’s famed and highly populated coast.

While climate change is causing widespread sea level rise, the Jersey Shore experiences it at a rate more than double the global average, a Rutgers University study found. That’s in part because land there is sinking, due to natural and human-caused factors. In the past century, Gandys Beach alone has seen a foot of sea level rise, and lost almost 500 feet of shoreline. Experts familiar with the area describe the tide there as “aggressive,” “dynamic” and “crazy” — the water swells enough to go from lapping at your toes during low tide to rising above your head during an average high tide. These conditions make adaptation increasingly critical.

After Sandy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received $167 million in federal funding for restoring facilities and wildlife habitats that were damaged during the storm. They dedicated $880,000 of that to Gandys Beach. If a project can survive and thrive in an environment like Gandys, Fish and Wildlife biologist Danielle McCulloch believes it can stand up to conditions anywhere. The progress and failures experienced on this shrinking slice of shore are now informing mitigation strategies up the coast, including the creation of “living shorelines” made with natural matter like oysters and marshes to stave off land loss.

On an overcast July day, the thick air promising rain, McCulloch convened some members of the team behind the Gandys Beach’s project to survey their work. Sporting tall wading boots and carrying binoculars around her neck, McCulloch apologized in advance for interrupting anyone to point out interesting wildlife — “I feel like missing nature is worse than being impolite,” she explained. That morning, there were a number of reasons for interruptions along the Delaware Bay beaches, from the squalls of shorebirds to a parade of horseshoe crabs leaving swirls in the sand as they headed to the water. The Delaware Bay is home to the largest population of horseshoe crabs in the world, and Gandys Beach serves as a migratory rest stop for the endangered rufa red knot birds, who come to snack on the crab eggs.

McCulloch and her colleagues came to look at a series of offshore structures known as “breakwaters,” installed about four years post-Sandy. Stretching intermittently across 3,000 feet parallel to the shore, the 10-by-30-foot formations serve as physical barriers between the waves and the beach, visible during low tide and fully submerged as the water rises.

Oyster castles — solid, interlocking blocks composed of a concrete-and-oyster-shell mixture that entices marine mollusks to latch on — make up the barriers. Bags filled with oyster shells were added as reinforcements to solidify them; closer to the shoreline, the Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit that owns this section of the beach, planted vegetation and put in compact tubes of natural fibers to “hold the line,” as McCulloch put it.

This design aims to serve dual purposes: dampen the waves to curb further beach erosion and grow the oyster population, which naturally improves water quality and creates a reef-like habitat for other marine life. To test those hypotheses, the Fish and Wildlife Service used Sandy appropriations money to fund ongoing research from the Stevens Institute of Technology, Rutgers Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory and Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

So far, their findings are split. Along the broader beach and a quieter stretch of Nantuxent Creek, where the water has less wave energy, the oyster castles have been a boon, sustaining multiple generations of oysters and mussels. On the shore, the shell bags have provided stability for plants to take root and grow, while the compact tubes of natural fibers, called coir logs, failed to have much of a perceived impact.

The higher-energy wave areas have proved more challenging. While the oyster castles did support some marine life, it was not as robust, and the Stevens researchers found they actually amplified some of the waves behind the structures. Recognizing this, the group made some quick changes. Additional breakwater structures were added, creating a perpendicular “spine” stretching out from the beach. Researchers are still monitoring whether this change has made a difference.

The waves also untethered the shell bags, some of which ripped open and scattered along the beach, leaving behind plastic waste. To address this, the team attempted to make “lemons out of lemonade,” said Adrianna Zito-Livingston of the Nature Conservancy. The bags were naturally piling up by the vegetation, so the team decided to place them in areas that needed more reinforcements — that way they can help protect the plants and accrue more sand. In the future, Zito-Livingston said, they are eager to explore options for bags made of other materials.

“We’re learning these are not a great restriction on their own for these kinds of energetics,” Zito-Livingston said. “But they make really nice little speed bumps, they trap sediments and can slow things down.”

Some of the practical takeaways from the research on these shores have been applied to other in-progress projects along the New Jersey coast, including those in more populated communities. That includes plans to rehabilitate marsh areas, which research proved played a key role in protecting inland areas during Hurricane Sandy. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service is using funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law to support restoration of a marsh in Barnegat Bay. There, teams are using a similar combination of wave-attenuating structures in the water and shell bags to build back marsh vegetation at the shore.

When Sandy swept through this area, resident Pat Doyle said, she was displaced from her longtime family home. Now, she’s one of the most ardent supporters of another nature-based initiative borne out of the Gandys Beach research that could help prevent further erosion and flooding in her neighborhood. Another nonprofit organization, the American Littoral Society, is using federal and state funding to set up seven “reefs” of rock-and-shell-filled baskets along the coast meant to serve both as breakwaters and as aquatic habitats.

Although a few dozen residents came out to help the society build those baskets, Doyle said they are also controversial: Some people have complained about the look of the installations, which poke out of the bay and are particularly prominent during low tide.

“What I try to say is, it’s not about what we want, at this point, it’s about what we desperately need,” Doyle said. She believes there needs to be more education in shorefront communities about the rising sea levels, and more support for homeowners who are continually paying the price of climate change.

After Sandy, she said, she asked the town about buyouts and was told that was not an option in her area. So, she “emptied a bank account,” as she described it, to raise her home in compliance with flood insurance standards. At first, her rates dropped, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new pricing methodology for flood insurance has sent them spiking. Though she’s hopeful about the reefs, she said the area is still experiencing significant flooding. Residents have been appealing to elected officials for funding to add more protections, including additional physical barriers.

Doyle’s experience exemplifies another lesson from the work at Gandys Beach: the need for long-term, collaborative projects. It’s not just that experts are needed who understand science or engineering — there’s also a need for those in the government like McCulloch who can help navigate the red tape and complex funding processes that can prove prohibitive to community efforts.

“No one you meet today is going to say that they know it all — that’s why we have these big partnerships, that’s why we all are working together, and that’s why we collect the data,” McCulloch said. “We need it to make sure we’re doing the right thing because people’s homes depend on it, these species depend on it, [and] we’ve got to figure this out now because we’re running out of time.”

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