MANTOLOKING, N.J. -- There's no light or heat on this strip of island shaped like a spaghetti strand six weeks after Superstorm Sandy sliced it into a string of shortened noodles with a burst of seawater that residents say hit their town (population 296) like a small tidal wave.
But other progress is happening fast, like changing people's minds about the need for a big sand wall to protect them from the ocean.
This small borough of cedar shake homes, many of them ruined, remains under an emergency evacuation order, and residents are able to cross a bridge from the mainland only after displaying a pass at a National Guard checkpoint. A roof, cars and whole houses are said to be somewhere at the bottom of the bay crossed by the bridge. Residents must leave the island every day before the sun drops behind the two-story piles of homes turned to sticks.
This middle point of the Jersey Shore sustained powerful winds during Sandy, but it was the bulging ocean that raked this quarter-mile-wide section of island. All the town's 562 buildings were damaged, and 134 homes will need to be bulldozed, according to Lt. John Barcas, a local police official. Those are the ones that still stand. An additional 60 homes and buildings disappeared during the storm, leaving "no evidence" of them, he said.
"The ones that survived had a decent dune in front of them," explained Barcas, who huddled on the top floor of a mainland business during Sandy with about 20 people he helped rescue from a flooded road. "The ones that didn't learned that they need a decent dune."
That sentiment might be the storm's one gift. Town officials, after facing years of opposition from oceanfront homeowners worried about protecting their views, are moving quickly to collect approval for the construction of a sand dune that many here believe would have prevented the most severe damage in late October.
The Army Corps of Engineers developed a plan about five years ago to fortify a long strip of the island with 15-foot dunes and other flood-prevention methods. But Mantoloking officials couldn't persuade every property owner on the water to sign easements allowing public access to the thin, private strand of sand between the ocean and their homes, a requirement of the corps. The project stalled.
"I think they're foolish not to" sign the easement, said Mantoloking Mayor George Nebel, who believes a federal dune could have prevented much of the damage caused by the surge of ocean water. Instead, the houses took the shock.
Do we protect our view, our beach or the island?
Now there's tension, and a dose of blame, from residents with property on the back side of the barrier island. Sandy created three breaches in Mantoloking. Suddenly, there were rivers crosscutting the island. Three or four homes might fit into the largest breach, but any structures in them when Sandy hit were washed into oblivion.
That tension revealed itself in a local meeting last week. Nebel forcefully prodded oceanfront homeowners in a packed room at the mainland library to finally sign the easements, saying Sandy is proof that their decision doesn't just affect ocean views and public access, but also the safety of every home in the island town.
"You want the sand or you don't," Nebel bellowed when the owner of a beach house worried that the state might build a boardwalk in front of his house.
Mantoloking tried to protect itself after the federal project stalled by using bulldozers to form berms with beach sand. But they were lower and poorly engineered compared with Army Corps dunes made of sand sucked out of the ocean. Mantoloking needs 127 signatures to complete the easements, and Nebel believes he'll have them by Christmas. That could mean the borough is able to take advantage of President Obama's disaster funding request of $60.4 billion, which includes money for unfinished corps projects.
But not everyone is convinced that places like Mantoloking are the best targets for limited federal resources in the battle against rising seas. The town lost about 25 percent of its landmass during Sandy, one official estimated, exposing the challenge of defending thin strips of sandy land that are heavily developed.
"Sandy looked for a place where it could find softness, so to speak," said Gerry Galloway, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland and a former officer with the Army Corps. "Every storm will find the weak points and go after them. When you're on a narrow strip of land, you're obviously at higher risk."
'One spot out of a hundred just like it'
That elevated risk is measurable: The closer you are to the ocean, the more danger there is. That's because, in part, storm defenses will move under the force of wind-driven ocean water. An ideal defense is divided into sections, beginning with a large sloping beach that extends into the ocean, followed by a dune that is normally up to 90 feet thick, followed by marshes on the bayside that can accommodate the island as it moves inland -- away from rising ocean water.
But in Mantoloking, "you don't have that space," said Joe Vietri, director of the Army Corps National Planning Center of Expertise for Coastal Storm Damage Reduction. "Mantoloking is one spot out of a hundred just like it."
That raises troublesome questions. Should the narrowest barrier islands be abandoned? Or should the government direct its limited resources to fortify -- and rebuild -- areas that could be destroyed again?
There is only one answer for many residents of Mantoloking, even as some of them acknowledge that climate change is making their lifestyle more precarious. It's their home, they say, and decisions about rebuilding it can't be made in government memos.
Connie Pilling, 86, grew up in the town and has lived in her home since 1976. The first floor was flooded during Sandy and needs to be replaced. But she's not sure how she'll pay for it. Pilling allowed her coverage with the National Flood Insurance Program to lapse last year.
"I thought it was coming," she said of a big storm like Sandy. "But not this severe."
Constantine Rossakis' beachfront house is in splinters. The detritus is covered protectively by the roof -- the only portion of the house still intact. He encouraged other beach-side owners to support construction of a dune, even if it limits their views and permits the public to take a dip along their exclusive shoreline.
"I think a lot of people get hung up [on the easement], probably for selfish reasons," Rossakis said.
If you rebuild, how long will it last?
Whether a dune is built or not, the federal government is already committing investments to the island's rebuilding. The Army Corps has filled in all three breaches with rocks and sand, and the main road on the island, Route 35, is being temporarily repaired before it's entirely replaced.
New utility poles are going up, natural gas lines are being replaced and sewers are being cleared of sand. The town also needs a new police department, fire department and municipal hall, officials say. All that is happening as scientists warn that sea levels are continuing to rise at accelerated paces.
"It is certain that higher mean sea levels increase the frequency, magnitude and duration of flooding associated with a given storm, which often have disproportionately high impacts in most coastal regions," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says in a report released last week.
For many beaches like Mantoloking, that risk is enhanced by its narrow width and shallow slope. Vietri of the corps says those types of beaches can expect seawater to encroach 30 feet onto shore for every foot of rise.
That impact can be lessened through a variety of interlinking policies, with dunes, by elevating homes, by removing the most vulnerable houses, by moving farther away from the water and by making a practiced evacuation plan.
"All of these things have to be done with an adaptive strategy that adapts to the changing sea level rise over time," Vietri said. "We cannot sit here and have a static situation. It's got to be dynamic. We've got to be able to move with the water."
And on those islands where there's no room to move?
"Ultimately, I don't know. I don't know. You're right. It's an issue," he said. "You can't build a protective beach in front of them."
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