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Jersey shore town makes its 'own luck' and escapes Sandy

Part 3 of a series. Click here for Part 2 and here for Part 1.

AVALON, N.J. -- The Lois Lane trail meanders along the high dunes that protect this little beach town. It makes it easy for walkers along the sand and gravel path to forget just how close to the ocean they really are -- were it not for the swooshing sound of waves washing ashore or the salty breeze blowing in their faces.

You go through a shaded tunnel created by the cedars, wild cherries, holly trees and shrubs that help reinforce the dune before the trail opens onto rows of newer, grass-covered dunes. Farther down, you see the beach.

Unlike in other towns along New Jersey's storm-ravaged coastline, the high dunes of Avalon gave the town a protective barricade against the surge driven by Superstorm Sandy. Elsewhere, the storm ripped apart bulkheads, sent piers and boats crashing inland, and left thousands of houses and businesses up and down the coast as piles of flood-soaked rubble.

For most cities along the East Coast, Sandy's level of destruction was an eye-opener to the country's multibillion-dollar vulnerabilities in the face of climate change, sparking debates on how to best rebuild in preparation for the next big one.

Home rule in New Jersey leaves it up to coastal towns to decide whether to rebuild or abandon their damaged sites. These are expensive, politically wrenching decisions that Avalon won't have to make. It is like the third little pig in the fairy tale that adapted to the threat of a wolf by building a house out of bricks.

Long before Sandy, Avalon (population 1,334), a borough in Cape May County, was determined to take a proactive approach to powerful storms. The wolf, in this case, was a nor'easter, the Ash Wednesday Storm in March 1962. Considered one of the 10 worst storms to hit the United States in the 20th century, it lingered over the mid-Atlantic for more than three days, pounding coastal areas with nonstop rain, high winds and continuous tidal surges.

It killed 40 people, injured more than 1,000 and caused hundreds of millions in property damage across six states. It also swallowed six whole blocks of Avalon.

"We were wiped out," explained emergency management coordinator Harry deButts.

Crawling out of 'ground zero'

After the disaster, the town built a 4,500-foot bulkhead with a jetty along the north end of the island -- by then bounded by Seventh Street -- to prevent other blocks from washing out. More importantly, the storm led to an aggressive program for managing dunes.

Realizing the value of a dune system as shore protection, the borough started buying back beachfront properties encroaching on the barrier island's natural dunes. "There was a lot of attention paid to try and keep people from developing into the dune system," deButts said.

Dunes were then built along the entire oceanfront using sand fences and vegetation plantings to stabilize the dunes and keep the sand in place. The 1962 storm "was ground zero for us," deButts said. "That was the catalyst that started all of this. And north Jersey has their ground zero today."

He added, "We started working, studying Avalon's beach by throwing grapefruit in the water and watching which way it drifted." The idea was to map the normal drift of water and sand along the shore.

The borough's sand-fencing program -- using fences to catch windblown, drifting sand to build new dunes -- was yielding positive results by the late '70s. Meanwhile, because of unbridled coastal development, only 27 of the state's 49 beachfront municipalities had coastal dunes at all, a study showed.

"Avalon is the poster child for good dune and beach management," said beach and dune expert Karl Nordstrom of the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. "They are doing just about everything right."

While an engineered dune, by definition, is not natural, it beats not having any dunes at all, Nordstrom said -- something other towns along the coast should keep in mind.

Working with nature, not against it

But piling up sand with a bulldozer will not cut it. The best way to develop dunes for shore protection is to nourish the beaches, build incipient dunes and let the system develop naturally, as Avalon has, Nordstrom explained.

Under the careful supervision of town officials, the dunes have grown into a full ecosystem with foredunes, middle dunes and high dune areas, attracting birds and "other critters" to nest there.

The high dune area between 32th and 58th streets and Dune Drive, in particular, is a no-development zone. There, the city preserves one of the few maritime forests left along the Jersey coast. In fact, Avalon's council has taken many steps to get the community involved in caring for the sandy hills -- from educational public walks to dune grass planting field trips for kids.

"We've been doing this long enough now, the kids have taken ownership -- it means something to them. Now they have kids," deButts said. "The neat thing is, somebody tries to walk into the dunes and the world turns around and screams at them."

The thing about dunes is that they can take a lot of money to build and maintain. Sand is constantly moving -- it can drift with the wind or be washed away by currents and waves -- and artificial beach renourishment becomes critical to keep the integrity of the dunes.

For 15 years, Avalon officials jumped through the necessary bureaucratic hoops to get a federal beach designation. That gave them beach replenishment projects every three to five years by the Army Corps of Engineers. And because most of Avalon's dunes and beach areas have been engineered following Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines, the agency reimburses the municipality for sediment lost during storms.

But funds can run out and, with more people looking into building dunes, sand could run out, too. So Avalon decided to become self-sufficient.

Rising above the sea

"We got cute a couple of years back," Mayor Martin Pagliughi said. In the early 1990s, the municipality started its own sand-backpassing projects. "The drift of the sand is from north to south, and it would start to build up berms in the south end of our island," Pagliughi said. What people did was bring it back up where it "belonged."

Avalon is one of the wealthier municipalities on the Jersey shore, but other posh beach towns, such as Mantoloking, N.J., saw fights against dune building because some residents said they marred their ocean views. Sandy wreaked havoc in Mantoloking (ClimateWire, Dec. 11, 2012).

In Avalon, the politics was less divisive. For the past 20 to 30 years, town officials have poured their hearts and souls into looking for new, better ways to protect Avalon's shores and its residents. And dunes have been only a part of the effort.

Because the dunes blocked first-floor views, owners started building "upside down," with the bedrooms on the first floor and living areas -- such as kitchens and family rooms -- on the second floor. Back-bay seawalls were raised, submersible water-draining pumps were installed, and, little by little, the entire town was raised well above flood-base elevation levels.

"The raising of the buildings became a factor after the '62 storm," deButts said. It took more than 15 years of planning and preaching by example -- all public buildings were raised first -- to get it all done.

"The new FEMA regulations? We are already set for," deButts added. "Other communities are looking at having to elevate the entire town. We don't have to do much of anything about the new regulations."

Insurance and investment benefits

What's more, because of proactive work in risk mitigation throughout the years, Avalon enjoys a 20 percent discount under the National Flood Insurance Program's Community Rating System, one of the highest discounts in the state.

The town will also save an extra $240,000 a year in interest after receiving a triple-A bond rating by risk rating agency Standard & Poor's last fall.

Yet Avalon cannot afford being successful on its own. According to deButts, every municipality along the Jersey coast needs to get its act together. "We need the rest of these pieces to work the same way and keep it, because if the rest of it gets lost, there is no way we're going to survive it alone," he said.

For this reason, Avalon officials -- including deButts -- have been participating in hurricane conferences and emergency management training seminars across the country trying to get the word out.

"Those who properly plan make their own luck," deButts said.

Avalon is a "wide open book" for people who want to come see what they are doing and how they are doing it, said borough public information officer Scott Wahl.

"We say, 'Here is what we do; if you want to do it, great. If not? OK,'" Wahl explained.

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