Inquirer Editorial: Sandy's lesson is don't build too close to water

CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 13, 2012

As the Jersey Shore recovers from Sandy, property owners and public officials must take a realistic approach to protecting it from future devastating storms.

It's not rational to rebuild on sand spits that are easily washed away. Not even when you consider the $38 billion that tourism pumps into New Jersey's economy.

But the Shore is hard-wired into the hearts of those who live there and visit, so it will be hard for some people to say no.

That's especially so for families with albums filled with pictures of babies tottering near the water's edge, weddings on the beach, and the wonderfully garish sights of a boardwalk in the background.

But rebuilding has to be done differently if such scenes are to be preserved. Among other things, buildings must be set back farther from the water. On the ocean side, they should be built behind dune systems.

Some towns have taken a lot of heat and been hit with expensive lawsuits filed by property owners who didn't want dunes obstructing their ocean views.

But as Larry Ragonese, press director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, points out, the parts of Atlantic City that were behind almost 14-foot high dunes fared better during the storm than areas with less protection.

Also consider that Avalon and Stone Harbor were less harmed than Belmar in Monmouth County because they had dunes.

On the bay side, development patterns must change, too.

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, notes that about half of the state's wetlands have been destroyed by overdevelopment and should be replenished. Beyond supporting fiddler crabs and spartina grass, wetlands support human life by soaking up flood waters.

Structures near the sea must be sturdier. When the Shore first started to evolve from workplace to playground, little attention was paid to building strength. Fish shacks were expected to blow away in severe weather.

But now that more and more elaborate homes and businesses have been built, representing billions in investment, the state must impose more stringent standards in these areas.

Of course, smarter rebuilding means the loss of some homes and amusements. If those places aren't already gone, however, they are in harm's way.

The simple lesson from Sandy is that water and wind will have their way. Not much can stop that. But New Jersey can be more aggressive in mandating what must be done to protect the Shore that visitors and residents have come to love from washing away with the next superstorm.

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