During Sandy, Dunes Provided an Effective Defense

Maintaining healthy dune and beach systems is often considered a critical – if controversial — practice among those responsible for protecting vulnerable coastal communities. During Superstorm Sandy, the existence of fortified dunes and beaches often spelled the difference between minor and catastrophic damage in areas that were hardest hit by the storm’s massive surge.

Delaware is one state where officials said that beach and dune fortification projects completed in recent years played a key role in averting widespread destruction from Sandy’s powerful waves. Starting in 2005, Delaware invested some $50 million in state and federal funds in beach replenishment. The projects were completed seven months before Sandy hit.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars of potential damage were prevented” by the beach and dune system project, Gov. Jack Markell told News Works, a local news agency, last May.

Dunes and Economies

In addition to shielding homes and infrastructure, dunes protect tourism and other economically critical coastal industries. A 2012 University of Delaware study estimates the state’s $6.9 billion coastal economy brings in $711 million annually in local, state and federal taxes, and supports 59,000 jobs. Indirect supplier activity and economic activity from employee spending also play an important role. Each $100 of coast-related production adds $67 of additional production throughout the state, and for every 100 jobs related to coastal industries, another 48 indirect jobs are generated throughout the state, the study says.

Tony Pratt, head of shoreline and waterway management in Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), told News Works that as long as investments in dune replenishment pay off by mitigating the economic damage from storms, the department will continue such projects. Pratt credited full beaches with preventing more serious damage to the Delaware coast during Sandy, and said replenishment will continue as long as it proves to be a good investment.

In April, Delaware officials announced that the state had secured an additional $30 million in federal funding for an Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) project to rebuild Delaware’s beaches after Superstorm Sandy, in order to protect homes, businesses and infrastructure from future storms. U.S. Senator Tom Carper called it a “smart investment,” a sentiment echoed by U.S. Senator Chris Coons, who emphasized the importance of managing beaches in preparation for future storms.

Why Dunes?

An example of the need for such protective measures can be found along Delaware’s Route 1, the major north-south road in the state. One section of the beach, north of Indian River Inlet, had not been replenished since the 1980’s. During Sandy, the nearby section of Route 1 was covered in up to five feet of sand and experienced significant flooding. The loss of the vital transportation link meant that some residents were cut off from emergency services and local businesses took a hit. The ACOE project will fully rebuild the beach, and then maintain it by building a sand bypass plant-, which is designed to periodically nourish a 3,500 foot feeder beach, thereby protecting Route 1.

A recent dune nourishment project in South Bethany Beach offers an example of how the practice can offer critical protection for the built environment. Prior to construction of a dune, waves regularly washed under houses and onto the road. Since the project’s completion, almost no waves have crossed the dune, and the beachfront town saw little damage from Superstorm Sandy.

According to DNREC, dunes, often maintained with beach grass and fences, offer the least expensive and most efficient defense against flooding tides and waves. The Delaware Code recognizes the protective and economic value of beaches, and their vulnerability to the impact of erosion and development. It also establishes a beach preservation fund of at least $1 million at the start of each fiscal year and gives DNREC the authority to protect and enhance the beaches.

The value of dunes as solutions to protecting the shoreline is recognized in other northeastern states, too. For example, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection told Connecticut Magazine that dunes are “the best buffer” for absorbing water and wave action. Seawalls, in contrast, can be “self-defeating because they get overtopped, collapse or just push the wave action and energy to another place,” the spokesperson said.


Despite the documented benefits of beach replenishment, the practice has led to litigation among homeowners angry about projects that have blocked their ocean views.

A recent landmark decision by New Jersey’s Supreme Court overturned a judgment that had awarded $375,000 to an elderly couple in the town of Harvey Cedars as compensation for their lost view after the town had taken a small easement in front of their home for a beach nourishment project.  The ruling sited the fact that the trial court had not allowed the jury to consider dunes’ protective value for homeowners, including the plaintiffs’ home.

New Jersey lawmakers are considering a bill that would cap payments to homeowners who refuse to sign easements for such projects.

In Toms River, which experienced significant flooding during Sandy, Mayor Thomas Kelaher told the Berkeley (New Jersey) Patch that securing the necessary easements from homeowners for some replenishment projects “is probably the most frustrating thing that I’ve been involved with in my life.”

An entirely different objection revolves around the cost to taxpayers for dune nourishment, especially when multiple replenishments must be carried out. ACOE Project Manager Jennifer Armstrong told NPR that beaches can be designed as sacrificial buffers that absorb energy from incoming waves. Armstrong gave the example of a recent replenishment project in Virginia that marked the 49th time a particular beach had been built up since 1951, currently at a cost to federal taxpayers of about $9 million.  But, Armstrong says, the current project prevented $443 million in damages over the last 11 years.

There have been debates about using taxpayer dollars to benefit only those who live by the shore; nevertheless, some New Yorkers are finding out that such funding can come with strings attached. Last month, residents of Breezy Point, a city neighborhood hard hit by Superstorm Sandy, were told that in order to receive federal funding for an effective double-dune barrier, they must open their private beach to the public. The proposal was included in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $20 billion plan to better prepare the city for future storms.

Others warn that beach nourishment can promote the rebuilding of highly vulnerable communities. “We need more resilient development, to be sure, but we also need to begin to retreat from the ocean’s edge,” wrote Professor Orrin Pilkey of Duke University in a New York Times opinion piece last November.  Pilkey recommended that officials strongly discourage the reconstruction of badly damaged beachfront homes in New Jersey and New York.

Mitigating Future Hazards

Regardless of the debate surrounding beach replenishment, finding ways to protect beachfront communities will only become more important as time goes on. A recent MIT study has predicted that storms previously expected only every hundred years may now occur every three to twenty years due to changing temperatures that affect weather patterns.

In an interview with USA Today, Jeffrey Gebert, the coastal planning chief for the ACOE’s Philadelphia District, questioned the long-term viability of beach nourishment programs, but added that the difference in damage from Sandy in communities with and without dunes was striking. “It goes to show you that [beach nourishment] really does work,” Gebert told the paper. While acknowledging that a rethinking of periodic replenishment may be necessary in the future, he added that “there certainly isn’t any information from Sandy, not in Delaware and not in New Jersey, that would suggest any reason to alter the course.”

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