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Restoring America’s Coastline After Superstorm Sandy

From the northern Atlantic Coast to the Gulf of Mexico, USACE’s coastal restoration work reduces the risk of storm damage while replenishing natural ecosystems.

The 2012 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most active and destructive in the history of the United States. By far the deadliest – and costliest – storm of the 2012 season was Superstorm Sandy, which paralleled the Atlantic Coast of the United States for roughly a week before veering westward and making landfall near Atlantic City, N.J., on Oct. 30.

Sandy affected 24 states, including the entire Eastern Seaboard and states as far inland as Wisconsin. It killed 286 people and caused $68 billion worth of damage, making it the second-costliest Atlantic hurricane in U.S. history, behind only Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“It really, really works,” Farrell said. “Where there was a federal beach fill in place, there was no major damage – no homes destroyed, no sand piles in the streets. Where there was no beach fill, water broke through the dunes.”

Most of this damage occurred near the heart of the nation’s largest metropolitan area, a vast urban expanse home to 20 million people in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The support to the governors, the communities, and the first responders by the federal interagency team was likewise historic in scale. When the president issues a disaster declaration triggering the National Response Framework and federal assistance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is part of that team, as the lead for public works and engineering. “The superb technical competence and the willingness of our highly trained and credentialed volunteer teams who deploy at short notice during disasters, is key to USACE’s response capacity as part of the federal interagency team,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, P.E., SES, and director, Contingency Operations and Homeland Security, USACE Headquarters.

After Sandy had subsided, it was clear that the storm had visibly changed the landscape, especially on the New Jersey shore. Some beaches lost half of their sand to the storm, with a few losing up to 80 or even 90 percent. A post-storm study conducted by the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey estimated that on average, New Jersey beaches were 30 to 40 feet narrower after Sandy.

Brandt Beach, N.J.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Philadelphia District pumps sand onto Brant Beach, N.J., in June 2013. The work is part of an effort to restore areas along the Jersey Shore damaged by Hurricane Sandy and to improve the long-term resiliency of the region. U.S. Army photo

In an interview with the Associated Press, Stewart Farrell, Ph.D., director and founder of the college’s Coastal Research Center, noted that coastal areas suffering the most extreme damage generally were those not fortified by federal dune-building or replenishment projects.

Sandy affected 24 states, including the entire Eastern Seaboard and states as far inland as Wisconsin. It killed 286 people and caused $68 billion worth of damage, making it the second-costliest Atlantic hurricane in U.S. history, behind only Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“It really, really works,” Farrell said. “Where there was a federal beach fill in place, there was no major damage – no homes destroyed, no sand piles in the streets. Where there was no beach fill, water broke through the dunes.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in announcing his $37 billion estimate of the damage wrought by Sandy in the state, concurred: “If you look at where beaches were engineered and where they weren’t,” he said, “it argues strongly for the fact that we should have that type of dune system up and down the Jersey Shore.”

Sandy’s total damages are still being calculated, as are the dollar amounts of damages prevented by storm protection projects along the Atlantic Coast – but USACE’s Baltimore District has compiled an estimate that illustrates the value of its beach fortification projects: Before Sandy, the district’s Shoreline Protection System, consisting of a concrete sea wall, an elevated beach profile, and nearly 7 miles of vegetated dunes along the coast near Ocean City, Md., had prevented a startling $591.6 million in damages.

The images from Sandy’s aftermath were powerful motivators behind the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 and the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, which together authorized $60 billion for federal disaster relief agencies. USACE’s share of this funding is approximately $5.35 billion ($5.08 billion after sequestration) to be spent on the restoration of navigation channels, beaches, and other damaged infrastructure. Joe Forcina, chief of Hurricane Sandy Coastal Management Division at USACE’s North Atlantic Division, said the law helps fund several key near-term initiatives to restore beach projects damaged by Sandy.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...