Conventional wisdom says nantucket could be around for as little as four hundred more years, but after this winter, some may wonder if those numbers will soon be under water. Is Nantucket disappearing before our very eyes?
About a week before Halloween, a tropical wave in the Caribbean sparked what became known as Super Storm Sandy. The system spiraled counterclockwise, drawing energy from unseasonably warm waters in the Atlantic, and eventually made landfall just northeast of Atlantic City. The devastation was staggering, with Sandy proving to be the second costliest Atlantic storm in U.S. history. Nantucket’s saving grace from the full impact of Sandy was a cold front pushing down from Greenland and warm water pinning the storm to the New Jersey coast. Yet even with Sandy’s near miss, Nantucket limps out of the winter scarred by three storms that raise some unsettling questions.
“You’ll have to forgive me if I have a little storm burnout,” Dave Fronzuto tells me from his office in the Public Safety Facility on Fairgrounds Road, “FEMA was just here and I’ve been working with them on accessing the damages.” Fronzuto is Nantucket’s Emergency Management and Marine Safety Coordinator and since Sandy struck, he’s been eating, sleeping and breathing storms. “People need to understand that although these storms were bad, the No-Name storm in 1991 was a lot worse,” he insists. “To put it in perspective, during the No-Name Storm, the tide was 1.2 feet higher than that of these storms. You saw the devastation that these tides caused. Can you imagine 1.2 feet higher?” Fronzuto speculates that the February blizzard, Nemo, and the March nor’easter, Saturn, packed about the punch of Hurricane Bob of August 1991, with winds gusting upwards of ninety miles-per-hour. In the case of Nemo, the tide was astronomically low. Had the tide been astronomically high, as it was during Saturn, the destruction would have been far worse.
If anyone can weigh in on destruction, it’s Dave Fronzuto. In the wake of the three storms, Fronzuto has been accessing and documenting damages to the town’s infrastructure and then filing for relief funds from FEMA. The assessments are two-prong: estimate the cost in damages and then estimate the cost to mitigate those damages from future storms. FEMA allocates specific funds for specific storms, and Fronzuto needed to pinpoint what damage was done by which storm. This becomes infinitely more tedious when considering that the storms rolled in like rogue waves, the damages compounding as the winter continued.
According to Fronzuto, there were four critical points of destruction: Easy Street, the town pier, Sheep Pond Road, and Baxter Road. Easy Street flooded first in all three storms, and Fronzuto estimates it will cost between $35,000 to $40,000 to repair damages and another $200,000 for mitigation work. The town pier was walloped first with $100,000 in damages by Sandy, then $25,000 by Nemo, and finally with upwards of $45,000 by Saturn. Out on Sheep Pond Road, where three houses were taken by erosion, the road will be relocated about 200 feet inshore. At press time, similar relocation plans were being considered for Baxter Road on ‘Scon- set Bluff, where storm-related erosion devoured twenty feet of beachfront before forcing the demolition of a garage, a cottage and eventu- ally a 5,200 square-foot house. In total, the three storms will cost around $500,000.
“This year has really been pretty high up there as far as worst case scenarios,” contends Dr. Sarah Oktay, director of the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station. “What has occurred is a one-two-three-punch which has not allowed beaches, dunes, or marshes the ability to regrow between storms.” From her field station on the north-facing Quaise portion of Nantucket Harbor, Dr. Oktay has been quantifying the characteristics of these storms, from the amount of sand driven up into the marshes to the overall rise in sea level around Nantucket. “People tend to forget that the sea is rising slowly, but faster all the time,” she explains. “So with each new storm larger amounts of land will be affected.” Dr. Oktay indicates that the seas around Nantucket have risen a little over five inches in the past fifty years. In the next fifty years, studies show it will rise by at least a foot, which is 2.3 times faster than the previous fifty years. However, the news isn’t all bad. Locations like Cod Fish Park and Great Point actually gained elevation in some areas from the storms, although those beaches also shortened as they typically do in winter. Beaches at Cisco and Surfside are much wider due to the addition of sand eroded from nearby beaches. “In the case of Great Point,” Dr. Oktay says, “I think it is certainly possible that within a hun- dred years, it will be a nice mature island.”
If only that growth were the case for areas like the ‘Sconset Bluff, where storm-related erosion has forced the demolition of three structures and has threatened several others. Watching an excavator demolish a perfectly good home because it had nowhere else to go but into the Atlantic makes one wonder what kind of insurance these homes have, if any. Charlie Kilvert, president of Nantucket Insurance, explains that the options are limited. “Because Baxter Road is sitting there exposed to the Atlantic Ocean with nothing in front of it but the sea pounding away during these winter storms, the insurance companies are selective when writing a new home there,” Kilvert says. “The higher the chance of loss to a property is a factor in determining the cost of the insurance.”
A high-end insurance company like Pure, AIG or Chubb Group might consider writing insurance for a home on Baxter Road, provided the homeowner has a portfolio of other properties that the company is covering elsewhere, thus balancing its risk. Other options for insuring coastal properties on Nantucket include the Massachusetts FAIR Plan, a residual market insurance association that will cover homes up to $1,000,000, and Lloyd’s of London, an insurance consortium that covers many coastal New England properties. Even if a home does have insurance, perhaps from a policy signed twenty years prior, the insurance company can reassess the property and decide to drop it if the chance of loss gets too high. Insurance claims in the wake of Sandy were particularly painstaking as it was unclear whether Sandy was a hurricane or a storm, a key distinction in the definition of coverage.
In fact, that debate continues today. “In the weather world, in the meteorological world, there is a huge controversy over whether or not Sandy was a hurricane when it made landfall,” explains NECN meteorologist, Tim Kelley. “The National Hurricane Center has done an analysis and reanalysis, and they keep changing their tune. Now they’re saying that Sandy was a hurricane all the way up to a couple hours before landfall.” Some argue that this lack of clarity on the part of the National Hurricane Center is to blame for the lack of preparedness in New York and New Jersey.
In the midst of this nomenclatural confusion, the press labeled Sandy a “super storm,” a term that was eventually adopted and proliferated by government officials. Kelley explains that Sandy should be understood as a “hybrid storm,” one where a warm core storm and a cold core storm merge. “A hurricane is a warm core storm, and most of the violent weather is within a hundred miles of the eye of the storm,” he says. “In a hybrid storm you can have the effects for hundreds of miles away from the center of the storm. Sandy became a hybrid storm as it went ashore.” So it is that although Sandy did not hit directly, Nantucket still suffered her wrath.
For those who weathered the winter on the island, all the flooding, erosion and destruction can seem like harbingers of a shrinking Nantucket, that is unless you have a bird’s eye view like pilot George Riethof. For over a decade, Riethof has been flying over Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard two hundred days per year photographing the islands and their surrounding waters. In the aftermath of this winter’s storms, Riethof’s aerial images of the island became Internet sensations, often prompting a litany of comments mourning the loss of land and homes.
Yet for Riethof these images were not surprising, or tragic for that matter. “The island has changed shape over the years,” he says. “For every area that has been eroding I’ve seen other areas accreting. Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent nor’easter took about twenty feet off the entire southern shoreline of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. I flew over several times in the subsequent weeks and saw most of this sand undersea just offshore. About a month later, that twenty feet of beach was all back onshore.” Riethof says that while ‘Sconset Bluff seems to be “marching steadily into the ocean” and that “the south shore from Madequecham to Fisherman’s Beach seems to be shrinking,” in terms of net change the land has mostly just shifted. Unfortunately, this shift is happening where people own homes. “While I sympathize with those whose houses have been threat- ened or destroyed by this erosion, I did not see the event as tragic,” Riethof says. “First of all, those who built or bought houses near the coastline, particularly unstable coastlines, knew this was coming. Secondly, these were not photos of destruction, these were images of natural events, change, and the force of nature.”
The shape of Nantucket is bound to change in the years to come, hewn by storms and rising sea levels that will continue to give and take. The streets will flood again and again. Beaches will be lost and more homes destroyed. And perhaps there is nothing a Nantucketer can do but adapt. Many talk about the high price of living on-island. These winter storms may just be another expense we’re forced to pay. Whether or not one subscribes to global warming and climate change theories, what can be said is that over the long term we are all just renting our land from Mother Nature here on Nantucket.