By Mac Cerullo Staff Writer
---- — NEWBURYPORT — As Hurricane Sandy continues to churn northward toward the eastern seaboard, both government officials and local residents are preparing for what experts are calling a potentially catastrophic storm.
Three Plum Island homes had sand scraped off the beach and piled up to the dunes in front of their properties after local, state and federal officials scrambled to get the necessary permits approved in time to fortify the homes before the storm hits.
“The fact that we’re able to do this with a permit and that all three levels of government approved it is amazing,” said State Sen. Bruce Tarr, who helped coordinate the effort with the Newbury Conservation Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers to get the permits worked out.
Meanwhile, residents across the Newburyport area flooded to local hardware stores to stock up on emergency supplies. Pete Kelly, owner of Kelly’s True Value, said he has seen an influx of customers over the last few days seeking emergency generators, batteries, flashlights and other miscellaneous supplies.
“People are definitely preparing,” he said, adding that he expects the traffic to swell in the coming days before the storm hits.
Although initial forecasts looked dire for New England, experts are growing more confident that the storm will veer to the northwest and make landfall in the New Jersey area. Even if the northeast doesn’t suffer a direct hit, they say, the storm will likely still have a major impact on the area.
As of yesterday afternoon, Sandy was a Category One hurricane with sustained winds of 80 miles per hour just north of the Bahamas. The storm is expected to merge with a westward-moving cold front in the next couple of days, which could amplify the storm’s destructive capability over a much wider area.
For that reason Sandy is a unique storm in that it will not be a purely tropical system. Typically in a tropical cyclone like a hurricane, the strongest winds are concentrated near the center of the storm, but Sandy will more closely resemble a Nor’Easter on steroids and is expected to bring heavy winds to a much wider area as a result.
The National Weather Service in Taunton said that the current models predict Newburyport will experience winds of 20 to 30 mph and heavy precipitation throughout Monday into Tuesday. The coastal areas could also experience high seas and a storm surge of up to six feet, which could be exacerbated by the astronomical high tide caused by the full moon.
“But that wind forecast is assuming that the center of circulation were to travel over central New Jersey,” said Kim Buttrich, a NWS meteorologist. “If the storm were to encroach further north, the forecast would be very different for Monday. Much stronger winds, a much bigger impact.”
With memories of Tropical Storm Irene and last year’s late-October snowstorm still fresh, the power companies are already taking steps to prepare for widespread outages. National Grid, the Unitil Corporation and the Edison Electric Institute have all begun drawing up response plans for when the storm hits, and additional crews are being brought in from as far away as Michigan to assist. The Edison Institute stated yesterday that this is the largest storm to hit the Northeast in 100 years.
In Newburyport, city officials gathered yesterday morning to discuss preparations for the storm. Among the issues they discussed is asking residents to watch storm drains near their homes and keep them clear of leaves. Officials are concerned that falling leaves will choke the city’s drainage system and will cause flooding.
The Newburyport Salvation Army announced that it will be opening its doors to people seeking shelter from the storm, much like it did last year when Irene hit.
On Plum Island, bystanders and TV news crews gathered yesterday to watch a bulldozer push sand up the beach in order to protect a handful of vulnerable homes along Annapolis Way. Added to the scraping zone was the adjacent 132-year-old Bennett Hill house, a landmark on Plum Island.
According to Newbury Conservation Agent Doug Packer, Plum Island’s beaches haven’t been scraped in many years, other than earlier this month when five other homes nearby got permits to have their beaches scraped.
Originally the Bennetts and their two neighbors were supposed to have their beaches scraped as well, but they weren’t after it was determined that the houses weren’t in immediate jeopardy of falling over the bank.
“I didn’t understand why the permit wasn’t issued for all eight of these homes in the beginning, but we’re grateful that they granted this one now,” said John Bennett, whose family owns the Bennett House. The yellow, Victorian era house sits high atop a sand dune just south of Plum Island beach center.
The arrival of Hurricane Sandy quickly changed the equation, and now Bennett and his neighbors’ homes have the extra fortification as well, but Bennett called the scraping a band-aid and expressed cautious hope that the scraping will be enough to keep the storm from pushing his house over the bank.
Bennett’s family has lived on Plum Island for 100 years, and the Bennett House itself has been a fixture on the beach since 1881. The house offers a stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean, and in the distance you can see the Isle of Shoals, the edge of Cape Ann and even the fireworks in Boston on the Fourth of July if it’s clear enough out. Bennett said he’d like to pass the house on to his children someday; they would be the fifth generation to own the house.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate that we have it, and we’ve been able to keep it, and I’d hate to have a storm take it away, or the government block us from trying to save it,” Bennett said. “This is the first step of them letting us try to do something, but it hasn’t been easy.”