By Mac Cerullo
---- — PLUM ISLAND — It’s been nearly a half century since Plum Island’s vulnerable beachfront has seen such widespread destruction.
The storm-charged waves that struck the coast Thursday and lingered through the weekend left three homes demolished. According to Newbury town officials, three more sustained “substantial” structural damage, and in all, 14 are uninhabitable, at least for the short term.
The focal point of the storm’s damage is along a two-thirds-mile stretch of dunes that runs south from the Beach Center, along Annapolis Way and Fordham Way. In total, one-third of the beachfront homes along that stretch have either been destroyed, damaged or lost their occupancy permit.
As the storm surge has gradually lifted, officials and residents are seeing a beach that is dramatically changed.
“It’s a real wasteland,” said Newbury Selectman Geoff Walker, referring to the Annapolis Way/Fordham Way beach. “For our town, it’s devastating.”
What just a few years ago was a comfortably wide beach is now a narrow strip, accessible only around low tide. At high tide, the ocean laps up against steep, crumbling sand dunes, on top of which sits about three dozen homes. Some are precariously near the edge, others are already jutting over it.
Annapolis Way has taken the worst pounding. Of the nine homes on the ocean side of the road, three were destroyed by the storm.
“We don’t have any beach anymore from Bennett Hill to blue,” Walker said, referring to landmarks at either end of the Annapolis Way/Fordham Way stretch.
“This is historical,” said longtime Plum Islander Ron Barrett. “We haven’t seen something like this since the early 1970s.”
Yesterday, state Sen. Bruce Tarr, state Rep. Lenny Mirra and Selectman Joe Story sent a letter top Gov. Deval Patrick, asking for “assistance and expertise of state government to help protect those homes that are still in immediate jeopardy and will likely remain in such jeopardy for the next several days.”
Today at 11 a.m., a meeting will be held with state, local and federal officials to discuss the situation on the island. The meeting will be at Plum Island Taxpayers and Associates Hall.
Meanwhile on the island, police have shut down the beach along Annapolis Way and Fordham Way in order to keep people away from what police described as “a dangerous scene.” The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge also closed its beach yesterday.
That didn’t stop hordes of people from coming out to the beach to see for themselves. The sunny and relatively warm weekend weather saw hundreds of people trying to get a closer look. Police blocked off roads and accesses to the beach and erected signs telling people to stay off the beach, but there were some who persisted in getting through. As a result, several will be issued arrest summonses for trespassing, according to police Chief Michael Reilly.
Reilly said most people were cooperative, but in a few cases where people wouldn’t cooperate, the summons were issued.
“Our goal isn’t to take people away into custody,” he said. “No one should be out there. It just isn’t safe. It’s a dangerous scene.”
Reilly said it’s not clear how long the beach will be closed — perhaps only a couple more days or perhaps a week. It depends on how quickly the damaged homes and dunes can be assessed and made safer.
Two beachfront homes on Annapolis Way were demolished on Saturday after high seas washed the sand out from under them, causing them to fall over the edge of the dune and onto the beach. One other home was torn down a day after its foundation was compromised.
Crews were busy cutting all utility services to the affected houses, and once the early high tide receded, they moved in with heavy equipment to tear the condemned houses down.
The first to go was the Bandoian house at 41 Annapolis Way, which tipped over the dune Friday morning and was left leaning on the beach at a 45-degree angle until it was demolished by a heavy crane at 11:53 a.m. yesterday.
The Bresnahan house at 31 Annapolis Way followed shortly afterward. The house, previously deemed structurally unsafe and uninhabitable late last year, toppled off its foundation early Saturday morning.
Both buildings were unoccupied at the time they went over the edge.
The third house set to be demolished was the Nee house at 37 Annapolis Way, which had already suffered extensive damage following the Blizzard of 2013. Significant effort was put in to shore up the house after that storm, but it was all for naught after the latest storm washed all the engineering away and left the house in worse shape than before.
Throughout the morning people were seen retrieving belongings from the house and loading them into a yellow Penske truck. The house’s owner, Tom Nee, had lived on the property for 40 years prior to this storm.
Once the Nee house comes down later today, Bob Connors, who lives at 39 Annapolis Way between the ruined houses, will be left without a next-door neighbor.
“The worst part about all this is seeing your neighbors go through all this,” Connors said.