By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — SALISBURY — A special meeting is being called this morning to develop an immediate plan to repair the damage done to Salisbury Beach’s dunes, including Friday morning’s devastating high tide.
And last night, the man in charge of the agency that owns Salisbury Beach walked its sand to see the devastation wrought by last week’s storm tides.
Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Ed Lambert said after hearing about the havoc the storm caused from local officials, legislators and his own agency’s engineers, he felt he needed to bear witness personally to what’s left of Salisbury Beach.
A succession of storms, beginning with the Blizzard of 2013 and continuing almost weekly until Friday’s snowstorm, have eroded and in some cases obliterated much of the protective dunes system along the 3.8 miles of state-owned beach in Salisbury. Salisbury’s ocean-front homes that abut those dunes are now in peril of succumbing to future weather events.
In addition, many of the beach access ways drop off like cliffs, since the dunes that formerly graded down gently to the shore are now gone.
Perhaps the starkest illustration of how seriously the beach was damaged is at the end of Broadway and Driftway in Salisbury Beach Center. The pounding tides over three days carved tens of thousands of cubic yards of sand from the area, leaving behind a scarred scene reminiscent of a bombed-out site. Chunks of crumbling pavement litter the sand, former wooden pilings stick up 2 to 4 feet like spikes, and a huge rusty, metal foundation lays exposed and dangerous. They are remnants of buildings that stood decades ago that had been buried under yards of sand.
Last night, state Rep. Michael Costello said no one can remember the beach being in such a dire condition or homes along its shores being so threatened. Costello believes any restoration plan needs to focus on repairing the dune system in the north end of the beach in front of homes.
“It really is amazing,” Lambert said after walking off the beach in front of Broadway. “We have very serious beach erosion here. Mother Nature is our partner and we’re going to work with her to bring this resource back to where it needs to be. We’ll be talking (Tuesday morning) to determine how we can do that.”
According to Town Manager Neil Harrington, this morning’s conference call will include state Department of Environmental Protection officials in hopes of getting the agency to give permission to take immediate action to restore Salisbury Beach.
Lambert said his agency doesn’t have final say on what will be done, but he will work with his counterpart at the Department of Environmental Protection to make the beach safe for visitors and home owners.
DCR staff have worked throughout the weekend assessing the damage at the beach, securing dangerous areas, such as the boardwalks and crossovers. DCR engineers were at the beach yesterday, compiling information relative to dune erosion and formulating a plan to remove the exposed piling wherever possible.
Concrete barriers are up along the access roads to prevent access to the beach, and all unsafe access point are closed, An electric sign at the entrance of Salisbury Beach State Reservation warns of “Danger,” telling people to keep off the beach.
Harrington said the tons of sand gouged from Salisbury Beach were deposited at Salisbury’s north jetty at the mouth of the Merrimack River. Forming a huge sandbar, estimates suggest there could be hundreds of thousands of cubic sand, he said.
The sandbar not only covers portions of the jetty, but some of it is washing back over the jetty and into the Merrimack River’s boat channel, which was dredged just two years ago to open the mouth of the river. Harrington said the town wants DEP to loosen its regulations and allow that sand to be moved back onto Salisbury Beach where it’s needed to avoid another erosion disaster like the one that occurred on Plum Island.
Yesterday, affected homeowners flocked to Town Hall to learn how to deal with the problems the storm brought.
“The primary frustration of Salisbury (beach-front) property owners is that even with an emergency certification (permit), they have to follow DEP rules,” Harrington said. “What the home owners want to do is to be able to move the sand that has blown up on their property back on the beach to shore up the dunes.”
That’s not as simple as it sounds. In laymen’s terms, Harrington said, DEP rules dictate that if sand blows off the beach and lands on man-made surfaces, it can be moved back to the beach. If it blows on a natural surface, however, it can’t be moved, he said, and that’s the problem.
The destruction of so many homes on Plum Island due to dune depletion is haunting Salisbury. If the state doesn’t restore the sacrificial dune system on its beach, many Salisbury homeowners believe they could be next to lose homes to the sea.
But there is a major difference between the beach erosion situation on Plum Island and that on Salisbury, Harrington said. The difference is that the property in front of Plum Island homes is privately owned, while DCR owns Salisbury Beach.
“Salisbury Beach is important to us for a number of reasons,” Lambert said. “It’s an iconic property where working families go to recreate.”
Lambert said restoring Salisbury Beach isn’t about liability or even economic, it’s about safety and preserving a prime state resource for generations to come.
“If we can help, we want to,” Lambert said.