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No Quiet on the Ocean Front

Long Beach Island will end up underwater unless it’s shored up. Yet an alliance of wealthy weekenders and surfers is taking a stand to let it wash away.


Left: Randy Townsend and friends. Right: A house on Long Beach Island's shrinking dunes.  

The first storm of summer is rolling toward the Jersey Shore, and for Randy Townsend that means one thing: Surf. A lean 26-year-old with spiky hair and freckles, Townsend cuts expertly through the waves as a half-dozen guys in wetsuits bob in the foam. His nickname is Randazzle, and he’s a star in this righteous place: Long Beach Island.

LBI, as it’s called in Jersey, is a sandbar running along eighteen miles of the shore, dotted with about a dozen towns. It’s a mile wide at its broadest, two or three blocks at its narrowest. The summer community is different from the crowd in the Hamptons: a pleasing mash-up of Wall Streeters, crusty fishermen, and surf rats who consider the waves at LBI the best on the East Coast. The town of Barnegat Light, on the northern tip, has a landmark red-and-white lighthouse and salty docks; Loveladies has megamansions with built-in helicopter landing pads. (Odd municipal names are legion: Loveladies adjoins Harvey Cedars, a little way up from Ship Bottom.) Beach Haven is full of kids, from skimboarding shaggy-haired dudes to heartbreak Britney teens at the pizza shop. “The island is the most laid-back and open-arms place around,” says Townsend, a lifelong resident and pro surfer. “Everyone can find a little bit of happiness here.”

As Townsend wades out of the ocean in Harvey Cedars, a muddy bulldozer piles sand in his path, part of the latest measure against the forces of erosion. In October, 16,000 cubic yards of sand were trucked in. Mayor Jonathan Oldham says it took 40 trucks a day for 40 days to haul the stuff. As Dr. Karl Nordstrom of the Institute of Marine & Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University says, “The dunes are hanging on by a thread.”

The Jersey coast has what’s called a “negative sediment budget.” Since no big river like the Mississippi or the Nile deposits sand here, and lots of waves take material away, the beaches tend to shrink. “Without replenishment, the areas most under pressure start to retreat,” says Keith Watson, the project manager from the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The houses here are built on piles driven into the sand. So if the beach goes, “you’ll see homes fall into the water.”

Long Beach Island is especially vulnerable because it averages only six feet above sea level, and it is losing the little protection it has. Rising tides and increased storm activity have translated into a loss of three or four feet of dune, in the hardest-hit areas, every year since the mid-nineties. Places like Long Beach Island are where the impact of global warming will show up first. What happens here is a preview of what could come in the Hamptons, Fire Island, Long Beach, even the Rockaways.

The Corps—effectively the construction arm of the federal government—and New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection have a plan to save the island. Ships called hopper dredges will vacuum up 11 million cubic yards of soupy wet sand. Once each ship is full, it will move in, hook up to a big pump, and funnel sand onto the beach like some mad Dr. Seuss machine. Bulldozers will then spread and grade the new sand. The beach will be broadened, and the dunes will be built up by two feet. Congress and the state have jointly approved $71 million for the project, starting with nearly $8 million this year and slightly more for 2007. At that rate, reconstruction will take five to eight years. When the beaches shrink again, the Feds will beef them up once more (assuming the funds keep coming). If they don’t, it’s hard to generalize what will happen, but some dunes will likely vanish in five years. After that, the waves will crash directly onto foundations and windows, and they won’t last long either.

Spending of this year’s funds must begin by September 30. It hasn’t started yet, largely because the surfers and the homeowners, usually at odds, have joined to fight the project. Their complaints differ, but both groups would rather see the island wash away than give in. “We’re fighting two monsters,” says oceanfront homeowner Joe Barrett, “Godzilla from the sea, and King Kong from Trenton.”

Surfer Chris Manthey has two words to describe the Feds’ project: “prefab McBeaches.” The Corps, he says, is applying a brute-force solution that’s ill-suited to areas that are treasured by swimmers and surfers. Though Long Beach Island is not as famous as, say, the north shore of Hawaii, it holds a rich place in America’s surf culture. Ron Jon Surf Shop, a national chain, got its start here in 1959 when a local began selling boards from the back of his van. A giant Ron Jon store greets arrivals coming over the bridge from the mainland. LBI has more than twenty distinct beach breaks: Experts prefer Harvey Cedars, the floaters go to Ship Bottom and Surf City.

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