• Credit: www.boston.com

For a half dozen homes built on the fragile, sandy bluffs of Plum Island, Mass., the March 7 nor'easter was the last straw. The New York Times covers the story here ("It's Move It or Lose It in Path of a Nor'easter," by Jess Bidgood). Writes the Times: "The winter storm, which unexpectedly missed Washington, sucked sand from the beach and dragged waves high up on the shore. Last week, six homes were demolished by construction crews, having been irreparably damaged in the storm. Seven more were too dangerous to be occupied... An additional 24 homes are considered to be in imminent danger of being seriously damaged should there be another storm or an abnormally high tide."

Homeowners on the crumbling bluffs think that earlier action might have had better odds of success. They're frustrated and angry about what they call foot-dragging by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). They say they've been asking the agency for years for permission to build protective structures, but have been put off repeatedly — or ignored.

""We've just had a systemic failure at all levels of government and property owners are now forced to fend for themselves to protect their houses and families," homeowner Bob Connors told Boston CBS station WBZ ("Plum Island Residents May Need To Remove Boulders Protecting Homes," by Michael Rosenfield).

Homeowners say that, in the emergency, state officials told them that they could take action to prevent the imminent destruction of their houses. In response, homeowners paid to have huge boulders brought to the shore for an armored seawall, the Eagle-Tribune reported ("Plum Island residents scramble to erect sea walls," by Dyke Hendrickson). "The damaged dunes have undergone a stunning transformation since the nor'easter storm 10 days ago that left dozens of homes in peril and caused six to be destroyed," reports the paper. "Homeowners have dumped and piled stones all along beach, creating a rugged wall. Some are creating finely shaped walls; others have brought in great piles of rough stones."

But there's confusion about whether the new structures are legal. "Several homeowners said they have received permission from the state DEP or 'the governor,'" the paper reports. "But a staff member of the DEP yesterday said that no permissions have been given."

"'They haven't gotten permission,' DEP spokesman Ed Colletta told the Eagle-Tribure. 'The homeowners are concerned about their properties and we aren't going to stop work from going on. When the storms are over for the year, we will be coming out to review what has been done. If the structures aren't in accord with regulations, they might have to take the walls down.'"

It's debatable whether the rock walls are a practical idea, reports public radio station WBUR ("Plum Island Homeowners Ignore State Regulations, Shore Up Homes," by Bruce Gellerman). "Greg Berman, a coastal process scientist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, says in practice using riprap can make things worse because rocks reflect energy from waves," the station reports. Says Berman: "So when it bounces off it actually expends a lot more energy in a shorter space. There's a lot of turbulence in the water which can excavate out sand in front of that riprap and then it has the energy to transport it further offshore. So the overall lowering of the beach in front of riprap is, depending on the environment, fairly typical."

Ken Kimmell, commissioner of the Massachusetts DEP, says, "Armoring of a dune is not allowed in Massachusetts, it's also not allowed in virtually every other coastal state. There's a lot of work that's going on on the beach right now and I did not want people to think that this was work we had in any way approved of."

In a letter to homeowners, Kimmell wrote that besides being illegal, rock walls don't work, reports the Gloucester Times ("Plum Island homeowners told their rock wall can't stand," by Dave Rogers). Wrote Kimmell: ""Hard structures also starve the beach fronting these homes of a necessary sediment source that supports a healthy coastal dune system, which provides the most effective storm damage protection to structures on coastal dunes. And ultimately, armoring of the dune will not prevent wave run-up, overtopping and flooding during coastal storms, and erosion and undermining will occur behind the riprap."

And Kimmell said that when summer comes, the people who built the walls may have to tear them down. He wrote, "In all likelihood, you will be required to take necessary corrective actions once the threat of winter storms has abated. This may include removing any hard structures that have been installed."