In a new development in the war at the shore, one of the more widely ridiculed objections to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s dune-building plan — that dunes cause swamping and prevent drainage — turns out to be less wild than dune supporters claim. This is what the area behind Absecon Island’s dunes looked like after last week’s nor’easter flooded a town that already has Christie-style dunes in place:
To the left the dune barrier can be clearly seen; to the right is the boardwalk in Ventnor. In the last decade, Ventnor has built a wall of dunes to the specifications Christie’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have in mind for the entire Jersey Shore.
During last week’s very typical storm, Ventnor experienced heavy flooding. Neighboring Margate, the city that has launched a court battle against the Duneboggle, stayed relatively dry. In both cities, the only flooding came from rising bay waters and faulty rainwater drainage — the same pattern that has held through every recorded storm on Absecon Island including Hurricane Sandy. No flooding at all came over the beaches from the ocean, which is the only avenue of water damage the dunes (or “berms”) in the Corps of Engineers’ Absecon Island Coastal Storm Risk Reduction Project would deal with. The project contains no funding or planning to remediate bayside flooding or improve drainage in flood-prone areas.
“This USACE project is not a back bay or localized flood control or prevention project, it is a hurricane and storm damage reduction project based on ocean wave impacts,” a DEP spokesman told National Review Online after last week’s bayside flooding. “This project would surely be helpful to those residents in Margate or Ventnor or other towns if Sandy struck directly at them from the ocean side as it did in Mantoloking, Brick, and others during Sandy. The flooding shown in your Ventnor photos was bay side flooding, not ocean front flooding.”
Asked to cite a storm that flooded Absecon Island from the ocean rather than the bay, the spokesman replied, “Not engaging in a guessing game with you.”
A Ventnor resident reports that the swampy patch shown above evaporated after a few days, though a part of town further toward Atlantic City still had a large amount of water behind the dunes as of Sunday, and the water was draining away from the ocean.
The Duneboggle raises important concerns about property rights, local governance, and 2016 presidential hopeful Christie’s attitude toward both. However, there are also practical matters of geography and science. New Jersey’s barrier islands are not hard land. They are essentially sandy promontories amid swampland, something non-shore-residents (or “shoobs” as they are called on Absecon Island) and recent arrivals, who experience the place as a care-free paradise, cannot fully appreciate. As recently as the 1970s, Margate was still prone to heavy infestations of mosquitoes and something worse: the greenhead horsefly (Tabanus nigrovittatus), a bloodsucking salt marsh pest whose population has happily diminished as development of the island has continued. But according to a report cited in Alfred Miller Heston’s Absegami: Annals of Eyren Haven and Atlantic City, 1609 to 1904, Absecon Island’s marshes and dunes in their natural state were so pestiferous that Jonathan Pitney’s original plan to establish Atlantic City as a spa resort collapsed:
So numerous were the mosquitoes and greenheads in August, 1858, that horses, covered with blood, laid down in the streets, and cattle waded out into the ocean to escape the torture. Children scratched and squalled from the poisonous stings on limbs and faces. Excursionists begged the conductors to start homeward ahead of schedule time. Men and women converted their handkerchiefs into masks for their faces and a smoking fire was built in front of every house. Before bed-time the windows and doors were opened, and a board placed on top of the chimney, and a dense smoke sent through every chamber, to drive out the mosquitoes. After the house had been thus thoroughly smoked, the board was removed and the people re-entered.
This reporter grew up in Margate but has not lived there for more than 20 years. I have experienced many types of nasty critters around the United States, including roach-sized ants, mouse-sized roaches, cat-sized rats, and even coyotes. I would take all of them over greenheads.