Entrench Or Retreat? That Is The Question On Plum Island

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The north section of Plum Island lies between the Merrimack River estuary and the ocean. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The north section of Plum Island lies between the Merrimack River estuary and the ocean. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Part 2 of a two-part series. Here's Part 1.

For the last 25 years Mike Morris has spent his days in the cave of his BMW repair shop in Newbury. At night he’d leave behind the grease and power tools and head home to one of the most gorgeous, and perhaps most precarious, places on the Massachusetts coast: Plum Island.

“It’s a beautiful place in the summertime and in the spring and fall when you get the right days,” says Morris. “But man, you get the wrong weather in the wintertime and that wind’s howling down there -- the house will shake when the waves are breaking on the beach.”

Plum Island is what’s known as a barrier beach -- a stretch of sand surrounded by marsh and river and sea -- just south of the New Hampshire border. As a surfer with a keen interest in the environment, Morris says there was seemingly no better place to live.

But he grew tired of bracing for those winter storms. And as head of a nonprofit that advocates for coastal resiliency, he knew too much to be comfortable living on the island.

“With my knowledge of meteorology and understanding of weather models and things like that, I saw real risks to owning real estate down there,” he says.

Up and down the coast of Massachusetts, communities are becoming increasingly familiar with the havoc of coastal storms. But now, with sea levels expected to increase between 2 and 11 feet by the end of the century, experts say some residential areas will have to consider retreat. And they say it can be done either in an organized way, or in the chaotic aftermath of a disaster.

Many of the residents on places like Plum Island want to build up the ramparts and defend their beaches. But people like Morris have decided to retreat and move inland. He sold his house before he felt it was too late.

“At some point on these barrier beaches, somebody is going to be the last owner of the house that they're in," Morris says. "In other words, it won't be able to be sold, nobody will want to buy it."

Resiliency experts say at-risk coastal communities need to start planning for what’s known as “managed retreat,” and they say it's not happening fast enough.

“I think people know that that somehow needs to happen, but the leadership in the state hasn't really formulated that sort of plan," Morris says. "I think even at the state level they're still struggling with: ‘Do we retreat or do we not retreat?’ "

'You're Going To Spend Money First Before You Retreat'

At the spring meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Association, residents of Plum Island and Salisbury Beach sit around a table with local politicians, federal officials and state regulators.

The group discusses ways to defend the beach. One member broaches the notion of a mammoth harbor barrier out in the ocean; another talks about putting up fencing around a patch of freshly planted beach grass.

The MRBA was the brainchild of Ron Barrett of the Plum Island Taxpayers Association. He says it’s been a remarkably effective way to cut through red tape and get coastal projects off the ground. He estimates that between jetty repairs, dredging, sand nourishment and other works, the group’s advocacy has resulted in tens of millions of dollars spent to defend the coast.

Barrett says the idea of retreat hasn’t arisen once since the first MRBA meeting 10 years ago.

After the meeting, sitting on his back porch overlooking the basin side of Plum Island, Barrett scoffs at the notion of mass retreat.

“Are we going to move New Bedford? Are we going to move Salem, Mass.? Are we going to move all these cities where they have the big populations?" he asks. "No. The first thing we're going to do is we're either going to put retractable seawalls up, or we're going to build up the roads.

“You're going to spend money first before you retreat.”

New Bedford and Salem also face the threat of rising sea levels -- but not like Plum Island. The real estate firm Zillow estimates 30 percent of the homes on the island will be partially underwater if sea levels rise 6 feet. Federal studies project that in extreme scenarios, that could happen in the next 50 years in the Boston area.

At the southern end of the inhabited section of Plum Island, a rock barrier has been constructed between many of the houses and the ocean. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
At the southern end of the inhabited section of Plum Island, a rock barrier has been constructed between many of the houses and the ocean. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The chairman of the MRBA is Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, Republican minority leader in the state Senate. Tarr says the goal is not necessarily to preserve the coastline the way it is today, but to achieve sustainable development in places like Plum Island, as well as Salisbury Beach on the other side of the Merrimack River. That could mean there are some areas that won't remain in the same state they're in now.

“While I may not necessarily relish the thought of talking about [retreat], I believe it's something we have to talk about,” Tarr says after the MRBA meeting.

“Retreat versus defense is going to be an important part of our lexicon for the foreseeable future, and there may well be areas where we say: ‘It isn't cost effective, it isn't feasible, it doesn't make sense to try to preserve as they are now.’ ”

Tarr says those decisions will have to be made “in a collaborative way so that they can be accepted as opposed to arbitrarily dismissed.”

Even Barrett -- who argues that the heavy bouts of erosion happening on Plum Island are part of age-old cycles -- concedes some neighborhoods won’t last forever.

“I think you’re going to lose a row of houses eventually, front row [beach] houses," he says. "In between time though, people are going to do what they have to do to try to save themselves.”

So, what is the government doing to prepare?

Managed Retreat

In contrast to coastal protection, “managed retreat” is defined as “the strategic relocation of structures or abandonment of land to manage natural hazard risk.” That’s according to a recent paper on the subject that looks at 27 recent cases of managed retreat -- in countries from Fiji and Japan to Guatemala and the Netherlands -- that have resulted in the resettlement of roughly 1.3 million people.

Massachusetts does not have a master plan for an organized retreat for frontline communities at risk. But officials say they’re considering all options through the state’s hazard mitigation and climate adaptation planning.

Gov. Charlie Baker spokesman Brendan Moss said in a statement that the administration has prioritized planning for the impacts of climate change, “working in close partnership across state government and with cities and towns to protect public safety, local infrastructure, small businesses, and our state’s abundant natural resources.”

In September 2016 -- the same month Morris sold his house on Plum Island — Baker ordered his staff to develop an adaptation plan for the state. Baker pledged to go further in this year’s State of the Commonwealth speech, calling for millions of dollars for climate adaptation and resiliency planning in the 2019 budget.

On Tuesday, the Legislature voted unanimously to implement the governor’s program, part of a $2.4 billion bond package to promote “climate change adaptation.”

In spite of all these efforts, the state is not working on a plan for retreat from vulnerable coastal areas. At the local level, however, communities are starting to consider the possibility -- and it’s happening with state money. Through the Municipal Vulnerability Planning program, cities and towns across Massachusetts are identifying their top priorities in the age of climate change and assembling reports to determine the steps they can take to increase resilience.

One hundred and fifty communities are already part of the MVP program, and the aim is for the whole state to get on board, and a statewide resiliency plan will be the final product.

Brewster is one community that’s looking at planning for retreat. Another is Newburyport (which shares Plum Island with Newbury), where a framework for managed retreat is at the top of the agenda.

“Personally, I think it's time to say, ‘Stop, enough [building on Plum Island],' ” says Donna Holaday, Newburyport’s mayor of nearly nine years. “You know, we let whatever is existing in the pipeline [continue], those final lots that have been purchased — that's it.

"There's a point where you have to say, 'enough is enough.' ”

Retreat is not an easy thing for politicians to discuss, says University of Pennsylvania resiliency expert Carolyn Kousky: “People don't like to think about it, they don't like to talk about it.”

Instead of investing in anticipation of natural disasters, Kousky says the federal government is doing just the opposite. She calculates that more than 90 percent of the money the feds spend on flood mitigation is spent after disasters.

“What we're doing is dumping huge amounts of money where storms happen to hit,” Kousky says. “So look at Texas, look at New York, look at New Jersey … getting billions of dollars.”

Kousky says a lot of that money is going into “very good risk reduction measures,” but “we're not thinking strategically in advance of disasters about what the most cost-effective measures are, which communities deserve federal assistance and which don’t.”

Experts agree retreat can happen by will or by the force of nature. But Kousky raises a third element that could prove to be even more decisive: capitalism. It's a scenario, for instance, in which banks stop lending in vulnerable areas, and insurance companies refuse to write policies.

Jesse Keenan, who teaches climate adaptation at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, says that in the not-too-distant future, rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor's could start downgrading vulnerable municipalities, thus making it more expensive to borrow money.

Keenan says that could start to happen any day -- and it’s not ideal.

“Increasingly the market is going to bring discipline to what you can and can't do,” Keenan says. “And we would hope that the state would play a greater role in helping shape that, so that people who are caught in between don’t lose everything.”

As to whether the state is handling this in a comprehensive way, Kennan says "far from it, far from it."

Retreat In Motion

What might large-scale retreat actually look like if carried out in the United States? The most immediate way is in the form of government buyout programs, where homeowners are paid at or near (pre-disaster) market value to voluntarily sign over their homes.

Exhibit A: New York State. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the region six years ago, more than 1,200 homes homes on Staten Island and Long Island were bought back in order to be torn down and allow nature to take its course.

Across the country, more than 36,000 properties have been purchased through the U.S. Hazard Mitigation Grant Program between 1993 and 2011, resulting in the resettlement of more than 93,000 people.

In Massachusetts, buyouts have occurred, too, but on a far smaller scale. State records show that over the last 25 years, FEMA dollars have been used to buy back four dozen problem properties in places like Lawrence, Revere and Scituate. A recent study estimated 90,000 homes could face chronic flooding by the end of the century.

Keenan says Massachusetts has been lucky on the natural disasters front, but that could change — and from one perspective, that could be a good thing: “As many people in the insurance industry say, what we need is a really good hurricane to wake people up."

Coastal retreat is a fearsome notion, especially for policymakers trying to keep their constituents happy. But some say an even scarier idea is not talking about it at all.

Back at his BMW shop in Newbury, Mike Morris says he considers himself lucky for selling his house during an upswing in the market. He believes others will follow, and the government should help to make it possible.

“When they decide it’s time for them to leave, that [the government ensures] a way out for them financially,” Morris says. "And then that land becomes public space and open space. And a dune is created there to protect properties to the back. And if you do that sequentially, then you extend the amount of time you have on your barrier beach. ... You retreat at the pace that people decide they'd like to retreat at."

Support for this essay was provided by the Weather Eye Award, an award given to distinguished local reporters by RiseLocal, a project of New America’s National Network.

This segment aired on August 2, 2018.


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Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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