- Did beach renovations enhance flooding in a Duxbury Beach residential neighborhood?
Duxbury Beach is a peninsula that runs about 6 miles. It’s 200 yards thick, give or take a few bumps in the coastline. It sits pretty much right at sea level. It is located between Cape Cod Bay and an interior bay/salt marsh estuary that is about the size of Cambridge.
It has two distinct flooding problems. One comes from storms, which generate surf that sometimes breaks on the houses. The other threat comes from flood tides. Flood tides can hit you from the beach and from the marsh. Once the marsh fills with floodwater, it spills out onto Gurnet Road, which runs from the Marshfield line to the Saquish/Gurnet area.
There are also two groups of property owners on Duxbury Beach. One group is made up of homeowners, who live in the area (some are full time, some are summer people). The other group are the members of the Duxbury Beach Reservation.
The DBR was born out of the efforts of 19 people who owned lots on Duxbury Beach. They planned to put a cottage neighborhood in, but a ferocious winter storm scared them off, and the land was never developed. There is more than one way to make a buck, however, and they get those Benjamins these days by renting out the parking lot/bath house and selling beach and oversand access stickers.
The residents also have initials, but they weren’t really feeling creative on Anagram Day, and chose pretty much the same thing (DBRA, the Duxbury Beach Residents Association) for their neighborhood nomme de guerre.
The DBR spends a lot of money maintaining a lengthy and fragile beach road. Erosion attacks it from both sides. Many dunes have been washed away, but the bay side doesn’t have waves. Why not raise that side up?
They did that just that, finishing up in April of 2017… right after the last of the huge spring tides. They raised up 4 miles on the bay side of Duxbury Beach’s DBR section by 2 feet. Problem solved!
However, floodwater that is repelled doesn’t just go back out to the middle of the ocean, like when you send back a steak. It just follows gravity’s lead, going to wherever it meets no resistance. Once the bayside DBR beach and road was elevated, it upset a balance that had been in effect since the area became inhabited.
Duxbury Beach always floods, but the major depths are found right on the water. Once you went inland 100 yards, you weren’t in danger of being hit by a wave. The road would wash over in spots, but the true Shelby Scott stuff was on the seawall.
That wasn’t the case last January. January saw the peak of a three supermoon tide cycle, which put full moon tides of nearly 12 feet onto an area where 10 feet is worrisome. January also gave us a nor’easter, which hit during a supermoon.
That sounds ominous, and it is, but the noreaster was B- stuff. It brought a 15 inch storm surge to an area already 2 feet above normal high tides, which also sounds ominous. However, a good historic storm brings a 5-10 foot surge. This storm was something that the residents weren’t sweating much.
Big mistake. Flooding came, and not only from the ocean side. The bay side spilled over into the back end of the neighborhood, an event that happens only in Blizzard of ’78 sort of storms. The bayside flooding met the ocean flooding, and the whole neighborhood was inundated. There was nowhere to run. It was a genuinely perilous situation.
It didn’t make sense. The storm wasn’t that bad. I was on the seawall an hour before high tide, filming waves. I didn’t even get wet. If I tried standing on the wall an hour before high tide during the Blizzard of ’78, I’d be posting this from Hell (assuming that suicide, which is what going out onto the seawall during that Blizzard was, is a mortal sin worthy of the soul’s eternal banishment). The storm did almost no structural damage at all, at least on the coastline. How did this weak storm do so much damage to the interior of the neighborhood?
Oh yeah… those DBR beach renovations. The supermoon tide cycle storm was the first major test of those renovations (summer tides were low, no hurricanes got to Duxbury and we had no full-moon noreasters in the fall), and the results were disastrous.
“I have owned this house for 65 years, and it never had water in it before this January,” said one resident. She will most likely be the next angry phone call that the Duxbury Conservation Commission gets, if you want to wager a little wampum on the affairs of the town.
“65 years,” to a storm geek, means that she got no flooding in the house from Hurricane Carol, Hurricane Donna, Hurricane Belle, the Blizzard of ’78, Hurricane Gloria, Hurricane Bob, the Halloween Gale/Perfect Storm, the April Fools blizzard and the blizzards/nor’easters of 2007, 2013 and 2015.
I was in the neighborhood for each storm after Belle, and houses were being torn in half by the surf in 1978 and 1991. Those storms didn’t soak the inside of this lady’s house. Instead, the honor went to a weak nor’easter riding a supermoon tide last month.
No global warming denial will happen in this column. It isn’t hard to find pictures of Duxbury Beach taken from planes over the years, for the purpose of seeing the sea work against the shore. However, that is a slow, gradual process… not the Great Leap Forward that we saw with the supermoon.
The one new exponent in the equation is the DBR work. OJ didn’t look as guilty as they do right now.
There are 3 supermoons a year, meaning that they are 25% of all full moons. This could get old, fast. The balance was razor thin before the DBR work sent a bunch of floodwater looking for a new home.
The DBRA will most likely organize a legal response, and it’s time to think of what they might ask for from a judge. Every option looks expensive.
They could wall off the whole DBRA neighborhood’s marsh side, making the neighborhood look like what happened to East Berlin or what Trump has in mind for Mexico. That will just flood a different neighborhood, hopefully (for the DBR, anyhow) one without a neighborhood association.
They could dump a town’s worth of dirt under the houses and raise the whole land mass up by 3 feet… oh wait, no they can’t.
Duxbury could unincorporate the DBRA neighborhood and let the sea eat it. This will eventually erode the barrier beach, meaning that the big money folks on Powder Point inherit the flood problems that Gurnet Road now has.
My financial advisor, who admittedly was in prison at the time, told me that any of these options will cost “a zillion” dollars. “The wall will cost the least amount of zillions.”
The DBR looks to go to great lengths to avoid paying that kind of money, so let’s get ready for a legal battle!
The DBRA may look overly needy in this battle, as they are just a few years removed from a battle with the town over funding for costly seawall repairs (the DBRA won). Now, they’ll be after an even larger body of work.
However, the DBR looks a lot like the rich people you see when you read about the Johnstown Flood. That flood was the event with the largest loss of life in the northeastern US between the Battle of Gettysburg and the September 11th attacks.
In both Johnstown and Duxbury, rich people altered the natural landscape for recreational purposes. Those alterations led to flooding downstream. Johnstown lost 2200 people, and Duxbury Beach couldn’t generate that death toll unless each howeowner was having a party when the flood hit.
In both cases, wanton alterations were made to the natural landscape without at least one critical environmental impact study being conducted.
Any lawsuits coming will be over flooded houses, not deaths. Deaths aren’t out of the possible range of results, though. People who thought they were safe further back from the ocean may not have the right escape plan, and there would be nowhere to run.
Thanks to Daniel Rollins, Danielle Cheverie Mann, Sara Flynn and Libby Carr for the photos.