By CAMRYN RABIDEAU/ecoRI News contributor
NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — It seemed as though half of Narragansett Town Beach was spread across Boston Neck Road in the days following Hurricane Sandy. Sand was piled high in the parking lots and across both lanes of traffic.
When the skies cleared after that storm, local residents gathered along the seawall to survey the damage. The sidewalks between the gutted Coast Guard House and the town beach resembled a parade route, crowded with people taking pictures and watching workers clear the streets.
Narragansett Beach, a popular destination for surfers and sunbathers, was hit hard by the Oct. 30, 2012 storm. The town began work right away to make sure the 19-acre beach was primed for the busy 2013 summer season. For the Fourth of July holiday week, the beach was expected to host up to 10,000 daily visitors for a sandcastle building contest, live music and a fireworks show.
“We started work the day after the storm to repair Boston Neck Road,” said Steve Wright, director of the Narragansett Parks and Recreation Department. The first task was to clear the sand and debris from the road.
In addition to dumping sand into the road and parking lots, Sandy inflicted substantial damage to the beach and on its structures. The storm caused major beach erosion and leveled dunes. The storm surge destroyed the south parking lot, burying it under sand. Pavement was cracked and displaced.
Fortunately, the buildings on Narragansett Beach are elevated and avoided flooding. But they still sustained damage. According to Wright, 24 of the cabanas were lifted from their foundations and torn in half. The remaining buildings had plumbing damage caused by flying debris. Staircases and fences were ruined.
Gina Raheb, owner of Natural Fitness yoga studio on Narragansett Avenue, said Sandy was the worst storm she’s seen since her business opened in 2002. “Sandy was really bad for this area," she said.
Raheb had never seen a storm wipe out the park benches and garages across the street from the seawall. Her studio offers beach yoga classes from Memorial Day to Labor Day, so she relies on the beach being in good shape. “The town was great,” she said about the reconstruction process. “They were right on top of everything.”
The rebuilding continued through the winter and spring. Aid came from the Rhode Island Interlocal Management Trust, the National Flood Insurance Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Environmental Management, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Coastal Resources Management Council.
During the winter, the town secured emergency permits to rebuild. As soon as the weather improved, the dunes were reconstructed and fenced off. The town put up new signs, rebuilt the parking lots and fixed the cabanas.
The DOT placed large stones in front of the seawall on Ocean Road to help protect it from future storm surge. The town bought 5,200 cubic yards of sand from Charlestown to replenish the beach. Local officials worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor piping plovers during the reconstruction efforts. The sand was replaced during the piping plovers' hatching season, so necessary precautions were taken to ensure the construction didn't interfere with the endangered species’ mating.
David Prescott, coastkeeper for Save The Bay, said importing sand and rebuilding dunes are essential for the health of the beach ecosystem and for sustaining tourism. Dunes take decades to compact and rebuild properly. Dune grass also needs years to develop a strong root system. As a surfer, he’s seen the beach gradually narrow from erosion over the years. Bringing in sand is part of an ongoing struggle with nature.
“It’s a Band-Aid approach, but at least it is protecting some of the environment and shoreline there,” Prescott said.
According to Wright, rebuilding efforts can cost more than $1 million. The town paid $300,000. Some expenses, such as installing fencing and staircases, were covered by insurance. Plumbing repairs were paid by the National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA covered 75 percent of the remaining costs.
The town is conscious of the threat of another natural disaster.
“It’s a fine balance between what you do (to prepare) now and what you do in the future,” Wright said.
During the rebuilding process, for example, the town bought sturdier building materials to better withstand harsher weather.
Wright said he has received a lot of positive feedback from people since the beach opened. “People are amazed at how the beach looks now compared to how it was in October,” he said.