Generations Connected to the Sea, Washed Away by Sandy

Aerial photo of Mantoloking, New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS. Used under a Creative Commons license.

This is a guest post from Pam Weiant. Pam is a marine scientist with Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara. She is founder of a Strategic Environmental Planning (StEP), a consulting company that focuses on natural resource planning and management, and works as a watershed specialist for Malama Maunalua, a community non-profit organization in Hawaii. Previously, she advised the marine program of The Nature Conservancy in Hawaii.

The sea soaked and the winds pounded our family home on the Jersey Shore for hours and hours on October 29, just as numerous hurricanes and Nor’easter storms had for decades. But Hurricane Sandy was different. At some point, under the cloak of darkness that night, Sandy’s punishing power brought our house down.

The neighbors’ homes on both sides of ours in Mantoloking are scarred but still standing. Where our house once stood and hosted five generations of our family, there is now only sand and debris. Everything is gone, including the giant antique stove where my grandmother used to prepare the catch of the day.

The house in Mantoloking was a constant part of my childhood, and I’m still finding it hard to believe we won’t be returning. The town, about one-mile long and four blocks wide, is situated on a barrier island with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Barnegat Bay to the west.

I attribute my decision to become a marine scientist to my childhood years spent in Mantoloking. Through my work, I have spent time studying in many coastal areas such as the Gulf of California, Coral Sea, Southeastern Atlantic Ocean, Eastern Pacific Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean.  Yet, in my mind, no place compares with the Jersey Shore.

It was a welcome respite from the “real” world of the city, offering time to reconnect with cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Feet and bikes were the main mode of transportation, and entertainment came in the form of crabbing in Barnegat Bay, trips to Meullers bakery and swimming in the ocean. And many years later, it’s brought me such joy to share the house with my own children — now 8 and 5 — whose smiles are never bigger than upon arrival at “The Aquarium,” our nickname for the home.

Even with the house gone, I feel that the sea and the shore are deeply a part of me. Perhaps it is the expansive beaches that are unobstructed for miles, or the perfect sand that is not too fine and not too coarse, or the glow of the light at sunrise and sunset, or the miles and miles of Atlantic Ocean.  Every day the ocean is different: One day, low tides with a huge sandbar ideal for body surfing; another day, rough waters excellent for drifting with the current; or, perfect conditions with gentle, rolling waves.  Every day brought new surprises: Whales breaching, pods of dolphins, schools of skates, runs of fish, and mysterious fins.

With the exception of new windows and a fresh coat of paint, our house remained pretty much the same as when my great-grandfather bought it decades ago.  As such, it was full of memorabilia from a previous era. My grandfather’s taxidermied collection of prize fish decorated the walls on the first floor, and prints of fishermen and shore birds lined the upstairs hall and bedroom walls, all a testament to a time when larger fish could be caught from our ocean.

The house’s lifetime witnessed other changes. Parts of Barnegat Bay were dredged and filled or armored for houses, and East Avenue became developed with more and bigger houses, leaving less open space and less natural habitat. Mantoloking did its best to keep the natural charm of high dunes and seagrass as the main strategy to protect the houses. But this was too much of a storm.

As scientists learn more about how climate change may have made Hurricane Sandy’s impacts worse, I hope we will take heed of the advice they offer to minimize the chance that a storm of this magnitude will wreak havoc like this again. I hope officials up and down the coast will plan for better coastal protection together, so there can be a coordinated effort to strengthen our coast’s natural defenses to protect natural resources and livelihoods.

It is tragic what has been lost. My heart goes out to the other victims of the storm who have experienced even greater losses.

2 comments
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