The Mast-Head: Brief Beach Life

Living on the far east reaches of an eroding island

   Life on the beach is a temporary proposition. This I learned from my father, who was old enough in 1938 to remember the hurricane that ripped across Long Island and became the one by which all others here are measured.
    That storm and the devastation it brought were fresh enough in his mind in the early 1960s, when he and my mother had a 480-square-foot Cape Cod cottage moved from near Three Mile Harbor to Cranberry Hole Road, put it on a foundation, and doubled it in size. According to family lore, my father checked with old-timers about where surging waters had reached in 1938, and then placed the small house about as far back on the rectangular acre lot as possible.
    I grew up in that house and it is now the one in which my wife, Lisa, and I are raising our three children. Over the years, I’ve measured the distance from the road to the top of the dune and concluded, with the help of old surveys, that we have lost roughly a foot of beach a year since the 1970s.
    Then came Dec. 26-27, 2010, when 12 feet of dune was clawed away in a 36-hour period. By comparison, Hurricane Sandy was a piker, only removing about a foot of dune, although the northeaster that followed a few days later peeled off another two feet.
    This is not to say that Sandy was mild. On the contrary, my friend Jameson Ellis and I went up to the dune line for a last look on the morning it arrived just as high tide was approaching. Gardiner’s Bay was an unfamiliar brown river rushing from right to left past our feet, heavy logs bowling over nearly everything in their path. Before we left, Jamey and I went back to the house and carried my collection of hand tools to an upper floor on the chance that the bay would reach the basement. It did not.
    The thing that Sandy did do, however, was make me realize that moving our house farther back toward the road and putting it up on pilings was going to be my problem, not my children’s.
    Recently, Larry Penny, who is The Star’s nature columnist, and I were having an e-mail exchange about storms when he pointed out that with one exception there has been a storm in New York State worthy of a federal disaster declaration each year since 2007. People talk a lot these days about the “new normal” in this and that; for those of us living on the far east reaches of an eroding island, bad weather is something we all are going to be taking a lot more seriously in the years to come. And sooner than we think.