The Nor’easter Sparks a Berm Boom

Threatened coastal towns in New Jersey race to build sand walls as another storm looms

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John Moore / Getty Images

The Sea Bright Beach Club stands in ruins in Sea Bright, N.J., Nov. 6, 2012.

Calamities don’t arrive on schedule, but for a punch-drunk New Jersey, still struggling to get back on its feet after the assault by Superstorm Sandy, the next big blow could be timed to the minute: 1:20 PM on Wednesday afternoon. That’s when the first high tide that will coincide with the fast-approaching nor’easter will clobber the coastline. That could be very bad news for communities that already lost miles of beach, dunes and berms to Sandy. Flooding can be bad enough when those natural barriers are in place, but once you strip them off, even moderately high waves can be devastating.

(PHOTOSThe Toil After the Storm: Life in Sandy’s Wake)

“The beaches took extensive damage during Sandy,” says meteorologist Mitchell Gaines of the National Weather Service’s Mt. Holly, NJ, office. “Because of that, some of our coastal sections may be fairly compromised.”

(More: Manhattan Goes Dutch: Guarding Gotham With Levees)

Fairly compromised is a measured way to put it. But the televised scenes of inundated coastal homes fronted by just a ribbon of surviving beach, while five foot sand drifts filled the streets behind them illustrate just what a devastating job of terraforming Sandy did last week. Even as the rest of the nation turned its attention to the drama of yesterday’s presidential election, the approaching nor’easter sent towns like Point Pleasant, Brigantine Beach, Margate City and Long Port scrambling to build temporary berms, bulldozing the displaced sand  back onto the beach, where it can provide at least a speed bump against the incoming waves.

The new storm won’t be a Sandy, but it’s more than able to deliver a world of hurt.  Meteorologists expect it to bring sustained winds of up to 40 mph (65 k/h),  gusts of 65 mph (105 k/h), and waves that could be 8 ft. above normal. Those will be lower than last week’s peak tides, but with less beach to protect the towns, they could do almost as much damage. Beaches are supposed to take a hit during winter storm season. Natural coastal defenses usually establish a sort of double line of protection: berms sit closer to the water, built up by sand carried in with each tide. Dunes sit behind them, the result of both tidal deposition and wind. Dunes are less fragile, not just because they’re higher and slightly more inland, but because they stick around long enough for vegetation to take root in them, reinforcing them like rebar in construction concrete.

(More: Sandy: What a Coastal U.S. Can learn From Other Storm-Threatened Cities)

Neither of those seawalls withstood the ravages of Sandy, and the emergency berms being built along the coast won’t last very long in the face of the nor’easter either. But they should be just enough. “Right after Sandy, the state Department of Environmental Protection tested the sand [in the streets] to determine if it was fouled with fuel or other contaminants,” says Linda Gilmore, spokeswoman for Atlantic County’s Office of Emergency Management. “We were very fortunate that it was clean and could be put right back on the beaches.” And back to the beaches it’s going, with one hurried berm in Point Pleasant stretching a mile from end to end.

With a few meteorological breaks, New Jersey will make it through the week with its flickering power grid still working and its sodden towns only a little more storm-tossed. But after the latest emergency has passed, the Jersey shore and the coastal communities all over the U.S. will have to do some long-term planning for the large-scale changes that are inevitably coming as the world warms and sea levels rise. Climate change and the storms it causes can be slowly reversed over time, but for now we’ll have to develop a lot of new ways to adapt — and fast. Like it or not, there are more Sandys coming.

(More: McKibben on Sandy: The World’s Greenest Author Talks to TIME)