In the days after Sandy pummeled the Atlantic coast, Tom Reynolds had more on his hands than just downed trees and flooding in Marshfield. Reynolds, superintendent of the town’s Department of Public Works, also roamed the coastline, giving a once-over to the 2.7 miles of sea walls separating dry land from the sometimes frothing sea. He inspected cracks that may have deepened; the tops of the sea wall — called caps — that are constantly crumbling, and cosmetic patches that had been obliterated by the pounding of the ocean on Monday night.
“There are some locations where some of the cap, which was starting to crumble, had crumbled a bit more, and some spots where we had patched it have deteriorated from the pounding of the surf,” he said.
In Scituate, where US Senator Scott Brown and his opponent, Elizabeth Warren, toured the coastline after the storm, along with US Representative Stephen Lynch and state Senator Robert Hedlund, officials had heightened concerns about what Sandy had done to an already ravaged coastline.
“What we’ll do in the next couple of weeks is try to go out and walk the sea walls and see if there is any damage,” Kevin Cafferty, Scituate’s town engineer, said on Tuesday. “But it’s a daunting task when you have nine miles of sea wall and you have to walk every section. The tides were pretty high, some sand and stones could have shifted.”
So far, however, no residents had called to report problems, Cafferty said.
Early prognosis was good for Quincy as well, but officials said engineers would go out to see if any new damage had added to the $12.9 million laundry list of sea-wall fixes the city already has.
In Hull and Plymouth, sea walls stood up to the task of holding back the sea Monday night, recent repairs holding steady, officials reported.
But despite the positive reports that Sandy had mostly spared the South Shore coast, concern about area sea walls remains high.
“We need to pay attention,’’ said state Representative James Cantwell, a Democrat who represents Scituate and Marshfield. “We need to be making strategic investments and we need a long-term strategy that we’re having ocean-level rise due to climate change and that we’re having more ferocious storms also due to climate change. We need to be preparing now.”
One cause for concern is aging infrastructure. According to a 2009 statewide study of all public infrastructure along 1,730 miles of the Massachusetts coastline, almost 80 percent of coastal structures have outlived their 50-year lifespan. Furthermore, this infrastructure has gone unrepaired — 85 percent of public infrastructure had no major repairs from 1958 to 2009, the study said.
The age and lack of attention has caused some walls to deteriorate, with 8 percent, or 193 seawalls, falling into the “D” or “F” category for condition, with “A” being the best condition, and “F” the worst.
Based on 2006 figures, officials estimated it would cost $31.5 million a year for 20 years to make high-priority fixes. And fixing all problems could run into the billions of dollars.
Even more troubling is that the condition of some walls may be worse than analyzed.
“The problem is many of the walls appear to be in good shape and in fact might not be, you have to bore into them before you find out what’s inside,” said Scituate Selectman Joseph Norton. “The wall down near Turner Road — the one on Oceanside that breached two years ago — that was in our surveys [as] not a bad wall.”
Additionally, with other intensive storms in the last few years — the December 2010 Nor’easter that devastated parts of Marshfield and Scituate, and Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 — the frequency of these more intensive systems has some wondering if storms like Sandy are the new norm.
Brenda Ekwurzel, a Washington-based climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research and advocacy group, said there are strong links between extreme coastal events — such as coastal flooding and intense precipitation — and climate change.
Although there is limited evidence that climate change contributes to the frequency of hurricanes, certain factors can influence hurricanes that do occur, she said. In a storm like Sandy, she said, warmer ocean waters “provide fuel” and make the storm more powerful.
To make matters worse, storms are riding in on higher sea levels, Ekwurzel said. A US Geological Survey study, published earlier this year in Nature Climate Change, suggests that sea level is anticipated to rise roughly two to three feet or more by the end of the century. Additionally, that rise will occur three to four times faster along portions of the Atlantic Coast.Continued...