NEWBURY — Like a life-sized doll house, the home at 31 Annapolis Way is missing a wall and floor, lost to pounding surf, as yet another storm ravaged the Massachusetts coast, endangering more beachfront homes on Plum Island.
“This used to be a bedroom,” said Stephen Breshnahan of Newburyport, waving an arm across the back of his mother-in-law’s house as he stood in pelting, freezing snow and rain during high tide on Monday.
The first major snowstorm in nearly two years turned parts of coastal communities north of Boston upside down. Fierce flooding heavily damaged sea walls and roads on Cape Ann. Oceanfront homes were destroyed in Gloucester, Rockport, and Salisbury. High tide turned Winthrop streets into 3-foot-high rivers. The cost of public and private damage is still being tallied, officials said.
Still, from Winthrop to Salisbury, where humble cottages and lavish homes share million-dollar views of the Atlantic, the devastation raises new questions about the viability of living by the sea. Six homes on Plum Island were deemed unsafe to occupy because of severe beach erosion.
“The dunes eroded right up to the foundations of these homes, “ said Tracy Blais, town administrator in Newbury. “It’s really up to the homeowners to decide what to do next. We will stand behind them, whatever they decide.”
New building on Plum Island is limited to 24 lots permitted for water and sewer as part of an agreement the town signed with the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2003, Blais said.
Breshnahan said his mother-in-law, who has owned her home since 1968, does not know what to do.
“She’s very upset about it, very worried. She doesn’t have the money to fix this. We’re depending upon flood insurance, which is what it’s for,” he said.
Salisbury residents who lost their homes are still in shock, but they say they plan to return to the beach they love.
“It picked us up like rag dolls,” Ed Bemis, 66, said of a wave that tore through a condo he was renting on Salisbury Beach.
He and his wife, Nancy, 62, hope to return to their home this week, and stay until their lease is up in May. “We’re crazy, but we love the ocean,” Bemis said.
Jackie Guilmette, whose duplex on North End Boulevard was destroyed by a rogue wave, said she plans to rebuild her home with insurance coverage.
“We wouldn’t live anywhere else,” said Guilmette, who is temporarily staying with her mother, who also lives on the beach. “Storms are part of living on the ocean. You live on the edge.”
The storm dumped more than 2 feet of snow on most of the region and heavily damaged coastal roads and sea walls. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency is working with communities to help tally costs, but it is too soon to estimate damage, according to Peter Judge, the agency’s spokesman.
“We’re not even close to knowing what the estimates will be,” Judge said Tuesday.
The state agency sent investigators to examine damage in Newbury, Rockport, and Salisbury. The amount of public and private damage will determine if the state, or individual counties, may qualify for federal disaster relief funds, Judge said.
The storm also tore into local snow-removal budgets. Newbury, for example, had $37,000 earmarked when the storm struck. The town spent that plus an additional $55,000 to remove snow and pay overtime costs for police and fire, Blais said.
In Winthrop, where firefighters pumped out about 15 homes, flooded with as much as 10 feet of water in the basement, Fire Chief Paul Flanagan estimated the weekend storm cost the town $250,000, adding that the money in the town’s snow and ice budget has been spent.
Rockport selectmen authorized deficit spending in the snow removal account to cope with the storm. Shops and restaurants on Bearskin Neck, a popular summer tourist area, were damaged. Six or seven homes along Penzance Way, which runs along the shore, were destroyed or heavily damaged, said Rockport Police Lieutenant Mike Schmink.
“I don’t think we’ll know for a year how much the damage is,” said Schmink, the town’s emergency management director. “This storm was catastrophic to some of these homes, and a lot of our public infrastructure.”
In Gloucester, a sea wall in Lane’s Cove, already damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October, sustained more damage.
But the coastal flooding struck hardest near Good Harbor Beach, where a foot bridge was damaged and at least one home on Salt Island Road was destroyed by waves that reached the second floor.
“During a storm, Gloucester is just like every other community,” said Police Chief Leonard Campanello, the city’s spokesman during the storm. “Except we have an ocean beside us.”