Little Beach Seeks Flood Fix

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Erosion

A motorist who tried - and failed - to drive through flooded Morris Island Road on March 2 had to be rescued by firefighters. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Little Beach property owners are working with town officials on a plan designed to lessen the impacts of future floods – or even prevent them.

An association of property owners from Little Beach, Morris Island and Stage Island is working with town departments to seek grants and plan infrastructure improvements in the wake of severe flooding last winter that inundated some areas and isolated others for several days.

Speaking to selectmen Monday, Little Beach Association member John Hausner acknowledged that, because much of the flooding happened on private property and private roads, individuals will have to foot the bill for many of the improvements. But the town can help by streamlining permits for those projects, supporting grant applications, and examining ways to promote quicker draining of Morris Island Road and the nearby marshes, should another flood occur.

The flooding “that hit us was not a one-off deal,” Hausner said. As long as the area is without a continuous barrier beach to protect it from surf and storm surges, “we believe that seasonal flooding can continue to occur,” he said.

While town officials pumped out the flood waters from the first storm on Jan. 4, it did so to address a public safety risk and to allow utility crews to access the area. The cost to the town was said to be around $5,000 a day, and the operation involved pumping water into tanker trucks and driving it out of the area to be emptied. But town officials declined to pump the private roads during subsequent storms, and property owners – including Outermost Harbor Marine – paid to have the water removed. Flooding in the area caused prolonged closures of Morris Island Road, cutting off access to Morris and Stage islands.

The association represents a total of 148 properties, Hausner said. “The total value of the properties affected is $313 million,” which represents around $1.5 million in property tax revenue to the town each year. “The homeowners want to protect that value, and we would think that the town would want to protect it as well,” he said.

Hausner said the association is proposing to immediately plug four key gaps in the dunes using sand bags, trucked sand or dredged material, and to buy a high-capacity pump that will supplement the one used by Outermost Harbor Marine. They are seeking to install catch basins along Seagull Road and in a privately owned field to allow pumps to work more efficiently in the event of flooding. The association is also proposing to repair Seagull Road, which was “pretty well annihilated” by the storms.

Many of the improvements sought by the association are linked to recommendations in the town’s 2018 Chatham Hazard Mitigation Plan, Hausner said. The association is asking the town to consider carrying out a comprehensive engineering study to protect the area from flooding and to improve drainage. They specifically recommend that the town install larger catch basins along Morris Island Road just west of the intersection of Starfish Lane, and would like officials to consider replacing the tide gate near 326 Morris Island Rd. A computer-controlled tide gate there could be programmed to allow flood waters in the neighborhood to drain into Stage Harbor at low tide while closing to prevent re-flooding at high tide.

Chatham Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the tide gate hasn’t been used since Hurricane Bob, and was designed to prevent floodwaters from Stage Harbor from inundating Little Beach. If the gate had been deployed before this winter’s storms, it would have caused problems, he said. “It would act as a dam and prevent water from draining out through that marsh system,” Duncanson said.

The town has been working with neighbors since the first storm and continues to provide assistance, but there is a stark reality, Duncanson said.

“The bottom line here is, with the loss of South Beach and the Fools Day cut, this area’s now basically open to the open Atlantic,” he said. Some of last winter’s floods were caused by offshore storms that combined with high tides, creating storm surges that were not driven by winds. “It didn’t even have to be necessarily a direct hit by a nor’easter,” he said.

Plugging the holes in the dunes could be helpful, but something more substantial than sand bags or truckloads of sand could be necessary, he said. High-strength polyethylene “Durabags” might offer additional protection against waves, without having to seek a “hard solution” like a rock revetment, Duncanson said. But even successfully patching the holes in the dune won’t prevent flood waters from reaching the neighborhood through Outermost Harbor Marine.

“That, right now, is the proverbial hole in the dike,” he said. The existing bulkheads are sometimes overtopped by storm surges, and the water sometimes passes right through them or simply travels up the boat ramp, Duncanson said. Water then flows downhill into the fields near the condominiums on Seagull Road, and when those fields fill up, the water flows into the adjacent neighborhood and then up toward Morris Island Road. The town is installing two large catch basins on Morris Island Road – a town road – which will allow more efficient pumping of floodwaters. Work on this project could begin this week, Duncanson said.

Outermost Harbor Marine owner Farrell Kahn said while his business might be able to extend the existing bulkheads upward, replacing them fully would be prohibitively expensive. If federal grants are available to help with such a project, the marina would need town support with the application, he said. But Kahn warned that the problem isn’t just about Outermost Harbor. In future floods, “the causeway’s going to start being affected,” he said, referring to the spit of land south of Little Beach that connects Morris and Stage islands to the mainland.

The town has submitted a grant application to the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management program which would fund a careful study of the town’s entire east-facing coastline. If the study happens, it would yield recommendations for specific improvements to reduce flood risks. The town should know by the end of next month whether its grant application was approved. Until such a study is done, the anticipated cost to taxpayers for resulting projects remains unknown.

Kahn said he has inquired about hiring the county dredge to clear the Outermost Harbor entrance channel, but hasn’t even been able to get on the list of planned projects.

“It might be time to start looking at getting our own dredge,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens told the board. “We have a lot of sand to move around.” While the county dredge has been an excellent tool, it is in very high demand, and a promised second dredge has yet to be placed in service.

While Chatham has a lot of sand that could be used to nourish dunes, “unfortunately, where we need it is not where it’s at,” Duncanson said. And if the town had its own dredge, it would still be subject to the narrow regulatory time windows when dredging won’t harm juvenile flounder or horseshoe crabs.

“Having a dredge doesn’t just mean we can go out and dredge whatever we want, whenever we want,” he said. A dredging project planned for this fall is designed to move sand from the Morris Island Cut to south-side beaches, which are suffering from severe erosion (see related story, page 9). Morris Island resident Ralph Nixon urged selectmen to prioritize the use of that sand, saying the flooding of Little Beach caused people to be stranded, and required several people to be rescued from the high water.

“It’s nice to move sand to the south beaches, but do you need it there for public safety purposes?” Nixon asked.

Dykens agreed that the public safety concerns are real.

“It may warrant an investment that we’ve been reluctant to make in the past,” he said.

Selectmen congratulated association members for working together, and said town staff will continue to collaborate with them on short- and long-term flood control efforts.


Email Alan Pollock at alan