CHATHAM — During a recent coastal storm, Chatham fire officials stopped in the Little Beach neighborhood to monitor the rising water at high tide. A bystander asked what they were doing, and when they explained, the man looked puzzled; he had just bought a home nearby. “It was a steal,” he said, pointing out the property with a smile. But do the flood waters ever reach his place?
With a little discomfort, Chief Peter Connick told the man that a storm surge last year had surrounded his property, and that a rescue boat was needed to evacuate one person stranded by the rising water.
Since the storms of 2018, Little Beach is a changed place, as evidenced by the strategically positioned sand bags and storm barriers, the conversations that take place over neighbors’ fences, and the “for sale” signs on several of the most vulnerable properties. And now, a plan that would help reduce the flooding risk seems to have been sidelined indefinitely.
2018: A Season For The Books
In early January and again in March, coastal storms battered the shoreline and sent seawater flooding into the neighborhood. The high water was more reminiscent of a hurricane’s storm surge than the kind of coastal flooding that usually accompanies nor’easters.
“It gives you a greater appreciation for mother nature,” said Little Beach resident Jeff Dill, who was at home with his wife Lindsay when the surge came in. Water surrounded their home on three sides, and they watched as the surge crept up the flagstones of their back walkway, which faces Outermost Harbor. “I said, when it gets to the fourth bluestone, we’re gone,” he said. “Our exit strategies were to go by kayak.”
At one point, Dill heard sounds like gunshots coming from the harbor; he later learned that the floating docks had risen to the top of their steel anchors, popping the bolts free. Docks that were already up in the parking lot for winter storage began floating around.
“We had seals out in the parking lot,” he said.
“We pulled people out of here,” Deputy Fire Chief David DePasquale said. Having tried and failed to get a fire truck down Seagull Road, they deployed an inflatable boat to rescue one woman from her condominium on Starfish Lane. Later, the harbormaster had to rescue a pregnant woman whose vehicle became stranded on flooded Morris Island Road. The flooding caused prolonged road closures and property damage, partly because the neighborhood’s terrain prevented the floodwaters from draining out again quickly.
“This is, and always has been, a low-lying part of the Chatham mainland community,” Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon said. The southward migration of the harbor inlet opened a gate for storm surges and waves to reach the shore of Little Beach, and according to a flood pathways study done by the Center for Coastal Studies in August 2018, the water rose up over a berm at the seaward end of Starfish Lane, traveled up and over the boat ramp at Outermost Harbor Marine, and eventually overtopped the marina’s bulkhead. The waters spilled westward through the neighborhood, with some draining into the marsh east of Morris Island Road. The water that remained had to be pumped out.
While it’s easy to understand how the flood happened, it’s much harder to imagine how to keep the floodwaters from returning.
An Ambitious Plan
Town officials made it clear from the start that they have a limited ability to make improvements that could help make Little Beach more flood-resistant, because the area is almost entirely private property. With the exception of Morris Island Road, which mostly skirts the neighborhood to the north and west, even the roads are privately owned.
In response to the flooding, residents created the Little Beach Association and invited residents of Morris Island and Stage Island to join. While those areas were not flooded in last year’s storms, floodwaters cut off access for some time. Dill volunteered to serve as the association’s president, in part because he is one of the few year-round residents who remain in the neighborhood during the winter.
The association hired the Sandwich-based environmental consulting firm Horsley Witten Group to draft a cost-benefit analysis of certain flood mitigation efforts. The result was a plan to block the most likely flood paths along a 2,755-foot stretch of shoreline between Edgewater Drive and Windmill Lane using stabilized dunes, a small section of seawall and improvements at the marina. Together, the package of work would raise the barrier to a level of nine feet above high water, about three-and-a-half-feet higher than the current low spots. While it would not safeguard the neighborhood from the largest storms, “the project will protect Little Beach and Morris Island Roads from coastal storms of the type that occurred during the early 2018 year,” the plan reads.
“If you want to protect this area from a 100-year storm, you’ve got a very substantial structure,” Keon said. This plan would be expected to prevent flooding from a 50-year storm, one which has a one-in-50 chance of happening on any given year.
Raising and stabilizing dunes to the north of Outermost Harbor is a fairly straightforward prospect, and the land south of the harbor would need higher dunes and a higher seawall at a property at the end of Edgewater Drive.
“It’s obvious to everybody that the marina is a challenge,” Keon said. The plan calls for the marina bulkheads to be shored up at the base and raised using timber planks. There would be some kind of removable gate at the top of the boat ramp, and one-way flapper valves to prevent rising waters from flooding the parking lot through storm drains.
The Cost Of Prevention
The initial cost estimate for the project is $2,468,982. Acting on behalf of the Little Beach Association, the town applied for a $1 million flood hazard mitigation grant from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, and it was anticipated that Chatham taxpayers would be asked to appropriate about $500,000, with the Little Beach Association funding the remainder, Keon said.
The association has already begun raising funds, and the prime concern a few weeks ago was whether, if the grant were approved, Chatham voters would be willing to contribute a half-million dollars for the project. It seemed likely that some property owners in other parts of town might be hesitant to contribute tax dollars to prevent flooding in a mostly private neighborhood, but town officials made the case that there would be substantial public benefit in doing so.
The town has a public safety responsibility to rescue people who become stranded, and needs to maintain access to Morris and Stage Islands via public roads, they argued. But Dill said there’s another compelling reason for the town to contribute: it protects the value of around 185 private parcels on Little Beach and Morris and Stage Islands that contribute greatly to Chatham’s tax base. If the value of those houses drop by 15 percent or more, “you can do the math in your head,” he said.
Still, with the town facing a full menu of other capital projects, public support for a Little Beach flood protection plan was far from assured.
Now, those concerns appear to be moot. On Oct. 2, the town received notification that MEMA had put the $1 million grant application on a wait list.
“While we cannot guarantee funding for waitlist projects, if another project(s) is removed from consideration, withdrawn, or determined by FEMA to be ineligible, your application may be reviewed by FEMA for funding consideration,” the notice read.
Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said he’s not sure whether the application is effectively rejected, but he’s not optimistic.
“At this point in the process, there’s really no way to know,” he said. A conference call last week did not provide much new information. Assuming that the grant is ultimately rejected, what becomes of the Little Beach plan?
“I have no idea,” Duncanson said.
Anticipating The Next Storm
Until a new plan is devised, Little Beach property owners have little to do except watch the weather forecast. About nine homeowners in the neighborhood have obtained permits to raise their structures to a minimum elevation of 14 feet, and some have installed small barriers around their homes. Outermost Harbor Marine has installed an innovative “muscle wall,” a water-filled temporary flood wall, around its building to protect it from high tides during the fall and winter.
The town worked with the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project to improve drainage in the marsh near the intersection of Little Beach Road and Morris Island Road, which should allow flood waters to recede more quickly. The Chatham DPW also installed particularly deep storm drains near that intersection, so that if the area floods in the future, pumps will be more effective at removing the water.
Another key improvement is visible at the end of Starfish Lane, where property owners arranged to have a dune raised and planted with beach grass. The grass flourished during the summer and the dune has grown markedly, providing additional protection to that area. Large sand bags are also in place near the northern end of that dune.
Thanks in part to dredging done by Outermost Harbor Marine, a small barrier beach that runs south from Lighthouse Beach to Little Beach was raised several feet and provides limited protection from ocean waves.
“That’s a good thing. But sooner or later, that goes under water,” Keon said. The main danger to Little Beach is from rising water, not wave action, he said.
The town now has a high-water rescue vehicle, a two-and-a-half-ton former military transport truck capable of driving through more than three feet of standing water. Fire Chief Connick said that tool is an important one, but it doesn’t solve Little Beach’s problems.
“If there were a way to make this neighborhood less flood-prone,” that would be preferable, Connick said. The town has been resourceful using trucks and boats to reach those who become stranded, and has forged a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide support on Morris Island during an emergency. But when water rises to a certain level, “there’s a point where we’re not going to be able to get to you,” he said.
For his part, Dill said he enjoys life on Little Beach and has friendly relationships with many of his neighbors, including the owners of Outermost Harbor Marine. He’s thankful for the help the town has provided as well.
“Bob and Ted and [Town Manager] Jill [Goldsmith] have been very supportive,” Dill said. But until a flood protection project is funded and built, “there’s really not a lot we can do.”