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In Superstorm's wake: Erosion and questions on government-funded sand

Hurricane Sandy caused major erosion along the New Jersey coastline, slimming beaches significantly. Some question the wisdom of using federal funding to build up beaches that just get washed away.

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How big the beaches are — or whether there is a beach at all to go to — is a crucial question that must be resolved well before the tourist season starts next Memorial Day. The Jersey shore is the economic engine that powers the state's $35.5 billion tourism industry.

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Jogging in the street because Sandy had destroyed the Spring Lake boardwalk for the second time in little over a year, Michele Degnan-Spang said it was difficult to comprehend how things have changed in her community.

A few stray planks of the synthetic gray boardwalk that was just replaced last year at great expense after Hurricane Irene were strewn about the sand; concrete pilings that used to support the boardwalk now stretch for a mile off to the horizon like little Stonehenges.

"It's horrible," she said. "It's draining to see this. It's surreal. I'm walking through it and saying, 'This really is happening.'"

The day after Sandy hit the last week in October, shore towns sprang into action, hastily reassembling dunes that were diminished or washed away. Using heavy machinery, they pushed sand into large piles up against beachfront homes and businesses as a potentially destructive nor'easter approached a week later. Those temporary measures largely worked.

But the work continues. Sea Bright, the state's narrowest barrier island, was decimated by Sandy, pummeled by waves from the ocean and flooding from the Shrewsbury River.

Sea Bright, Bradley Beach, Ocean Grove and other towns have pushed huge piles of sand into the center of their beaches, to be spread around and used to shore up gaps the storm exposed. Others have pushed it into makeshift cliffs at the edge of damaged homes.

Sea Bright and neighboring Monmouth Beach lost a combined total of a half-million cubic yards of beach sand, according to Jon Miller, a professor of ocean engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. That would be enough to cover the field at MetLife Stadium — where the New York Jets and Giants play — with a pile that would extend 100 feet past the top of the arena, he said.

Not all the sand is lost forever. At least some of it accrues and builds up around other beaches, actually widening them — a concept built in to replenishment projects, which include "feeder beaches" designed to erode and nourish other parts of the shoreline.

Degnan-Spang predicted she and her extended family would be back on the sand soon.

"The drive is going to be to get back on the beach next summer, no matter what it looks like," she said. "We don't go on vacation because we live in the most beautiful spot in the world. We all go to the beach; it's what summer is. It'll come back; it'll just be different."

Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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