Nantucket Beach Erosion | A Disappearing Island
On a Friday in mid-October, Eugene Ratner takes stock of the churning sea in front of his home in Nantucket’s Madaket region, on the island’s southwestern shore. “This is bad,” he says.
High, white-rimmed swells break and slam a few feet from where he’s standing, sending up a salty spray. “This is what you see in winter.”
Soon Ratner will close up his house before heading to Arizona. He walks a path between his driveway and the ocean side of his property. Ratner, who is 82, speaks in a deep baritone, his face framed by his big square glasses. He can’t keep his eyes off the water. “This is really bad,” he says.
Bad, but not surprising — not on this island, just 25 miles off Cape Cod and exposed to the ocean’s forces. Ratner knows that as well as anyone. He started summering here regularly in 1975, when he and his wife, Roslyn, built this house, a large five-bedroom saltbox with an expansive view of the sea. There were few neighbors back then, and a lot more beach.
Today, his home survives defiantly in an area where the erosion rate currently averages 12 feet a year, the highest rate in Massachusetts and maybe in the Northeast. The evidence of that is everywhere: in nearby lots whose homes have been moved or lost to the sea, in the abandoned section of road that continues on past Ratner’s property before disappearing into the sand, in a forgotten concrete sewage tank that sits smack in the middle of the beach. Ratner estimates he’s sunk $500,000 into saving his home, armoring the front and sides with enormous geotextile bags filled with sand — hundreds of them, weighing many tons apiece, forming a wall that runs 45 feet deep, 20 feet of which is visible above the water surface, dividing building from ocean.
“We’re trying to build the Hoover Dam,” Ratner jokes.
Still the ocean comes. Maybe 20 feet separates the building’s foundation from the outer edge of the bags. Temporary walls of plywood and pressure-treated posts protect the driveway and plants from sand drift. Ratner’s place looks more like a fortress than a dam.
When he first noticed he was losing land, in the early 1990s, he wasn’t alarmed; 100 feet of grass, 30 feet of dune, and another 30 feet of beach separated his house from the sea. But shifting shoals and storms gnawed away at all that protection. Having already lost a deck to the surging ocean, Ratner began dropping the first set of bags in front of his house in 1995. “My wife used to complain that we couldn’t see the water from our first-floor bedroom,” Ratner says. ” ‘Why did you build the house so far back?’ she’d ask me. Well, it’s a good thing we did, or we’d have lost it by now.”
It’s an old story. Land and homes have been lost to the sea for generations on Nantucket, a 48-square-mile patch of sandy earth, deposited by a glacier, that became an island when the ice melted and the seas rose around it more than 10,000 years ago. It’s why native islanders have often shied away from the coast when building their homes, or placed them on movable skids if they built near the sea. “Erosion is just something we live with,” says one islander. “You gotta realize that sooner or later the water is going to come visiting.”
But that’s not something that Ratner and other wealthy summer residents who have scooped up valuable, but vulnerable, waterfront property over the years are prepared to concede. That battle with nature — a confidence in the belief that determination, technology, and money can restrain the elements — is an old story, too. As is the outcome. In recent years, millions of dollars on this island have washed out to sea.
The relationship between homeowners like Ratner and town officials out here hasn’t been easy. Nantucket has some of the most restrictive building codes on the East Coast. Hard structures, like seawalls, which line much of the Cape, have largely been banned since 1983. On the south shore, the Conservation Commission has kept a tight leash on homeowners like Ratner whose ideas for saving their houses have consisted of anything other than finding new locations. “There’s no love lost,” Ratner admits. He sued island officials when they denied him permission to use an even larger sand-saving technology called Geotubes.
“[These bags] aren’t a cost-effective method of erosion control,” he admits, standing in his driveway. Nearby, his handyman is nailing sheets of geotextile fabric on a wall of plywood in front of a garden of hydrangeas.
“But there’s nobody with a view like what I have here. In the summertime it’s unbelievable,” he adds. “The house is up — what are you going to do, just walk away and let it go into the ocean?
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