Sandy takes a bite out of Martha’s Vineyard

The stiff easterly wind pounded the beach and the Black Dog dock. — Photo by Adrianne Ryan

In the history of Martha’s Vineyard’s enduring dance with the elements, as storms go Hurricane Sandy will likely prove not particularly notable. Trees and branches fell, roads flooded, power flickered or went out for varying amounts of time, ferries stopped and wind-driven waves riding atop storm surge scoured the Island shoreline, dramatically in spots along the south shore.

None of it was unusual or unexpected for Islanders used to winter storms reshaping beaches, or even catastrophic — except perhaps for lovers of Lucy Vincent Beach, now a flat shoreline of pitted clay and stones.

For the most part Monday, Islanders hunkered down to wait out the storm. Some went sightseeing and a few waxed surfboards in anticipation of manageable big waves. There was little rest or play for emergency responders and highway crews who did their best to attend to blocked roads and calls for assistance throughout the day and night.

Martha’s Vineyard dodged nature’s deadliest fury. Had Sandy deviated from a path that meteorologists acknowledged was unusual — a slow jog parallel to the Eastern Seaboard, followed by a sharp turn west over New Jersey — the effects could have been far more severe.

Even hundreds of miles distant and weak by hurricane standards, a category one storm with sustained winds of between 77 and 95 miles per hour, Sandy was powerful enough to remind Island residents that living at sea brings risks, as well as rewards.

Shifting sands

Island beaches bore the brunt of the storm. On Chappaquiddick, waves tore at the underpinnings of Wasque bluffs, further threatening the Schifter house, which overlooks an ever-eroding sand cliff now approximately 60 feet away.

Last week, work crews began the latest effort to protect the house, using sand from the bluff to fill massive coir fiber envelopes, 3 feet in diameter and 20 feet long. Engineer George Sourati of Sourati Engineering group told The Times Wednesday that the plan was to build a terrace wall of the envelopes at the base of the cliff. Unfortunately, he said, Sandy struck before the work could be completed around the bluff.

Where the bags were in place, erosion claimed less than 14 feet of the cliff. On the unprotected ends the sea took as much as 47 feet. Mr. Sourati said the waves and surge were too much. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have another ten days to do what we wanted,” he said.

“We are regrouping,” Mr. Sourati said Wednesday afternoon. “There is a coastal geologist at the site today doing an assessment. We will be making decisions later on this evening and tomorrow morning about how to proceed. There are so many pieces to this.”

Moving the house is one option being considered, he said.

Not far away from Wasque, Norton Point Beach was flattened. Dunes and sea grass were simply washed away.

In an email update Tuesday morning, Chris Kennedy, The Trustees of Reservation (TTOR) Island property superintendent, said erosion had claimed 24 feet at the trail end at the Fishermen’s lot at Wasque and 12 to15 feet on the southwest corner of Wasque.

“The half mile on the eastern end of Norton Point is currently under water. Not sure if it’ll still be a beach or just a sandbar, but it will eventually come back,” he said.

Mr. Kennedy said he hoped to reopen over-sand vehicle trails on Leland Beach by the end of the week, followed by Cape Poge. “Norton Point is anyone’s guess. At best we might be able to get a mile open by Sunday,” he said.

Mr. Kennedy said reopening the rest of Norton Point would depend on how quickly TTOR could replace beach fencing and signs along the now barren barrier beach.

Long Point in West Tisbury also received a pounding with heavy wash-over into Long Cove Pond, Mr. Kennedy said. Long Point is not expected to reopen until some time late this week or early next week, he said.

The waves resculpted the cliffs and dunes at Lucy Vincent Beach in Chilmark. Tim Carroll, Chilmark executive secretary, said the effect was dramatic. “We lost almost a half mile of barrier beach and had three openings in Chilmark Pond, and Quansoo looks flat at the moment,” Mr. Carroll said. “Both ends of Lucy Vincent got flattened.”

Beach superintendent Martina Mastromonaco said she could not believe the transformation. “It’s beyond words how sad it is,” she said.

Menemsha Harbor experienced extremely high tides. Water was up to the corner of the Home Port restaurant but there was little or no damage. “Everything held,” Mr. Carroll said.

In Aquinnah, waves ripped up portions of asphalt along Lobsterville Road. Adam Wilson, town administrator, said he will coordinate efforts with the Wampanoag Tribe to assess and repair the damage. Otherwise, he said, the town “weathered the storm.”

Bret Stearns, Wampanoag Tribe director of natural resources, said the tribe lost a good deal of coastal dune on Lobsterville beach. He said efforts to restore the dunes would begin as soon as possible.

Mr. Stearns said that tribal rangers and the town worked together during the storm to check on residents and clear the roadways. “We hope to work together to resolve the roadway undercutting at Lobsterville to assure safe passage to Tribal lands, public accesses and the West Basin boat ramp,” he said.

The Gay Head cliffs also suffered a great deal of erosion. Mr. Stearns reminded beachgoers that taking clay, even clay deposited on the beach, is prohibited.

Wires, flood and calls

Rising wind Monday morning helped erase any doubt that the Vineyard might escape the effects of Sandy. The biggest threat was storm surge coupled with a high tide.

As the water began to rise in advance of a noon tide Monday morning, officials closed flooded roads in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Vineyard Haven.

Beach Road between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown and between Five Corners in Vineyard Haven and Temahegan Avenue in Oak Bluffs was closed due to flooding. Ambulance traffic was rerouted to the back hospital entrance.

A State Police car was parked at Five Corners to prevent drivers from ignoring a sign and attempting to navigate the impassable roadway.

Throughout the day and into the night, police, highway and utility crews responded to reports of trees and branches falling on wires and roadways, and utility poles on fire.

Communications Center 911 dispatchers juggled multiple calls, as they gave emergency responders directions to one fallen tree or wire and another. Three dispatchers worked eight-hour shifts, assistant supervisor Lieutenant Linda Cook said.

Asked what it takes to juggle multiple calls for assistance, Ms. Cook said, “Patience, and being able to prioritize because for each person, their call is an emergency.”

In comparison to Hurricane Bob, when dispatchers handled more than a 1,000 calls nonstop, Sandy’s volume was light. “It was amazing, I was surprised, somewhere around 195,” she said.

Ms. Cook said Island agencies were well prepared, and provided multiple contact numbers to her office, which helped the response. “I was very happy with this one, the way it went down,” she said.

Luck and precautions helped

Bob Whritenour, Oak Bluffs town administrator, said the primary damage was from the wind-driven storm surge, mostly in the form of flooding and wave-generated erosion. A few wires and trees came down, he said.

“We were extremely fortunate that we received only a glancing blow from this storm,” Mr. Whritenour said. “I shudder to think what would have happened if it had hit us head on.”

But the storm proved instructive. “The infrastructure along the coastline and the sea walls continue to take a pounding and these are facilities that were a D-plus already,” he said. “We are going for grants to get these things rebuilt and it just shows how important that is.”

Mr. Whritenour said he was very impressed with the close coordination and efforts of the town’s emergency managers and department head teams. “They were out all night and did a really good job,” he said.

The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital lost some fencing and roof shingles on the Chapel and Windemere buildings. A falling branch destroyed a skylight in the development office located in a separate house on the hospital campus, and the wind destroyed a wheelchair shelter in the back parking lot.

“In all, I think we were lucky to escape with little damage,” Tim Walsh, hospital CEO said. “The new building was fine. Hardly knew there was a storm going on when inside.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard in Vineyard Haven hauled 68 boats for customers between Thursday and Sunday, in advance of Hurricane Sandy. The nasty easterly storm spawned here from Sandy did little damage at the shipyard, according to owner Phil Hale, who said the maximum gust he recorded was 64 miles per hour. Apart from flooding — a foot of water on the main shop floor — and a few loosened roof panels, he had nothing to report from his shipyard office overlooking the harbor.

Mr. Hale recalled that, not since the No Name Storm of October 1991, a classic, immensely powerful northeaster, has the flooding been so severe as during Sandy. But the late October 1991 storm lasted several days over six tidal cycles, unlike Monday’s blow. Mr. Hale also credited the town of Tisbury and its harbor management with improvements that helped defend against storm damage to boats.

“After the No Name Storm, the beach around the harbor was loaded with boats ashore. There are none now, after Sandy,” he said.

Ralph Packer, owner of the fuel and towing businesses that bear his name, said that, except for a failed computer at the Tisbury Shell station on Beach Road, his enterprises did “fairly well.” Some of the Packer company’s floating assets — tugs and barges — were shifted to New Bedford in advance of the storm, though Mr. Packer kept one of his large tugs in Vineyard Haven at his dock, in case another vessel moored in the harbor should need assistance.

Watch and wait

Late last week, Islanders began paying close attention to the weather reports as forecasters attempted to predict Sandy’s probable track up the U.S. coast.

When it became certain that Martha’s Vineyard, while not in the direct path, was at significant risk, the Island began to prepare.

In anticipation of the storm, the Coast Guard moved vessels from Station Menemsha to New Bedford Harbor.

Station Chief Jason Olsen said that wind and wave predictions exceeded the capabilities of the two vessels and crew ratings. Remaining in Menemsha Harbor would have put the vessels at risk of being damaged, he said. Coast Guard assets, including helicopters based at Air Station Cape Cod, remained on alert.

Early Sunday, as the wind began to blow, the Steamship Authority announced that ferry service to the Island was on a trip by trip basis and would likely be suspended throughout Monday and into Tuesday.

On Sunday afternoon, Island officials met in the Dukes County administration building to coordinate preparations for the arrival of wind, rain, and storm surge generated by Sandy. The meeting began with a Mass Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) conference call attended by Governor Deval Patrick and more than 450 callers from across the state.

“I think it is fair to say it is more a wind event than a rain event, but it is a serious wind event, or at least potentially so,” Governor Patrick said.

Bob Thompson and Glen Field of the National Weather Service provided the Island officials an update on what south facing communities could expect. “This is a very, very big storm,” Glen Field said.

Mr. Field said the critical part of the forecast hurricane track was a sharp left turn into central or northern New Jersey. Hurricane-force winds were expected between Virginia and Chatham. “Whether these are sustained or in gusts, they are expected and they will cause a lot of damage,” he said.

Mr. Field identified three forecast concerns: Widespread power outages, wind gusts, and storm surge.

Mr. Thompson said beach erosion would likely be severe. “It would not be surprising if come Tuesday morning some of our coastline actually looks a little bit different in a few spots,” he said. “This is the type of storm that could create new inlets or just reshape some of our sand barriers along our coastline.”

Following the weather briefing, Superintendent of Schools James Weiss decided to close Vineyard schools on Monday and Tuesday. Mr. Weiss told The Times that he did not want to wait until the morning to make a decision so that parents would have time to prepare.

The Chilmark Community Center was opened at 6 pm Sunday to provide emergency shelter for people threatened by coastal flooding.

Late Sunday, a Code Red announcement using the Island-wide telephone/email emergency notification system was issued that described Sandy as a large and dangerous system.

“Take precautions now to protect yourself, your family, and your property. By now you should have assembled non-persishable food, water, flashlight and batteries, a portable battery-powered radio, and have secured all loose items in your yard.”

Those who had procrastinated were in luck. Shirley’s Hardware in Vineyard Haven placed a special order for batteries, water and gas cans, and flashlights. The store, normally closed on Sunday, was open from 10 am to late in the afternoon.

The Stop & Shop in Edgartown, normally open to 10 pm, remained open until midnight Sunday. “A lot of people did shop late,” manager Mary McEvoy said.