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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Experience keeps a dear [i.e. expensive] school, but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that.

–Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the east coast, I confess feeling an odd sense of excited foreboding. As a New Jersey expatriate—I followed an Arkansas girl home from school and never looked back—I haven’t lived there since college, but haven’t entirely lost my feeling for the state either. The place where you spent your first 20 years leaves an indelible mark.

Having spent parts of every summer of my childhood on the beaches and boardwalk at Seaside Heights, I also had vivid memories of a charismatic Rutgers professor warning a lecture hall filled with Jersey boys that allowing urban development on the state’s Atlantic Ocean front was dangerously shortsighted, and that a day of reckoning would surely come.

His name was Melvin G. Marcus, a physical geographer with an imposing physical presence and a passion for teaching students how the world works—which to him meant a clear-eyed understanding of the planet’s physical processes—its landforms, climate and weather. Although a liberal arts major, I found his lectures enthralling and often funny.

After a nor’easter opened a new inlet between Seaside Park and Belmar that winter, taking out five or six unoccupied summer homes, Prof. Marcus’s zeal could hardly be contained. An Air Force pilot during the Korean War, he showed us aerial photographs of the string of barrier beaches—basically overgrown sandbars—separating the Atlantic Ocean and a series of shallow bays all along the New Jersey coastline.

Comes the inevitable hurricane, he warned, and scores of New Jersey resort towns from Sandy Hook to Cape May would be washed into the ocean. Erecting permanent structures on such terrain was an exercise in futility. Better to preserve the barrier islands as public parkland. Build nothing on sand that you can’t afford to see pounded to splinters by the sea, was his advice.

Needless to say, such warnings are rarely heeded. Not when there’s money to be made. The more comfortable we grow, the less respectful we are of nature’s destructive power.

Watching the massive hurricane—almost 1,000 miles across, the largest tropical system ever recorded in the Atlantic basin—making its fateful turn toward the Jersey shoreline, it was easy to imagine, if impossible to fully comprehend, what would happen.

From childhood, I knew there were no “heights,” or even modest hills, near Seaside Heights—nor anywhere on the Jersey Shore. At high tide, a 12-foot storm surge would send the Atlantic Ocean rolling clear across to Barnegat Bay, demolishing virtually everything in between.

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