After Sandy nearly wiped his New Jersey town off the map, Mantoloking Councilman Steve Gillingham heard the voices calling for a retreat from vulnerable locations along the coast.
"Right after the storm there were suggestions that maybe we shouldn't be here at all, that a barrier island is not an appropriate place for permanent habitation," he said of Mantoloking, virtually all of whose 521 homes were either damaged or destroyed in the Oct. 29, 2012, storm. "What that notion ignores is that we've had people here for 150 years."
A $23.8 million project to install a steel sea wall between the town and the ocean allows "people to decide to live wherever they want to live," Gillingham said.
New Jersey environmental officials said Tuesday the project, which is installing a nearly 4-mile-long wall in Mantoloking and a section of brick Township to the south, is 75 percent complete. Robert Martin, the state's environmental protection commissioner, said the entire project should be done by mid-November. Eighty percent of the project cost is being paid by the federal government, because it protects Route 35, a major north-south highway along the coast that was heavily damaged by the storm.
"Eight thousand of our homes were damaged," Brick Mayor John Ducey said. "This wall will prevent that from happening again."
The steel pilings are being covered in sand to provide makeshift dunes. The work is intended to be complemented by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers beach replenishment project slated to start in March.
The idea is to have soft protective structures in front of hard barriers like the steel wall. Numerous studies worldwide have proven that sea walls and bulkheads actually accelerate erosion in front of them, making it necessary to regularly replenish the beaches, and many environmentalists oppose such projects.
"Not only will this steel wall not work, but it will also cause the beach to erode quicker, putting all this money and sand back to sea," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Martin acknowledged there is no guarantee of future funding from the federal government, but said history has shown that Congress regularly approves funds for beach restoration work.
Erick Doyle, a DEP project manager, said the buried steel should last for close to 75 years.
The work is one of several shore protection projects underway as the second anniversary of Sandy approaches. An effort to restore beaches along the entire 127-mile coast is already underway, with most of Monmouth County completed, along with local projects in Atlantic and Cape May counties.
Northern Ocean County remains the largest unprotected section of coast, and Martin acknowledged the state has gotten "horrible cooperation" from some spots; of the 380 easements still needed from property owners before the work can start, 330 of them are in northern Ocean County. In Bay Head, for example, only 1 of the 124 easements needed for the beach protection work has been obtained voluntarily, Martin said.
"We will take these easements at the end of the day," he said. "We're going to build these beaches; the governor has made that clear."