The average New Jersey beach is 30 to 40 feet narrower after Superstorm Sandy, according to a survey that is sure to intensify a long-running debate on whether federal dollars should be used to replenish stretches of sand that only a fraction of U.S. taxpayers use.
Some of New Jersey's famous beaches lost half their sand when Sandy slammed ashore in late October.
The shore town of Mantoloking, one of the hardest-hit communities, lost 150 feet of beach, said Stewart Farrell, director of Stockton College's Coastal Research Center and a leading expert on beach erosion.
Routine storms tear up beaches in any season, and one prescription for protecting communities from storm surge has been to replenish beaches with sand pumped from offshore. Places with recently beefed-up beaches saw comparatively little damage, said Farrell, whose study's findings were made available to The Associated Press.
"It really, really works," Farrell said. "Where there was a federal beach fill in place, there was no major damage — no homes destroyed, no sand piles in the streets. Where there was no beach fill, water broke through the dunes."
The beach-replenishment projects have been controversial both for their expense and because waves continually wash away the new sand. The federal government picks up 65 percent of the cost, with the rest coming from state and local coffers.
How big the beaches are — or whether there is a beach at all to go to — is a crucial question that must be resolved before the summer tourism season. The Jersey shore powers the state's $35.5 billion tourism industry.
But the pending spending showdown between congressional Republicans and Democrats could make it even harder to secure hundreds of millions of additional dollars for beach replenishment.
From 1986 to 2011, nearly $700 million was spent placing 80 million cubic yards of sand on about 55 percent of the New Jersey coast. Over that time, the average beach gained 4 feet of width, according to the Coastal Research Center. And just before the storm hit, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded nearly $28 million worth of contracts for new replenishment projects in southern New Jersey's Cape May County.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, used a photo of a pig on the cover of his 2009 report "Washed Out To Sea," in which he characterized beach replenishment as costly, wasteful pork that the nation could not afford.
"Taxpayers are not surprised when they learn how Congress wastes billions of dollars on questionable programs and projects each year, but it may still shock taxpayers to know that Congress has literally dumped nearly $3 billion into beach projects that have washed out to sea," he wrote.
A message seeking comment was left Monday with Coburn's office.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, predicted lawmakers from New Jersey and New York would be able to get additional shore protection funds included in the next federal budget, despite partisan wars.
"I think we will be able to make the case," he said. "We can show that this provides long-term protection to property and lives. You can either pay up front to keep on top of projects like this, or you can pay on the back end" through disaster recovery funds.
Menendez this week noted that Congress has approved emergency recovery funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina and tornadoes in Missouri, among other natural disasters.
During a tour of storm-wrecked neighborhoods in Seaside Heights and Hoboken, Vice President Joe Biden also vowed the federal government would pay to rebuild New Jersey.
"This is a national responsibility; this is not a local responsibility," Biden said. "We're one national government, and we have an obligation."
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 after Tropical Storm 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.'"
Degnan-Spang predicted she and her extended family would be back on the sand soon, though.
"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