Towns along the Jersey shore that made use of federal money to build up beaches came through Superstorm Sandy with far less damage than those that didn't, findings that are sure to intensify a debate that has raged for years over the wisdom of pumping millions of dollars' worth of sand onto the coastline, only to see it wash away continually.
That dispute pits coastal advocates for some of the most valuable shoreline in the country against elected officials from inland states who say it's unfair to ask taxpayers from, say, the Great Plains to pay to keep rebuilding beaches they don't even use.
The storm caused major erosion along New Jersey's famous 127-mile coastline, washing away tons of sand and slimming down beaches. Some lost half their sand; the average loss statewide was 30 to 40 feet of beach width, according to findings that are not yet public but were revealed to The Associated Press.
Routine storms tear up beaches in any season, and even normal waves carry away sand. Over the years, one prescription for insulating communities from the invading sea has been to artificially replenish beaches with sand pumped from offshore. The federal government picks up 65 percent of the cost, with the rest coming from state and local coffers.
"It really, really works," said Stewart Farrell, director of Stockton College's Coastal Research Center and a leading expert on beach erosion. "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."
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 had 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.
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.
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.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, used a close-up photo of a pig to grace the cover of his 2009 report "Washed Out To Sea," in which he characterized beach replenishment as costly, wasteful pork that the nation could ill 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.
Menendez this week noted that Congress has approved emergency recovery funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina and tornadoes in Missouri, among other natural disasters.
"We expect that the United States of America will be there for New Jersey," he said, stressing the word "united."
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."
Farrell and others have been documenting post-Sandy erosion; so far, they're about three-quarters finished with the study, an early version of which has been sent to Gov. Chris Christie's office but not made public.
Farrell told the AP that the survey found the average beach's sand loss was 30 to 40 feet. But some lost five times that amount. Mantoloking, one of the hardest-hit communities, lost 150 feet of beach, he said.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection declined to discuss the extent of beach erosion after Sandy, saying assessments are still ongoing.
But the U.S. Geological Survey said Sandy caused "extreme and often catastrophic erosion" and flooding in places like Mantoloking. The group's before-and-after photos show that a part of Long Branch appears to have lost three-quarters of its beach. Seaside Heights — where MTV's popular reality show "Jersey Shore" is filmed — looks to have lost about 80 percent of its sand, and Brigantine about 90 percent.
"Sandy rapidly displaced massive quantities of sand in a capacity that visibly changed the landscape," the survey wrote in a report.
In contrast, places with recently beefed-up beaches including Avalon, Stone Harbor, Cape May and the central part of Ocean City came through the storm with comparatively little property damage, he said.
How big the beaches are — or whether there is a beach at all to go to — is a crucial question that must be resolved well before the tourist season starts next Memorial Day. The Jersey shore is the economic engine that powers the state's $35.5 billion tourism industry.
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 at great expense after Hurricane 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.'"
The day after Sandy hit the last week in October, shore towns sprang into action, hastily reassembling dunes that were diminished or washed away. Using heavy machinery, they pushed sand into large piles up against beachfront homes and businesses as a potentially destructive nor'easter approached a week later. Those temporary measures largely worked.
But the work continues. Sea Bright, the state's narrowest barrier island, was decimated by Sandy, pummeled by waves from the ocean and flooding from the Shrewsbury River.
Sea Bright, Bradley Beach, Ocean Grove and other towns have pushed huge piles of sand into the center of their beaches, to be spread around and used to shore up gaps the storm exposed. Others have pushed it into makeshift cliffs at the edge of damaged homes.
Sea Bright and neighboring Monmouth Beach lost a combined total of a half-million cubic yards of beach sand, according to Jon Miller, a professor of ocean engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. That would be enough to cover the field at MetLife Stadium — where the New York Jets and Giants play — with a pile that would extend 100 feet past the top of the arena, he said.
Not all the sand is lost forever. At least some of it accrues and builds up around other beaches, actually widening them — a concept built in to replenishment projects, which include "feeder beaches" designed to erode and nourish other parts of the shoreline.
Degnan-Spang predicted she and her extended family would be back on the sand soon.
"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