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Misquamicut resident Jim Kirker looks out over his and his neighbors' properties, all of them planted with beach grass. Kirker is spearheading the first phase of the beach grass planting program. | (Cynthia Drummond / The Westerly Sun)
David Prescott  Save the Bay South Coast Baykeeper and Bernie Beaudreau, Executive Director of  of Serve Rhode Island assess the dunes at Misquamicut state beach Friday for the beach grass planting initiative. ( Cynthia Drummond / The Westerly Sun ) As part of the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort, the dunes at Misquamicut town and state beaches will be planted with beach grass in the coming months. ( Cynthia Drummond / The Westerly Sun ) Misquamicut beach resident Jim Kirker sits on his deck overlooking the ocean Friday. Kirker is spearheading the beachgrass planting program, part of the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort. ( Cynthia Drummond / The Westerly Sun )

A year after Sandy: Homeowners lend a helping hand to Mother Nature

MISQUAMICUT — Jim Kirker counts himself as one of the lucky ones. When Superstorm Sandy devastated much of Misquamicut last year, his Atlantic Avenue house, which sits right on the beach, was largely spared. Kirker gives much of the credit for his home’s survival to beach grass.

“Strong beach grass is the key, not only to dune restoration, but dune preservation,” he said. “During Hurricane Sandy, part of it’s a little bit of luck, but the sand that was piled up in the road 5 feet high started at the house after me. We had beach grass right up to his house. The next house, down to the state beach — no beach grass, very sparse. So when a hurricane comes, there’s nothing.”

Kirker has been planting beach grass on his land and 11 of his neighbors’ properties for 10 years. The homeowners pay for the plugs, which are shipped from Church’s Beach Grass and Nursery in Cape May, N.J.

There’s still a lot of planting to be done. This weekend, on the first anniversary of Sandy, crews of volunteers from Serve Rhode Island are helping the homeowners plant the remaining dunes along their stretch of beach. Save the Bay’s Westerly office will supervise the work.

Serve Rhode Island Executive Director Bernie Beaudreau said he was expecting a good turnout. “Right after the storm — it was very dramatic and emotional then — we had 250 a weekend. I don’t think we’ll have that, but I think on the anniversary of the storm, a lot of volunteers that we recruited to help out will be interested in coming back,” he said.

The Misquamicut dune replanting initiative, which will run until December, has been divided into nine phases. In the first phase of the project, Kirker and his neighbors will pay $2,323 for the grass in front of their homes, and in phases two to nine, Sandy recovery money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will fund the replanting effort on the town and state-owned stretches of the beach. The grass for the town beach will cost $9,139 and the much larger state beach planting, which will not take place until next year, is expected to cost about $60,500.

Save the Bay’s South County Coastkeeper, David Prescott, explained that the new dunes created after the storm from sand that had been washed onto the road were still fragile, and vegetation would help protect them.

“We’re trying to assist Mother Nature, becoming a little bit more sustainable on the coast here,” he said. “These dunes are basically unconsolidated. They’re new, and they need some protection. They need that strong root system there.”

Kirker, who is from Norwich and still has a law practice there, built his beach house in 1984 and moved to Misquamicut permanently in 1992. On a sunny day in October, he cut up large mounds of squash for his regular Sunday family dinner — for 20 people. The sliding doors were open, and the sound of gently breaking waves filled the room as he talked about the storms he has seen. None of them, he said, not even Sandy, compares to the infamous “Perfect Storm” of October 1991.

“We evacuated. I’ve never seen the ocean so angry in all the years I’ve been here,” he said.

In addition to planting dune grass, Kirker and his neighbors installed wooden snow fencing to combat erosion. He would like to explore additional erosion control measures, such as sinking a decommissioned warship off shore to form an artificial reef, or burying long plastic tubes filled with sand in front of the dunes to mitigate the force of the waves.

“It would prevent a ton of beach erosion,” he said, referring to the tubes. “If this were run from the Misquamicut Country Club area all the way down, and let the homeowners pay their share for everything in front of their houses, it would make a huge difference and give everybody some peace of mind when we get storms.”

Shoreline policymakers currently eschew artificial stabilization structures because they can interfere with natural wave patterns and sand transport, and are thus seen as doing more harm than good.

Kirker argues that losing Misquamicut would mean losing the major driver of the regional economy.

“These beaches generate a lot of income in tourism for all the local businesses and towns. The beach homeowners themselves, commercial and residential, generate a tremendous amount of tax money,” he said.

Down on his rebuilt deck, which Sandy washed away along with his wooden walkway, Kirker talked about the grasses that have been planted, and the work that still needs to be done.

“Some of this in here is some of the original grass, but all this is new,” he said. “We brought in enough beach grass to do another 10, 15 feet over the peak of the dunes and down, so it gets in between the fencing. That’ll probably be pretty much it for this year. We’re trying to see what’s going to happen with erosion during the winter.”

Prescott said he hopes more homeowners will follow Kirker’s example.

“It’s greater resilience. It’s not the end all by any means, and we have no idea how long it’s going to last, but at least it’s helping,” he said. “The grasses take care of themselves. Once the growing season starts, they plump right up and hopefully that root system keeps shooting out and keeps expanding, and then we’ll see what happens, wait for the next storm.”

In Kirker’s kitchen, there is a large sign that reads “This is where I belong.” It expresses how attached he is to this house and this beach. “I hope there’s no bad storms,” he said of the coming winter. “Let the dunes naturally fill up again.”

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