It was the houses and commercial buildings pushed off their foundations that drove home for many of us just how powerful this storm was. And oddly, we kept hearing that it wasn’t a hurricane. It was packing more of a punch than the typical nor’easter, but by the time it came ashore it was less than a hurricane. It had become a hybrid — a superstorm.
The storm wreaked havoc along the Westerly shoreline, and for a brief period afterward had some in the community questioning the logic of rebuilding what had been destroyed or damaged along Atlantic Avenue — homes as well as dozens of locally owned small businesses in Misquamicut on either side of Misquamicut State Beach. This was considered treason in many quarters and the discussion had only a brief lifespan.
Instead, the town, with help from federal tax dollars and volunteers, lots of volunteers, rebuilt “the beach.” Through a massive mobilization of residents and those from well beyond our region who felt an affinity for Misquamicut, the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce led the “Bring Back the Beach” effort by leading a fundraising and sweat equity effort to help those affected by the storm.
Individuals and businesses came to together to raise more than $400,000 by the following Memorial Day. Sand was shoveled out of living rooms and ice cream shops. Debris — furniture and appliances that had come tumbling out of damaged homes and shops — was removed from the streets of Misquamicut by volunteers and a congressman.
Eventually, businesses came back, but some in vastly different forms. Maria’s Seaside Cafe, a favorite of locals and tourists alike, reopened in 2015 with plans, yet unealized, to build a hotel on the Atlantic Avenue property. So far, massive steel framing outlines only the first floor of a proposed three-story building. Owners of the former Andrea Hotel, another favorite for generations of locals and visitors who considered a trek to the beach bar a rite of summer, went in the opposite direction. The old wooden structure was so badly damaged it was torn down, but the stately stone fireplace that survived the storm was left standing and is now the focal point of a largely open air Andrea bar and restaurant — a site that will be part of Sandy and Misquamicut lore for generations to come.
Meanwhile, state leaders and researchers at the University of Rhode Island turned their attention to planning for future storms. The term “resiliency” was part of every conversation about rebuilding in beach communities as a show of respect, finally, for the power of nature.
Rhode Island suffered, but escaped the brunt of the storm, which leveled blocks of homes along the New Jersey shore where Sandy made landfall during the evening of Oct. 29, 2012. In all, 253 deaths were attributed to the storm from the Caribbean to Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, but Rhode Island escaped with no reported deaths. Connecticut authorities attribued 6 deaths to the storm, New Jersey 71 and New York 68.
Hopefully, lessons were learned, but Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut looks a lot like it did before October 2012. More homes and businesses sit atop pilings than before, but they’re still in the same place: on a barrier beach wide open to waves, storm surge and wind. We have no doubt that volunteers and federal tax dollars will be ready to rebuild the beach yet again after the next storm hits — and many will again question the logic of it all.
Large areas weren’t rebuilt after the Great Hurricane of 1938, including parts of Misquamicut — the current state beach area and the expanse of beachfront that stretches west to Watch Hill — and all of Napatree Point. While a few lost what was once private residences built in the path of storms, many more gained pristine beaches and natural settings to enjoy. It’s something to consider.