When a Hurricane Hits the Delaware Bay
Andrew S. Lewis on the Impact of Super Storm Sandy
The geography of the Delaware Bay offered a hint at what Hurricane Sandy would bring to the Bayshore. Between the Cape May Peninsula and the narrow spit of sand that makes up Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park, the bay’s mouth stretches just over eleven miles, nearly identical to that of the Chesapeake, 130 miles to the south. Unlike the Chesapeake’s mouth, however, the Delaware’s tips due southeast, with the shorelines of both Delaware and New Jersey curling inward toward its mouth, like the wide ends of a great funnel. For a storm like Sandy, which spun northwest, directly into the Jersey Shore, the mouth of the Delaware was the perfect siphon for the enormous seven feet of storm surge that arrived on top of an already higher-than-usual full moon high tide that October night.
Once Sandy’s surge entered the bay, there was little to absorb its inevitable collision with land. The bay—which resembles the outline of South America tipped on its side—is nearly 800 square miles and can plunge more than one hundred feet deep in areas around its shipping channel, but along the Bayshore coast, its depth averages only about 10 feet. The shoreline here is barely above sea level, presenting no barriers for floodwaters. From its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean to the beginning of the Delaware River, 40 miles to the northwest, the bay is ribbed with shoals that have challenged mariners for centuries—during Sandy, they served to refract and break apart swell, which fomented tall, wild surf, as if the bay were a shallow bathtub being whipped up by a child’s hands.
A shallow area of the bay just offshore from far South Jersey’s Cape May peninsula is referred to as “The Rips,” for its tempestuousness and danger. On the morning of August 28, 1609, Henry Hudson came upon the bay for the first time in the eighty-five-foot Half Moon and was quickly deluged by breaking waves and side-slipping current near where The Rips are located today. Catching sight of “Breaches and drie Sand,” Hudson ordered a retreat. While anchored safely offshore that evening, Hudson’s first officer, Robert Juet, recounted in his journal the morning’s drama: “And hee that will throughly Discover this great Bay, must have a small Pinnasse [boat], that must draw but foure or five foote water.”
A later account of Hudson’s failed attempt to enter the bay that August morning in 1609 noted that as the Half Moon tacked north the next day, toward the river that would soon bear Hudson’s name, the coastline appeared to be “a white sandy beach and drowned land within, beyond which there appeared a grove of wood.” The account, recorded by Joannes de Laet in his History of the New World, was referring to the barrier islands that make up New Jersey’s Atlantic coast, from the Cape May Peninsula 130 miles north to Sandy Hook, which today resemble de Laet’s description only in his mention of white sandy beaches.
By 2019, those barrier islands had been engineered and fortified with hundreds of jetties, bulkheads, piers, miles of asphalt, and nearly 200 million cubic yards of sand fill—all to slow the ocean and back bays’ natural erosive currents and, now, their accelerated, climate change–induced rise. From this grotesque profusion of infrastructure has sprung boardwalks and roller coasters and T-shirt shops and mini-golf courses, hotels and casinos, and the second homes of the wealthy. And all of it for a summer season of just 15 weeks, between the end of May and the beginning of September, when tens of millions of souls pack onto these mutated sandbars. Of New Jersey’s 21 counties, only four encompass the Jersey Shore, and yet these four make up half of the state’s $43 billion tourism economy.
If Hudson had been able to squeeze the Half Moon into the Delaware Bay, however, he would have seen more than just white sandy beaches and drowned land within. He would have entered one of the largest estuaries in North America. Beginning far to the northwest, in the Great Appalachian Valley, the 600,000-square-mile Delaware Estuary—as it is called today—descends southeastward toward the Atlantic, following the lead of a valley carved out by the last glacial retreat. Along the north shore of the bay are some 85,000 acres of salt marshes, which are dominated by long cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and low, dense salt hay (Spartina patens). To Hudson and his crew, the marshland would have appeared as a green and yellow sea, unfurling to the horizon in rolling swells beneath the hot, southwest wind blowing that August day.
If it seemed implausible to Hudson that something as architecturally monolithic as the modern Jersey Shore could be built on such unstable earth, he would have found it hard to imagine anything human at all inhabiting the northern shore of the future Delaware Bay. Rivers, creeks, ditches, and tidal guts laced their way through the bogged and often impassable estuary like dark brown arteries winding toward a golden, grassy heart. Mosquitoes, gnats, and other insects swarmed so thick they could be mistaken for puffs of black smoke. If Hudson had explored this infirm land, he would have observed only traces of human habitation, in the form of temporary fishing and hunting camps made by the local Lenni Lenape Native Americans.
In the absence of permanent inhabitants, however, Hudson would have been overwhelmed by the animal life—eagles, osprey, red knots, sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, dunlins, dowitchers, yellowlegs, and some 300 other bird species roamed the sky above, perched in the marshlands’ hardwood trees, or scuttled along its beaches. Sturgeon, whales, horseshoe crabs, otters, and reams of other marine wildlife crowded the brown, nutrient-rich water below. Because, in the 403 years that passed between his last look at “South River,” as he called the Delaware Bay, and that October night when Mike and Kate saw the television image of Sandy’s strange track leading directly to their doorstep, little had changed on the Bayshore.
Mike knew this. It was precisely why he and Kate loved Bay Point so much—why, in the decades before Sandy, they’d endured countless storms that had caused severe flooding across the Bayshore. In more recent years, the trouble had extended beyond foul weather, to “sunny day” flood tides. Mike liked to say that Bay Point—and the Bayshore in general—was “the place where poor people came to get away.” The Jersey Shore could have all the glitz and attention. Folks on the Bayshore just wanted to be able to fish and hunt and live quietly, untouched by the crush and clamor and fierce modernity of what is the biggest megalopolis in the Western Hemisphere—the sprawl of urbanity, industry, and suburbia stretching from Washington, DC, in the south to Boston in the north.
The Bayshore sits squarely in the center of this corridor, and yet, few people in the region—even many South Jerseyans—know it exists. New Jersey’s entire Delaware Bay shore cuts a ragged, 70-mile path through three counties, but its epicenter—what is generally considered the capital B Bayshore—is a 40-mile stretch of coast in Cumberland County where a handful of fishing villages, covering just four miles in length and having a total population of around 1500, dot the otherwise barren landscape.
At Cumberland’s southeast corner, beside the county’s largest tributary, the Maurice River, sits the town of Port Norris and its Bivalve and Shell Pile communities, which were the heart of an oyster industry once so flush with money that, in the 1920s, the town of around a thousand residents had more millionaires per square mile than any other town in New Jersey. At the other end of the county, there is the now-disappeared hamlet of Bayside, where a railroad once ran to the water’s edge, to service one of America’s most prosperous ports for sturgeon, whose roe was distributed to caviar importers around the world.
With the turn of the 20th century, however, all that would soon be gone. The bay’s sturgeon had been fished nearly out of existence—in 1890, when the fishery was booming at Bayside, an average of 60 sturgeon were caught per gill net; by 1899, the average had dropped to just eight. Although the bay’s sturgeon population could not withstand the pressures of overfishing, its oysters, and the industry built around them, seemed to only thrive. In Port Norris in the early 1900s, there were some 29 processing houses standing along the docks in Bivalve and Shell Pile. A passenger train ran regular trips to Bridgeton, the county seat.
By the 1920s, a freight rail was shipping 67 carloads of oysters to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York every day. Port Norris’s oystermen, made rich by the hundreds of thousands of oysters being dredged daily from the bay’s seafloor, built hulking Victorians along the town’s Main Street. Oysters became so important that the state started monitoring the bay’s population through a permanent shellfish laboratory it opened in a space among the processing houses.Local officials, who constantly fret over the state’s disinterest in the county’s many plights, often say that if only we still traded and traveled by boat, the county would have remained a shining example of American progress.
The industry managed to survive the Depression and remained strong in the 1940s after power dredging replaced the manual method on the schooners. But in 1957 the shellfish laboratory’s scientists noticed that a disease was beginning to infect the bay’s oysters. Dr. Thurlow C. Nelson, who was internationally recognized for his research on the physiology of the Crassostrea virginica—the species of oyster that inhabited the bay—noted that his samples weren’t growing and that their meat were “puffed and white.” On a cold, windy November morning in 1958, Nelson reached into his tank of samples and pulled out another oyster to examine. It was, Nelson wrote in his “Oyster Pathology” notebook, “the thinnest oyster I have ever seen.” Nelson had discovered MSX, a parasitic disease that had never been seen before. By 1960, about 95 percent of the bay’s oyster stock had died, and the industry collapsed.
By then, the great vision to connect the cities of the Northeast Megalopolis had mostly succeeded, spawning an endless network of highways and cities and suburbs. In northern New Jersey, the smokestacks of factories and refineries bristled everywhere, billowing the kind of mysterious, foul-smelling smoke that has made New Jersey synonymous with decay—the “armpit of New York,” as those who know the state only from Newark and its ilk are wont to say. But that’s a fallacy. 130 miles south of Manhattan, less than 40 miles from Philadelphia, Cumberland County is by and large deeply rural—it makes up the natural end of the splash of wilderness that begins with the Pine Barrens to the north—despite being surrounded by a landscape glazed over with concrete and asphalt and crosshatched by development.
Since its founding in 1748, Cumberland has been dominated by agriculture; today, a quarter of the county’s nearly 500 square miles is farmland, divided into some six hundred farms. The Northeast Corridor’s major highways steer clear of the county’s huge tracts of fields and forest and wetlands, despite decades’ worth of pleas from various county stakeholders for a southward extension of the nearest highway, State Route 55.
The Megalopolis’s greatest legacy—its sprawling suburbs—have mostly avoided Cumberland. Local officials, who constantly fret over the state’s disinterest in the county’s many plights, often say that if only we still traded and traveled by boat, the county would have remained a shining example of American progress. “The south [of South Jersey] seems to illustrate a principle of economic development,” the New York Times wrote in 2000. “To be unspoiled is to be left behind.”
Excerpted from The Drowning of Money Island by Andrew S. Lewis. Copyright © Andrew S. Lewis 2019. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.