Beaches serve as a natural buffer between the ocean and inland communities, ecosystems, and natural resources. However, these dynamic environments move and change in response to winds, waves, and currents. During extreme storms, changes to beaches can be large, and the results are sometimes catastrophic. Lives may be lost, communities destroyed, and millions of dollars spent on rebuilding.
During storms, large waves may erode beaches, and high storm surge shifts the erosive force of the waves higher on the beach. In some cases, the combined effects of waves and surge may cause overwash (when waves and surge overtop the dune, transporting sand inland) or flooding. Building and infrastructure on or near a dune can be undermined during wave attack and subsequent erosion. During Hurricane Ivan in 2004, a five-story condominium in Orange Beach, Alabama, collapsed after the sand dune supporting the foundation eroded. Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall as an extra-tropical cyclone on October 29, 2012, caused erosion and undermining that destroyed roads, boardwalks, and foundations in Seaside Heights, New Jersey.
Waves overtopping a dune can transport sand inland, covering roads and blocking evacuation routes or emergency relief. If storm surge inundates barrier island dunes, currents flowing across the island can create a breach, or a new inlet, completely severing evacuation routes. Waves and surge during Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall on October 29, 2012, left a breach that cut the road and bridge to Mantoloking, N.J.
Extreme coastal changes caused by hurricanes may increase the vulnerability of communities both during a storm and to future storms. For example, when sand dunes on a barrier island are eroded substantially, inland structures are exposed to storm surge and waves. Absent or low dunes also allow water to flow inland across the island, potentially increasing storm surge in the back bay, on the soundside of the barrier, and on the mainland.