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Seven months after Superstorm Sandy pummeled Rhode Island’s southern shore, the great mounds of sand are gone, and the twisted metal and splintered wood hauled away, replaced by workers and backhoes as beachfront businesses hurry to complete repairs before the arrival of another New England summer.
Hammers and drills drown out the sound of the surf at Paddy’s Beach Restaurant and Hotel, which was nearly destroyed when Sandy walloped Westerly’s Misquamicut Beach. Co-owner Frank Labriola said recovery efforts began the day after the storm hit in October.
“First there was the cleanup, then demolition and now the rebuilding,” Labriola said while standing on the wooden planks of an unfinished deck behind the popular beach bar. “Everyone has had to step up their game. But we’ll be open. And on time.”
Sandy — the second most costly hurricane in U.S. history — pounded Rhode Island’s southern beaches with waves that punched through seawalls, flooded homes and businesses and carried thousands of tons of sand inland to choke buildings and streets in head-high drifts. Further inland, high winds toppled trees, damaged homes and knocked out electricity to a quarter of the state’s residents. It saved its brunt for New Jersey and New York, but even so it was the worst storm to hit Rhode Island since 1954’s Hurricane Carol.
Nowhere was the damage as bad as in Misquamicut, a sleepy coastal community in Westerly of modest vacation homes, beach bars and mom-and-pop hotels. Residents and business owners were kept out for days after the storm to allow earth movers to cut passageways through the sand that filled streets, yards, basements and even the first floors of many structures. Sandy caused significant damage to more than 30 of the area’s 41 businesses and left owners wondering how they’d recover before Memorial Day, the traditional start of the summer season.
Hundreds of people linked hands on the beach Friday at an event meant to mark the community’s ongoing recovery.
While scars from the storm are still evident, Gov. Lincoln Chafee said Rhode Island has bounced back more quickly than many imagined last fall.
“We’ve made tremendous progress,” said Chafee, who received an update on the recovery during a recent visit to Narragansett and Charlestown. “We will have more of these storms, so it’s so important that we rebuild quickly.”
In the weeks and months after the storm, thousands of volunteers from around the state worked to clear debris. The state hired unemployed workers — half of them veterans — to repair damaged state parks. Westerly’s chamber of commerce raised more than $360,000 to help local businesses by selling T-shirts and holding benefit concerts and dinners.
“Yes, there are some losses that can’t be recovered and there is still more work to be done,” said Lisa Konicki, director of the chamber of commerce. “But the beach is back.”
Some businesses were beyond repair. The Andrea Hotel was a landmark in Misquamicut for 90 years before Sandy’s waves flooded the kitchen and undermined the foundation. Crews demolished the hotel this winter, and owners hope to begin work on a new building this fall.
The recovery is further along in other parts of Rhode Island’s southern coast.
In Narragansett, a seawall that buckled under Sandy’s waves has been fixed, and repairs are nearly complete at several businesses. The town bought nearly 6,000 cubic yards of sand to replace what Sandy carried away. While that’s a lot, Town Manager Richard Kerbel said Narragansett expected to need about twice that amount. Fortunately, much of the sand was replaced naturally over the winter, he said.
In Matunuck, Sandy consumed as much as 50 feet of beach in some spots. Several beachfront cottages were destroyed when the sand underneath them washed away. At Roy Carpenter’s Beach, a community of a few hundred modest cottages, crews moved the homes closest to the beach back to safer, and higher, ground.
Sandy devastated the beach at upscale Watch Hill in Westerly, washing away several feet of sand to expose the foundations under beach cabanas and leaving steps that once ended on the ground hanging five feet in the air. Flood waters crept into nearby businesses, leaving behind ruined merchandise, rotten drywall and a stinky mess.
Jean Murano co-owns three women’s clothing and swimsuit stores in Westerly. One was undamaged. Another was flooded, and the third filled with sand. All three will soon be open.
“Last fall, I don’t think anyone was sure we could bounce back this quickly,” she said of the local business community. “And the beach looks pretty good. It was looking like pyramids from Egypt for a while.”
Most of that sand is back where it’s supposed to be — under the feet of beachgoers. David Booth and his wife, Ludia, walked the beach in Westerly last week with their dog Lilly. They noticed only a few reminders of the storm — some areas where rocks now poke out of the sand.
“It’s still a lovely place to take a walk,” David Booth said as Lilly splashed in the surf.
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