SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Jim Szymanski remembers when a parking lot and road, 50 feet of beach grass and a wide expanse of soft sand separated this colony of summer shacks from the pounding Atlantic surf.
Now, waves lick at the first row of cottages at Roy Carpenter's Beach following years of erosion and last month's Superstorm Sandy, which carried off thousands of tons of sand along Rhode Island's south shore. Now, the cottages closest to the ocean are being moved back. Szymanski's third-row cottage will soon command unobstructed ocean views, a luxury that's likely to be as fleeting as a New England summer.
"Front row now, no row tomorrow," said Szymanski, a contractor who's been coming to Roy Carpenter's Beach since he was a child in the 1960s. "In two years, am I going to be the one with water hitting the house?"
Sandy swept away or carried inland much of the golden sand that is the centerpiece of Rhode Island's south shore, a 45-mile ribbon of humble beach hamlets, secluded bays and upscale resort communities. Now, residents and business owners are wondering if the beaches can be made whole in time for next summer and whether they are fighting a losing battle against storms and rising sea levels.
"Should we retreat? How far?" ponders Frank Tassoni, an attorney who owns a cottage in the Matunuck section of South Kingstown. Tassoni wants to see the state combat erosion by installing devices just offshore that trap sand and prevent it from washing away. "We're the Ocean State; we can't just remove this part of Rhode Island. We're fighting for a way of life down here."
While there's not yet an official report on the damage Sandy did to Rhode Island's beaches, the toll is obvious.
At Watch Hill in Westerly, several feet of sand washed away, exposing the foundations under beach cabanas and leaving steps that once ended on the beach hanging 5 feet in the air.
Up the coast at Misquamicut beach, Sandy picked up most of the beach and deposited it chest-high in the community's main roadway. Crews excavating Misquamicut are dumping the sand in parking lots, creating dunes more than 10 feet tall and turning the seaside community into a stand-in for the Sahara.
In Matunuck, Sandy consumed as much as 50 feet of beach in some spots. Several cottages at Roy Carpenter's Beach were destroyed when the sand underneath them was swept away. All that remained to show the location of one former cottage was a water pipe extruding from the sand.
While conceding the state got off easy compared with New Jersey and New York, Gov. Lincoln Chafee said Sandy left an imprint on Rhode island's shoreline that may never fully fade.
"Sandy just pounded our coastal areas," said Chafee, an independent. "It's a completely different beach. The shoreline will be different."
Local and state officials have already begun discussing ways to restore the beaches, but no plan — and just as importantly, no funding — has been approved. Sand that was carried into streets and yards can be sifted to remove debris and replaced.
New sand could be dredged from bays and offshore waters. But large beach replenishment projects are costly, typically temporary, and must meet rigorous federal regulations.
"We know where the sand sources are and we know how to widen a beach," said Janet Freedman, a geologist at the Coastal Resources Management Council, a state agency that oversees the coastline. "In the long term, unfortunately, sea levels are rising so we'll get more of this. If you want the beach put back exactly the way it was, it's a losing battle."
The cost of renourishing the 1-mile beach in Narragansett using sand from offshore was projected to be as much as $9 million, according to a study done last year. One estimate cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests it costs roughly $6 million to replenish 1 mile of East Coast beach for 10 years, after which more sand will be needed. New sand added to the Ocean City, N.J., beach in 1982 — at a cost of $2.5 million — was gone three months later.
Sea levels in Rhode Island are 10 inches higher than they were a century ago. Levels are expected to continue to rise because of climate change, which is also expected to mean more damaging storms like Sandy.
Even without a hurricane, beaches change subtly from year to year as currents and storms bring in sand or carry it off. It's a dynamic environment not always suited to roads, parking lots, hotels and homes.
Erosion has posed a constant struggle at Roy Carpenter's Beach and its 377 small cottages. The beach gets its name from the previous owner, who began allowing beachgoers to pitch tents on his beach nearly a century ago. The first cottages were built after the hurricane of 1938. Many of the small homes have been owned by the same families for generations.
Carpenter's grandchildren still own the property that sits underneath the privately owned cottages. Plans to move the first rows of cottages back from the ocean have been in the works for a few years.
"It's only in the last 20, 25 years that the beach started shrinking and now it's really picked up the pace," said Nancy Thoresen, Carpenter's granddaughter.
Some of what Sandy took away may return on its own. Misquamicut beach has already recovered some of the sand that was washed out to sea and officials hope more will return before the tourists arrive in the spring. Otherwise, disfigured beaches could mean a bad year for businesses already struggling in a down economy.
"It is imperative to the economy — not just here in Westerly but to the entire state — that Misquamicut Beach make a full recovery," said Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Westerly. "People want to see their beach."