After 20 Years, Losing a Beloved Home to the Ocean

May 24, 2018

103 Wood Avenue in Sandwich was condemned and torn down after a storm on March 2, 2018.
Credit Samantha Fields

Meryden Kirby and her husband Bruce were not home the night of March 2nd, when the ocean pulled the foundation out from under their house.

They had heard the forecast, and knew they should leave.

Their home of 20 years, on Wood Avenue in Sandwich, was perched right on Town Neck – a beach that has eroded away dramatically in recent years. 

The last time there had been a storm, in January, they had stayed put. The forecast hadn’t seemed particularly severe. And they were used to winter on the ocean.

But that time turned out to be different. The water came up higher than it ever had before. 

The house is still visible on Google Street View.
Credit Google Street View / https://bit.ly/2LsZ1p9

“It had never ever been in our yard. It had never been very much in the street, the road in front of our house that goes down to parking lot,” Meryden said. “But that time it just kept coming.”

It was terrifying. And she says it taught them that, going forward, they should always leave, for every storm.

So with the March storm coming, they made plans to leave, just to be safe. “We just make sure we took showers, because it sounded like it was going to be a huge storm and we’d be without electricity,” Meryden said. And then they packed up a few things and headed over to a motel on Route 6A.

At night, they got a call from their friend, Peter Thomas.

“He called and said your house just went into the water,” Meryden said. “And he asked me if there was anything I wanted out of the house. It was dark! It was a huge storm, and he’s asking me if there’s anything I wanted out of my house! And I said no Peter! You need to not go in there. And I had Bruce, what else could I want?”

But even though Peter had called, and told them what had happened, it was something else entirely to see it with their own eyes.

“We came back and the house was on the beach. It was terrible,” Meryden said, her voice barely a whisper. “I knew we’d be okay. But I knew the house wasn’t. It’s like somebody died. And it’s only a house.”

Meryden Kirby says visiting Wood Avenue now is hard, but it still feels like home.
Credit Samantha Fields

For Meryden, 103 Wood Avenue was more than just a house. 

Ever since she was a little kid, she had dreamed of living on the ocean. But she never thought it would happen.

After all, she and Bruce were both nurses – they didn't make much. And $280,000 dollars was a lot of money.

But they found a way to make it happen. Meryden gives Bruce all the credit for that.  

And living there, with the sea on one side and the marsh on the other, was even better than she had ever imagined.

“It was just so beautiful. Every day. Every single day,” Meryden said.

The mornings she loved in particular.

“I jumped out of bed every morning to watch the sun rise. Every time I got up in the nighttime I would go check what was going on outside in the front. And the moon! It’s amazing how far the moon travels in a month. It was just a dream to me. It was.”

When they first bought the house, in 1997, Meryden said it was barely visible from the beach. There was a big tall dune in front that hid everything but the top of one of the chimneys.

She says it was 10 years before that started to change. It happened slowly at first, then more quickly in the last few years – the dune eroded down to nothing, and the ocean crept up.

By 2015, it really felt like their house was right on the edge.

Many of the homeowners right along the beach truck in their own sand before every storm, and some have put up big, hard walls of sand bags.

But Meryden and Bruce never did any of that. To this day, Meryden says she doesn’t know what a truckload of sand costs.

“There was just no way we could do that. We had paid for the house. And we just couldn’t do it.”

All that's left of 103 Wood Avenue in Sandwich.
Credit Samantha Fields

About a dozen homes along Town Neck Beach sustained significant damage during the back-to-back storms in March. But 103 Wood Avenue was the only one the building inspectors deemed had to come down. 

Walking along the beach now, it would be easy to miss the spot where the house once stood. All that’s left is an almost-empty patch of sand, with a single staircase, a railing and a flagpole. 

Technically, there’s enough land for them to rebuild. And before all this, they had figured they would, if the worst happened. Take the $250,000 pay out from the National Flood Insurance Program and build a new house, another little one.  

But, Meryden said, the water went all the way up and over their property – clear through to the road on the other side. And so they decided that it just doesn’t make sense to build there again. Not now, anyway.

Instead, they bought a new house, just a couple of weeks ago, in East Sandwich.
 

Their new home, in East Sandwich, looks out on the woods.
Credit Samantha Fields

It’s all on one floor, which is good for Bruce, who’s about to turn 80. And it’s got lots of windows that look out on the woods, instead of the water.

“I think we’ll be very happy here,” Meryden said. “I do. But our time on the beach was really special.”

And losing that house is the worst thing she’s ever gone through.

“This is really hard for me to talk about. I haven’t talked about it. The only reason I wanted to share it with you is because I knew other people were going to have to face it too.”

People all over the Cape, and beyond, who know, like she knew, that they’re living on borrowed time.   

Samantha Fields is a reporting fellow with the GroundTruth project, stationed at WCAI.