CAPE MAY — It’s been more than 20 years since Chad deSatnick broke his neck surfing the beach in Cape May.
He had the chance to walk again. Since then, deSatnick has been a persistent advocate for beach safety, calling on Cape May to do more to educate the public and reduce the risk of others being harmed.
“I was a broken record for 20 years. That’s exactly what I’ve been,” he told Cape May City Council at a recent meeting where he again called for more action for safer beaches. “I’ve told my story hundreds of times to this council. This is my last plea. This is the last time I come here.
At deSatnick’s request, the city established a beach safety advisory committee several years ago, and printed safety brochures and installed warning signs. On Tuesday, he suggested the city dilute the beach safety committee’s message with other priorities. He called for a new project that could reduce the dangers to swimmers and surfers.
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He told council members he was not an expert in coastal engineering, but said the city could work with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Protection. Status on a pilot project.
Ed Voigt, a spokesman for the Army Corps’ Philadelphia District, said Friday that he was unaware of any pilot programs aimed at improving safety on restocked beaches and that while he had heard of specific examples, sometimes tragic, of people injured, he has not seen data showing that beaches that are replenished are less safe than those that have not had a beach project.
The rationale for beach restoration projects, which have become standard for most Jersey Shore beaches, is to protect communities from storm damage, Voigt said. There is a benefit for tourism, he said, but that is not the purpose of the projects.
Voigt said there were discussions about a pilot project at a meeting that included the army corps, the city and the beach safety committee. But he added that the shape of the beach is changing rapidly after a replenishment project.
“It changes very quickly. The ocean is a very dynamic place,” he said.
At the board meeting, deSatnick said he couldn’t say what his proposed project would entail.
“I am not an expert. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert,” deSatnick said.
This month, the city sent out a notice that the Cape May Beach Safety Committee has met again with Steve Steger as chair, Lorraine Baldwin as council representative and Marc DeBlasio as as a consulting engineer.
The committee will focus on beach safety, according to the announcement, as well as the beach patrol website, information on beach safety, beach access and public address system for s ensure announcements can be heard on the beach.
This summer, each entrance to the beach will be equipped with beach mats to facilitate access for people in wheelchairs or strollers, according to the city’s press release.
Water quality will also be a topic, Mayor Zack Mullock said Friday. In 2019, four Cape May beaches were closed just before the July 4 holiday by the state Department of Health over water quality concerns.
The committee plans to hold an open house at the Beach Patrol headquarters, 238 Beach Ave., from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on June 26.
At the council meeting, deSatnick questioned council members and City Attorney Chris Gillin-Schwartz about how often they go into the ocean in the summer and where.
“Wherever the waves are good, Chad,” Gillin-Schwartz said.
“Every one of us here wants a safer beach. I hope you know that, Chad,” Mullock said.
“Use of semantics, Zack, beaches are safe. It’s all about the surf zone,” deSatnick replied. He said the area where the waves are breaking is the most dangerous.
DeSatnick spoke of specific cases of people with spinal cord injuries in Cape May, some with devastating results. He was joined by Sam Jarmer, from Ocean Grove, who had been a lifeguard and now relies on a wheelchair after a spinal cord injury.
Jarmer’s injury occurred in 2019, when he dived over a wave while working as a lifeguard in Ocean Grove, according to injury reports.
Similar injuries happen every summer, deSatnick said.
The ocean is an inherently dangerous place, Mullock said. He said the city should do everything in its power to improve safety, but there was simply no way to make ocean waves completely safe.
After the meeting, Mullock said statistics indicate Cape May’s beaches are about as safe as any. Data from the United States Lifesaving Association seems to confirm this. Details of beach patrol actions from Jersey Shore beaches in 2018 released by the USLA show 17 major medical aids in Cape May that summer and 185 minor injuries. That’s over just over a million visitors to the beach. There were 197 rescues that summer in Cape May, according to the report.
In Ocean City, with 2.36 million visitors, there were 131 serious injuries that summer and 815 minor injuries, according to the report. Ocean City reported 390 rescues that year. The Wildwood Beach Patrol reported 3.5 million visitors, with 51 seriously injured, 162 slightly injured and 118 rescued.
But deSatnick was citing spinal cord injuries, not all serious injuries. USLA data does not break down specific injuries.
Cape May Beach Patrol Leader Harry Back was a lifeguard before the first beach replenishment project 35 years ago. He agrees with deSatnick that spinal cord injuries became more common in the city after that.
He cited the shape of the beach. After hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of sand were added, what was a long sloping beach now dropped steeply into deeper water.
This means the waves break closer to the beach, and on most Cape May beaches, someone is in the water a few feet from the dry sand.
Head, neck and back injuries weren’t even part of the training when he started as a lifeguard, Back said. Shortly after the beach project, he said, there was a noticeable increase in spinal cord injuries. Someone riding a wave can hit the sand with unexpected force, at a more dangerous angle due to the shape of the beach.
He cited deSatnick’s efforts and the work of the beach safety committee to educate visitors and residents about the danger in the surf area. He also mentioned improving the training of guards.
“What they’ve done, in terms of raising awareness and promoting beach safety, has been phenomenal,” Back said. “I can tell you it’s much better.”
But he added that the city badly needs to recharge its beaches. Prior to the first beach project, he set up his lifeguard booth on Philadelphia Avenue on a rock on the seawall, with no beach in front.
Mullock said something similar – that without beach replenishment, Cape May would have no beach at all, with high tides slamming against the Promenade.
“Let it be put on record that I never, ever said beach replenishment needed to be stopped,” deSatnick said. “It’s vital that shoreline protections, beachfront homes and businesses thrive in our city.”
But he still believes more can be done to prevent future injuries.
The mother of Sam Jarmer, the former Ocean Grove lifeguard who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2019 when he dove over a wave while at work, has pleaded with the city council to do everything possible.
“I speak to you as a mother. If there’s anything you can do as a council, please do it,” Jessica Jarmer said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Whatever needs to be done, please make it a priority. Don’t let this happen to another child, I pray to God.
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