By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
MATUNUCK, Rhode Island (Reuters) - "This is what I call salvage" said Chris Hannafin, jumping across what was once was the front wall of his friends' oceanside cottage.
For hours, he and friends had been racing against the clock and the rising tide to claim mementos, bureaus, pillows and even a toilet and carry them to higher ground - away from the cottage now only inches from the encroaching sea.
Neighbors and friends - some silently wiping away tears - surveyed the damage Hurricane Sandy had inflicted on a close-knit summer community called Roy Carpenter's Beach in Matunuck.
Now with the rain picking up again and the tide coming in, Hannafin shouted to his 9-year-old daughter to jump out of the way of the next wave.
"Three houses are completely gone, and this could be four or five," Hannafin said, gesturing to where he was standing and to the equally battered neighboring cottage.
Waterlogged bedding, children's toys, rubber shoes and plenty of siding littered the normally neat rows of oceanfront cottages. Families have summered there for generations, through the massive hurricane of 1938 and Hurricane Carol in 1954, said Nancy Carpenter Thoresen, whose family still owns the land on which some 375 small cottages are built.
"I did not think I would be as emotional seeing it" said a teary-eyed Lainie McCauley, 51, who has been swimming here her whole life. "This is just devastating."
For years the so-called front row of Roy Carpenter's was the most desirable location: Families had a perfect view of the ocean and on a clear day, Block Island. They were only steps from the water. Indeed the Shalvey family, whose house was completely washed away, bought only a few years ago, snagging one of the hard-to-come-by properties for about $175,000, other owners familiar with the cost said. Residents, who own the structures but lease the land, have to pay a $3,000 fee each summer.
Now all that could be done was to haul away what could be saved and send pictures to the owners. Hannafin was salvaging what he could for a family from Connecticut. The owners of the neighboring cottage, whose front wall was torn away, leaving a tiny kitchen exposed like a shop window, live in New Jersey.
Beach erosion has long been a problem, and for years Thoresen and other residents have been urging the front row to have their homes moved back. "They didn't want to, though." Thoresen said. "It would be expensive, and they would lose their view."
"If it goes, it goes" Thoresen recalls one owner saying when she was urged to move. This time, it went.
(Reporting By Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Ciro Scotti)