Storms are intensifying and sea levels are rising, yet we keep building on the shore. It's time to step back
“No one could have predicted this.”
Those were the words of President Bush after Katrina, and as soon as they came out of his mouth you could almost imagine a hundred coastal scientists shaking their heads all at once, thinking, no sir, this is exactly what we predicted. So, too, New York City last week, though honestly — and I know that this isn’t what people suffering right now want to hear — a lot of the predictions painted a picture that was a lot worse. Water higher, winds wilder, buildings down.
Where I live we are used to such beatings. While I’ve lived on the Atlantic Coast for the better part of my life, it wasn’t until I moved to a barrier island off of North Carolina that I started to think hard about hurricanes. That thinking progressed, as thought often does, by way of metaphor. One day I was kayaking from the island I called home, Wrightsville Beach, over to our sister island to the south, the uninhabited Masonboro, a nature preserve which, bolstered by its backside marsh, still handled hurricanes in the old fashioned way. Pancake flat and nearly treeless, Masonboro doesn’t look particularly hardy, but its healthy marshes allow it to receive and interact with storms in ways my developed island could not: sand spilling over the island and the marsh growing, the island gradually but constantly migrating landward. It is through this sort of elemental rope-a-dope that the coastal islands have always interacted with storms, water rushing over land, sands breaking down and reforming, those sands retreating to the marsh on its backside, rebuilding in a new place, giving and taking.
My cluttered island, by contrast, looked decidedly fragile as I kayaked back toward it. In fact, paddling home, a strange metaphor came to mind. With its flat treeless land and tall buildings, the island looked like nothing so much as a dinner table full of empty plates and bottles after a party, waiting, I thought, for an angry drunk to come along and sweep it clean with his arm. Of course the hurricane is the angry drunk.
It was after my second hurricane that I started to try and educate myself. I sought out Orrin Pilkey, a coastal geologist and Duke emeritus professor, who graciously took me on a tour of the Outer Banks, pointing out that the way we have developed the coast is a disaster waiting to happen. Orrin described the basic math of living by the shore. How more than 50 percent of Americans now live on the country’s edges, a total of over 153 million people, and an increase of 33 million people since 1980. And how these people keep building larger and larger homes closer and closer to the sea just as the shoreline is eroding and the sea level rising, not to mention the fact that coastal storms, including most obviously Atlantic hurricanes, are becoming more violent. Long before others did, Orrin Pilkey saw this combination of forces as the recipe for disaster that it was.
He pointed at the buildings lining the Carolina shore.
“The problem with high rises is you can’t move them,” he said. “And if you can’t move them the sea will eventually drag them down.”
Living by the coast, Orrin stressed, has always been a precarious business, even without sea level rise. But sea level rise, and intensifying storms, would change the game considerably, would speed up the inevitable disasters.
Not long after that trip, I decided to drive farther up the coast, stretching my boundaries and visiting the Jersey shore. I stopped at Asbury Park, standard Bruce homage, and spent the night at the fortress-sized Tropicana casino in Atlantic City. There I remembered Orrin’s words.
“New Jersey was really a giant science experiment,” he’d told me. “New Jersey was the home of some of the first vacation spots and one of the first places to arm their beaches. Thanks to New Jersey we learned that any sort of hard stabilization—sea walls, groins, and jetties—was very damaging to the beach. We learned that the damage occurs just by building something fixed by the beach—could be a highway, for instance. The problem of beaches is that they are eroding and always moving. The beach tends to move toward that fixed thing and get narrower and narrower and narrower until it disappears altogether.”
With Orrin’s introduction, I met Sue Halsey, aka “Doctor Dune,” a New Jersey coastal planner and coastal advocate who gave me a tour of the coastal towns. She showed me the jetties and groins and other armaments that have been used in the century-long war at the shore, a war that goes on with little awareness from the tourists and most of the town dwellers. In that war, armaments — walls, sandbags, jetties — have been used to block the rising sea. Most people think it is just common sense to build these walls to protect ourselves. But what most people don’t know is that it is the beaches that really protect us and that often these walls destroy the beaches. In this particular war, our defense is our greatest weakness, often destroying exactly what we hope to protect.
I’ve found myself a lot about those beaches, and about Sue Halsey and Orrin, in the days since Sandy. I have wondered: what would Orrin Pilkey’s advice be in this time when it seems merely patriotic to re-build? And I know the answer. The same it has always been. One word: Retreat. It may have a somewhat unmanly ring to it, but he believes it is the only answer. Move back from the beach, and let the beach, and the coastline, do the work it did for centuries. Turn off the feel good music and don’t repeat your mistake and re-build in the line of fire.
Of course he also knows just about how likely this is.
“What’s remarkable so far is how storms barely slow down coastal development,” he told me. “I was down in Florida after hurricane Donna hit in 1960 and people said, ‘Well I guess this is the end of the Keys.’ Of course it was really just the beginning. They started building even bigger places. When the North Carolina coast started being developed heavily we coastal scientists used to say ‘What we need is a big storm.’ We figured that people would see what a storm did and heed its warning. But then Hurricane Hugo hit and we learned that people start building again as soon as the wind dies down. Hurricanes have actually become giant urban renewal projects. The buildings come back bigger than before. But of course the site they are building on is even more dangerous because the shoreline has retreated landward and the dunes have been damaged. But still they re-build. It’s really a form of societal madness. I can’t put it any more strongly.”
* * *
A year after my first trip with Orrin we took another. In 2009 we decided to tour a different sort of coastline, traveling through the streets of Manhattan not the Outer Banks. The differences are obvious, but the similarities were what really struck us. This island, like the ones we had explored earlier, was low lying with precarious development too close to the shore. And like many of the islands of the Outer Banks, Manhattan had roads that ran right through it, roads that would actually usher the water through the place. In fact the streets reminded me of being a kid on Cape Cod, how I loved to play on the small sandbar islands that revealed themselves at the beach at low tide and how, when the tide started to come back in, I would aid the rising waters by digging lines across the sandbars with my heel, creating canals for the incoming tide to run through. I would often dig about a dozen of these lines across the sandbar islands, flooding them before their time. The same can happen both on the Outer Banks and in New York City.
During that day of walking through New York, three years before Sandy, Orrin Pilkey pointed out many of the things that have become familiar to people over the last few days. He took me down to Battery Park, recently the haunt of Jim Cantore, and showed me how easily water could flow into lower Manhattan. We followed the path of the then still-theoretical water to the construction site of ground zero and imagined it as a lake, then followed it to the next subway stop, where Orrin described potential waterfalls, lamenting that we, unlike the Japanese, have subway stairs that go straight down instead of going down, up, then down again like theirs. He pointed out the spots that were only three feet above sea level, and explained how that didn’t quite square with his own predictions for sea level rise, which were twice that.
I started to see the city as something primal that day, a hint of how many are seeing it now. Adding to that picture, Orrin reminded me of Hurricane Donna, which he had witnessed down in Florida. The same storm hit New York on Sept, 12, 1960 with 90 mile an hour winds and five inches of rain, leaving people in lower Manhattan trudging through waist-deep water, others floating along in rowboats. He predicted this would happen again soon. It wasn’t prophecy really, just common sense. Logic. Rising sea level, increased intensity of storms, warmer waters, overdevelopment, the sheer precariousness of it all. It added up. And it wouldn’t happen once, he suggested, but over and over.
Mind-blowing stuff, for me at least, almost unimaginable, at least back then. But the odd thing was that it wasn’t Orrin’s words that I most remember when I think back on that day. What I remember most happened even before we met that morning. Orrin had flown up to New York from Raleigh-Durham on the early bird, but I’d had spent the night before across the Hudson at my in-laws’ house in Cliffside Heights, N.J. Cliffside Heights stands at the top of the southern palisades, cliffs that formed millions of years ago when molten magma thrust upward, pushing formations of dolerite, a basaltic rock, into the sky. In the early morning mist I left their apartment and hiked almost straight down to the town of Edgewater, where I would take the ferry over to meet Orrin in Manhattan. In Edgewater I had my first hint of the primal day to come: dozens of squawking parrots, each a vibrant tropical green, up in nests among the trees and telephone poles, all as absorbed in their parakeet affairs as the commuters hurtling up the hill were in their human ones. Thanks to an article in a local paper that my mother-in-law had shown me, I knew a little of the history of those birds, or at least of their ancestors. They had escaped from a shipping crate at Kennedy International Airport, and flew off to colonize sections of Brooklyn before settling the streets of Edgewater. The result: jungle noises during the morning commute.
But it wasn’t even the parrots I remember most from that day. The moment that stuck, and that I have been stuck on over the last week, came while steaming through the Hudson’s brown-gray waters, a great blue heron flying overhead with deep, slow wingbeats, as if paddling through something viscous. The heron led us east across the water toward the city and I watched its flight until I was distracted by the buildings it flew toward, buildings that rose up like chess pieces on a flat board. It was a view that had launched a thousand metaphors. Some have seen the vision that was in front of me as a shining example of human progress and ascension, some as merely hubristic. As always these visions reflect the preconceptions, and preoccupations, of the viewers.
As did mine. And to my eyes, staring at the buildings as we closed in on the shore, and my storm-obsessed mind, the place looked terrifically vulnerable. I thought of my home island, Wrightsville Beach, and my kayak trip. While mine is a small barrier island, not a chunk of glaciated bedrock like Manhattan, and while it is home to three thousand people, not eight million, in that moment the two were the same. It was the sight I’d seen from my kayak all over again: the same tall empty bottles stacked up on the same late night dinner table. Just taller bottles and a whole lot more of them.
And as for the angry drunk? Well, by that point I didn’t really need Orrin Pilkey, or anyone else, to tell me he was coming.
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