Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Against the Tide (Book Review)

[The following book review was first published in the November, 1999 monthly newsletter of the Pensacola Beach Residents & Leaseholders Assn. This book has now been issued in paperback]
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Since October 4, 1995, when the eye of Hurricane Opal rushed ashore just east of Pensacola Beach, the evidence has been mounting that Santa Rosa Island is in crisis.

As disastrous as the storm was, in her new book Against The Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches, Cornelia Dean would not find grounds for thinking Opal caused an environmental crisis. She recognizes that hurricanes are Nature’s way of renewing barrier islands by bringing them new sand from off-shore and nudging them landward as the sea level rises.

The real crisis on this island, she likely would conclude, stems from the wave of SRIA-approved high rises like Santa Rosa Tower, Spring Hill Hotel, the Hampton Inn Tower Addition & Parking Garage, Mr. Levin’s Portofino Towers, and the proposed 80,000 square-foot county convention center to be located on the Surf & Sand cottages site, as the SRIA has proposed.
“Erosion does not threaten the beach per se. Left to confront a rising sea, a beach will simply move inland.”
– Against the Tide
Cornelia Dean, who is science editor of the New York Times, uses vivid anecdotes and real-life tales from around the nation to present a straight-forward and balanced account of similar crises facing all of America’s coastal communities.

The author, who is herself a barrier island resident on Cape Code, spends little time examining the North Florida area. Nevertheless, her book is a must-read for anyone who lives near Pensacola Beach or cares about its future. It distills in easily understood and compelling terms the latest research, thinking, successes, and failures of coastal geologists, engineers, meteorologists, economists, developers, residents, and governments as they grapple with increased tropical storm activity, rising sea levels, and over-development along the eroding shorelines of our coasts.

The book begins with the engrossing story of how Galveston’s city fathers, after the devastating hurricane of 1900, decided to try to hold back the sea. They elevated all 2,156 surviving buildings as much as twenty-two feet in the air, stuffed 15 million cubic yards of sand and mud beneath, and hunkered down behind a new concrete sea wall 3 miles long, 17 feet high, and 16 feet wide at its base.

It was claimed that this engineering feat, as much a marvel of its time as any high rise today, would save Galveston’s beach, then regarded as a prime tourist attraction. But after tens of millions of dollars and years of titanic toil, what actually happened was that beach erosion accelerated. Indeed, so thoroughly was Galveston’s beach destroyed by the act of trying to save it with a giant sea wall that, today, one of the city’s chief tourist attractions is said to be the museum and commemorative exhibits showing how everything went so very wrong.

Dan examines America’s beaches from many perspectives. First, she explores how natural processes created and shaped them over the eons. There is much here that fascinates, even for island residents who witness the daily changes of our own beach.

Second, Ms. Dean describes the migration of Americans to live on or near the beach. Truly, in recent years we have seen a tide of humanity rushing for the sea.

“Until this century few people lived near the beach,” she writes. “Today, the opposite pattern is well established. Almost half of all construction in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s took place in coastal areas, and demographers estimate that by the year 2000, 80 percent of all Americans will live within an hour’s drive of the coast. By 2010, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration says, population density along the ocean coasts will be almost four hundred people per square mile as against less than one hundred per square mile for the rest of the nation.”

At the top of Dean's list of reasons for beach development are the National Flood Insurance Program which began in 1968 and FEMA’s emergency services. “Until the advent of federal flood insurance, it was practically impossible to insure beachfront and nearby structures against flood damage,” she writes. “This meant, among other things, that most aspiring beachfront property owners had to pay cash for their property, because most bankers would not issue mortgages for structures they could not insure. It also meant that most houses on the beach were modest affairs. If they washed away, so be it.”

All that changed with the availability of federal flood insurance. In the view of some critics, Dean reports, the program created “a kind of moral hazard that exists when people are free to engage in dangerous behavior, like building on the beach, because they know they are protected from its consequences.”

In some ways, other facts Dean recites undercut this criticism. A surprisingly high number of flood plain dwellers remain uninsured. Instead, they apparently count on free emergency help from FEMA if disaster should ever strike. Furthermore, flood insurance regulations themselves have, as intended, substantially improved near-beach construction techniques and thus reduced the risk of loss. Many states are taking dramatic steps to price flood insurance more fairly. Few will consider it a bargain in the near future. FEMA itself has toughened regulations to exclude structures which repeatedly suffer large claims.
“Decisions to armor the coast are not decisions to save the beach – quite the contrary.”
– Against The Tide
The central meaning behind the title of the book can be found in Dean’s vivid description of the efforts people, businesses, and governments make, once they have settled in along the coast, to suppress the same natural forces that once shaped and protected the beaches. Coastal inhabitants themselves, she suggests, work “against the tide” by building groins, revetments, bulkheads, breakwaters, sea walls, and other coastal engineering devices. As in the case of Galveston, however, it turns out that armoring usually destroys the very thing that attracted people to the beach in the first place.

“By some estimates, almost 50 percent of the nation’s shoreline is armored with hard structures,” Dean tells us. After studying the effect of these structures in close detail over many decades, experts have concluded that “decisions to armor the coast are not decisions to save the beach – quite the contrary. They are decisions to sacrifice the beach, or a neighboring beach, for the sake of buildings.”

Ms. Dean is not unsympathetic to the dilemma confronting beach-front property owners. “Faced with the choice of saving building or beach, few are brave enough – or farsighted, benevolent, or rich enough – to choose beach. They want walls now. They will worry about the beach later.”

And so she traces the search by scientists and engineers to find softer engineering solutions such as beach scraping, man-made replacement dunes, renourishment projects, and a host of other imaginative techniques. So far, it seems, most have proven unsuitable or far too expensive.

“On the whole,” Dean writes after a riveting description of many coastal projects around the nation, “replenished beaches do not have a very good record of longevity. Measured in terms of dry beach, not a single replenishment project on the Atlantic north of Florida has lasted more than five years... .” Even when they survive for a time, “renourished beaches are rarely as satisfactory as the natural beaches they replace.” Like the steel-hard surface of Miami Beach, “they do not act, feel, or look like the beaches nature makes.”

This fascinating book identifies three basic approaches to solving the problem of coastal erosion: “Armor, beach nourishment, and retreat.” After studying the futile efforts of so many other beach communities around the nation, readers will be left in no doubt as to which approach the author would see as most likely to preserve our own Emerald Coast beaches.

By “retreat” she does not mean to imply a wholesale abandonment of coastal areas – an impracticality in any event. The data and examples she reviews, however, make a compelling case that barrier islands and coastal communities must find ways to scale back development to levels that are sustainable, prohibit excessive construction in high hazard areas, and preserve the natural defenses Nature supplies to defend against the tide.

It happens that one of the most important of these are island wetlands of the very kind that presently exist on the site of the Levin Towers project. As the author explains:
“One surprisingly effective tactic for strengthening barrier islands is to encourage the formation and growth of marshes on their inland sides. Once a marsh is established, even in a small area, its grasses will start to trap sediment that might otherwise end up in the middle of the sound or lagoon, and the more sediment is trapped, the more the marsh will expand. The result can be effective shore protection without any of the habitat or nutrient loss that occurs when people seal off the marsh shoreline with bulkheads.”
Another intriguing defense for barrier islands the book identifies is underwater sand pumping to form submerged feeder berms. This technique, which originated in Australia, has been tried only in a limited number of areas in the United States. The idea is to add sand not along the shore or beach itself, but rather offshore in submerged areas where observation discloses Nature “is most likely to build its own sandbar.”

As with other renourishment techniques, building an underwater “feeder” sand bar requires close study of each particular site’s water currents, existing sand transport patterns, and a host of other minute variables like wind speed, wave strength, ambient and water temperatures, sea grass bed patterns, sea bottom topography, and more. Ultimately, the success of every renourishment project depends heavily on proper scientific analysis in preparation for each site.

Overall, Against the Tide suggests there is room for habitation along the coast and on barrier islands. But we should not allow development to become so excessive that we destroy the very thing that brought us here


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