Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches

Overview

Americans love to colonize their beaches. But when storms threaten, high-ticket beachfront construction invariably takes precedence over coastal environmental concerns -- we rescue the buildings, not the beaches. As Cornelia Dean explains in Against the Tide, this pattern is leading to the rapid destruction of our coast. But her eloquent account also offers sound advice for salvaging the stretches of pristine American shore that remain.

The story begins with the tale of the ...

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Overview

Americans love to colonize their beaches. But when storms threaten, high-ticket beachfront construction invariably takes precedence over coastal environmental concerns -- we rescue the buildings, not the beaches. As Cornelia Dean explains in Against the Tide, this pattern is leading to the rapid destruction of our coast. But her eloquent account also offers sound advice for salvaging the stretches of pristine American shore that remain.

The story begins with the tale of the devastating hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900 -- the deadliest natural disaster in American history, which killed some six thousand people. Misguided residents constructed a wall to prevent another tragedy, but the barrier ruined the beach and ultimately destroyed the town's booming resort business.

From harrowing accounts of natural disasters to lucid ecological explanations of natural coastal processes, from reports of human interference and construction on the shore to clear-eyed elucidation of public policy and conservation interests, this book illustrates in rich detail the conflicting interests, short-term responses, and long-range imperatives that have been the hallmarks of America's love affair with her coast.

Intriguing observations about America's beaches, past and present, include discussions of Hurricane Andrew's assault on the Gulf Coast, the 1962 northeaster that ravaged one thousand miles of the Atlantic shore, the beleaguered beaches of New Jersey and North Carolina's rapidly vanishing Outer Banks, and the sand-starved coast of southern California. Dean provides dozens of examples of human attempts to tame the ocean -- as well as a wealth of lucid descriptions of the ocean's counterattack. Readers will appreciate Against the Tide's painless course in coastal processes and new perspective on the beach.

Columbia University Press

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year; Library Journal, Honorable Mention for Best Book of the Year; Delta Kappa Gamma Society Educator's Award 2000; American Association for the Advancement of Science, Best Books and Films of 1999; ;

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Editorial Reviews

Science
Against the Tide flashes like a metaphorical lighthouse to warn scientists, policymakers, and the public about the state of the shoreline.

— Tom Drake

American Scientist

Entertaining and thoroughly thought provoking.

Time Magazine

Dean powerfully argues [that] America may face a future of beachless beach towns.

New York Times Book Review
Dean has done a first-rate job of making coastal conservation interesting. Against the Tide would be good beach reading.

— David Rains Wallace

Walter Cronkite

To anyone interested in the preservation of the nation's beaches this is the handbook -- incredibly well researched and interestingly presented. And that 'anyone'should be all of us for our beaches are a national heritage and a precious resource that we owe our future generations.

Science - Tom Drake

Against the Tide flashes like a metaphorical lighthouse to warn scientists, policymakers, and the public about the state of the shoreline.

New York Times Book Review - David Rains Wallace

Dean has done a first-rate job of making coastal conservation interesting. Against the Tide would be good beach reading.

The Japan Times - Heather Dewar

Dean has written a workmanlike description of the ongoing struggle to turn back the tide on America's beaches by pinning down our shorelines -- defying their essential nature, a continual dance of destruction and renewal.

The Amicus Journal - Kate Barnes

Against the Tide should be a potent weapon in the environmental effort to save what remains of our natural coastline. Everyone who reads it will be forcefully reminded that the Bible was right: it is not a good idea to build your house upon the sand.

New York Times - Ann Finkbeiner

Dean knows that the best advocacy is to lay out the whole story, all sides, fairly and neutrally.... She has made her case so clearly and cleanly, with such persuasive examples, and so much credit where it is due, that I'm convinced.

The Raleigh News & Observer - John Manuel

An engaging overview of the powerful natural forces at work on the beach and why the various manmade strategies designed to alter them either don't work at all or don't work as intended.

Boston Globe - Michael Kenney

Dean... covers considerable territory as she details the persistent efforts of developers and developer-prodded government agencies to 'armor' the coast against the action of wind and waves. But 'nature,' she notes, usually 'has the last word,' undercutting seawalls and toppling houses.

New Scientist - Jeff Hecht

Dean tells a gripping tale, drawing on her knowledge of the coasts of Massachusetts and New York, and on the experts who have spent a generation learning the working of sea and sand.

The Japan Times
Dean has written a workmanlike description of the ongoing struggle to turn back the tide on America's beaches by pinning down our shorelines — defying their essential nature, a continual dance of destruction and renewal.

— Heather Dewar

Molly Ivins

For anyone who has ever walked along a beach in that Zen-like state that only beach walks provide, do not miss this book. Especially if you're a taxpayer.... I honestly think this could be one of those rare books that changes government policy -- at local, state, and federal levels.

The Amicus Journal
Against the Tide should be a potent weapon in the environmental effort to save what remains of our natural coastline. Everyone who reads it will be forcefully reminded that the Bible was right: it is not a good idea to build your house upon the sand.

— Kate Barnes

New York Times
Dean knows that the best advocacy is to lay out the whole story, all sides, fairly and neutrally.... She has made her case so clearly and cleanly, with such persuasive examples, and so much credit where it is due, that I'm convinced.

— Ann Finkbeiner

The Raleigh News & Observer
An engaging overview of the powerful natural forces at work on the beach and why the various manmade strategies designed to alter them either don't work at all or don't work as intended.

— John Manuel

Discover

Dean's opening chapter on the hurricane that flattened Galveston in 1900... is worth the price of the book.

Boston Globe
Dean... covers considerable territory as she details the persistent efforts of developers and developer-prodded government agencies to 'armor' the coast against the action of wind and waves. But 'nature,' she notes, usually 'has the last word,' undercutting seawalls and toppling houses.

— Michael Kenney

New Scientist
Dean tells a gripping tale, drawing on her knowledge of the coasts of Massachusetts and New York, and on the experts who have spent a generation learning the working of sea and sand.

— Jeff Hecht

David Rains Wallace
...Dean does an excellent job of explaining how [beaches] evolve and function....The upshot seems clear: America can't expect to preserve its beaches if it keeps destroying them with coastal construction....Dean has done a first-rate job of making coastal conservation interesting...good beach reading.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An eloquent, forceful plea to save America's rapidly eroding beaches and coastline, this revelatory and disturbing report from the science editor of the New York Times is reminiscent of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in its sense of urgency and moral passion. From the motels and T-shirt shops of beachless Florida "beach towns" to Los Angeles County, most of whose beaches are artificial, the story Dean tells is the same. People build on unstable landforms, then attempt to avoid the inevitable consequences through quick technological fixes: concrete seawalls, artificial reefs, sand-trapping steel groins, jetties, underground "dewatering" systems of pipes and pumps, etc. These techno-fixes may prolong the life of coastal buildings, but they usually accelerate erosion and environmental degradation--and taxpayers end up spending tens of millions of dollars to protect the property of those who knew they were building or buying in an unsafe place. Dean's book is a lucid primer on coastal engineering; it is also an appalling tale of shortsightedness, greed and willful ignorance, as property owners and developers square off against environmentalists and beach preservationists. It opens with a dramatic account of the hurricane that blasted Galveston, Tex., in 1900, leading the city to make a "Faustian bargain" by erecting a seawall that hastened the beach's demise. Dean sees Hurricane Andrew's devastation of the Gulf Coast in 1992 as a warning about overdevelopment of the shore and the failure to make houses hurricane-resistant. As the book's title suggests, Dean's call for restraint in building, strategic retreat and conservation of our shores goes against the current, but it is well worth listening to, especially as many climatologists predict rising sea levels due to global warming. Photos. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
New York Times science writer Dean's thoughtful and eloquent plea to save America's beaches from overdevelopment and erosion is destined to be a classic of environmental writing. LJ 5/15/99 Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Science editor for the Dean warns beach lovers and environmentalists that US beaches are vanishing. She traces the history and reviews the science of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts with a particular focus on hurricanes and other disasters; then describes how they are being squeezed between the rising sea level and development. She dismisses most remedies as doing more harm than good, and offers advice for salvaging what remains. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
David Rains Wallace
...Dean does an excellent job of explaining how [beaches] evolve and function....The upshot seems clear: America can't expect to preserve its beaches if it keeps destroying them with coastal construction....Dean has done a first-rate job of making coastal conservation interesting...good beach reading.
The New York Times Book Review
School Library Journal

Engaging yet informative.... Y[oung] A[dult]s interested in environmental careers and beach lovers of all ages will get caught up in this book. Logically arranged and written in a straightforward style, it enables readers to look at the familiar with new and knowledgeable eyes.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231084192
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 3/7/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 296
  • Lexile: 1320L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.99 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Cornelia Dean is science editor of the New York Times, where she writes frequently on coastal issues. She is also heard regularly on WQEW and WQXR's "Health Times."

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

1. September, Remember2. The Great Beach3. Armor4. Unkind Cuts5. Unnatural Appetite6. Cause and Effect7. The Big One8. Clues9. Constituency of Ignorance10. For SaleEpilogue

Columbia University Press

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First Chapter

Chapter One


September, Remember


June, too soon.
July, stand by.
August, look out you must.
September, remember.
October, all over.
—R. Inwards, Weather Lore


As the twentieth century dawned on Galveston, Texas, the island city was a thriving place. Built on a narrow, sandy barrier island at the mouth of Galveston Bay, the city had a fine anchorage and a three-mile railroad causeway to the mainland, and together they made Galveston the center of commerce for the entire Southwest. Nearly all the goods and people entering Texas came across the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston, and it was fast becoming the number one cotton port in the world. Its forty thousand residents enjoyed two opera houses and the benefits of a recently established medical school. Galveston's wealth, per capita, was among the highest of any city's in the country, and its merchants, bankers, and builders displayed it in elaborate brick and timber mansions along the city's stately avenues. Along its side streets, frame houses or small apartment blocks housed the city's growing middle class. On fine days in the summer of 1900, Galvestonians strolled along an oceanfront promenade or took their ease on the verandas of the resort hotels set back from their wide sand beach.

    As on most days that summer, the Galveston Daily News of Saturday, September 8, held little that was startling: diplomats in China were negotiating over the Boxer Rebellion; a survey of the Brazos River was progressing nicely; the price of cotton was steady on the Liverpool market. On page 2, a small item noted: "Storm on Florida Coast." A storm bad struck the east coast of Florida, the article reported, and had moved across the state and into the Gulf of Mexico. "The gale continues," it said.

    The next day's edition told a different story. Printed with obvious difficulty on narrow paper, it said, in its entirety:


GALVESTON NEWS
Sunday, Sept. 9, 1900

Following is list of dead as accurately as News men have been able to make it. Those who have lost relatives should report same at News office. This list will be corrected and added to as returns come in.


    Below were two columns of names—men and women, husbands and wives, entire families. Everyone reading the paper knew what had killed them. The storm barely worth noting the day before had strengthened into a hurricane, crossed the Gulf, and struck a mortal blow at Galveston. Overnight, the city had lost 20 percent of its people in what remains the deadliest natural disaster ever in the United States.

    Isaac Monroe Cline was in charge of the U.S. Weather Service office in Galveston that Saturday. Though he had worked for the Weather Service for eighteen years, eleven of them in Galveston, he had never seen a hurricane, and he had received only fragmentary ship reports of the storm. Still, as the wind stiffened that morning, the tide rose far above normal, and ocean swells grew in height and frequency, Cline knew a severe storm was bearing down on the island. Without waiting for the obligatory instructions from Washington, he ordered the hurricane flags hoisted, and he set out to warn as many of his fellow citizens as he could.

    "I harnessed my horse to a two wheeled cart which I used for hunting and drove along the beach from one end of the town to the other," he wrote decades later. "I warned the people that great danger threatened them."

    Cline said later that his warning had encouraged holiday-makers to cut their visits short and board ferries or trains for the mainland. But even on a calm day, the railroad trestle barely cleared the waters of Galveston Bay, and this day was no longer calm. By noon, well before the storm hit, the bridge was swamped and ferry service to the mainland had halted. Galveston was cut off.

    Ideally situated for business, the city was a bad place to be in a hurricane. Galveston Island is little more than a thirty-three-mile ribbon of sand, only two miles wide at its widest. The city's highest point was not even nine feet above sea level, its average elevation only about five feet. Even that had been achieved at a price: sand dunes that might have offered some protection from the storm had been taken down and used to fill low places in the city's business district.

    By midafternoon, the entire island was under water. Cline dispatched his brother and assistant, Joseph Cline, to telegraph the chief of the Weather Bureau in Washington that "an awful disaster was upon us." Wading through water up to his waist, the younger Cline made it to the telegraph office, only to find the lines were out. One telephone line was working intermittently; just as he got his message to the Western Union office in Houston, it failed for good.

    Joseph Cline returned to the Weather Service office, and he and his brother decided to make for home. Struggling against wind, rain, and still-rising water, they waded almost two miles to Isaac Cline's house, where more than fifty people, including his wife and children, had sheltered. With storms in mind, he had built a stout house, and it stood for hours as the wind grew stronger and waves sent the debris of more fragile structures crashing against it. No one knows for sure how fast the wind blew—later, meteorologists estimated that sustained winds reached 120 miles per hour at the height of the storm.

    As the water rose, as high as sixteen feet in the heart of the city, the refugees in the Cline house moved to the second floor and, for a while, it seemed the house and its occupants might survive. But about 8 P.M., as lightning shattered the darkness, Isaac Cline looked out a window and saw part of a streetcar trestle, torn loose by the waves, heading toward him like a battering ram. The house was wrecked and everyone inside was thrown into the storm.

    Isaac Cline, his three children, Joseph Cline, and another little girl they snatched out of the water spent the next four hours clinging to floating wreckage and listening to the wind and the shrieks of the injured. By the time the waters began to recede around midnight, nearly everyone else who had sheltered in the Cline house was dead. "My wife's clothing was entangled in the wreckage and she never rose from the water," Cline recalled. Her body was' discovered several weeks later, tangled in the debris her family had clung to through the night.

    When the sun rose Sunday morning, six thousand people or more—no one could say exactly how many—had been drowned or battered to death in Galveston. House after house, block after block had been reduced to rubble. Streets were impassable, and even substantial public buildings were badly damaged.

    "The city of Galveston is wrapped in sackcloth and ashes," the Associated Press reported. "She sits beside her unnumbered dead and refuses to be comforted. Her sorrow and suffering are beyond description. Her grief is unspeakable."

    The dead lay where the retreating storm had left them. There was no way and no place to bury the bodies, so they were loaded on barges and dumped at sea, only to float to shore with each new tide. In desperation, the military authorities who took over the city ordered that the corpses be burned, in beach bonfires fueled with tons of wreckage. This work, so gruesome that men had to be forced at gunpoint to perform it, went on for weeks; the fires could be seen from the mainland until November. Eventually, the Galveston Daily News listed 4,263 identified dead; it is estimated that an additional 1,500 bodies had been disposed of without identification.


As soon as they could, some survivors packed up whatever they could salvage and abandoned Galveston for the mainland; others thought the entire city should move inland. But Galveston's leaders were determined to stay—and determined that such horror would never touch them again.

    They devised a plan that even in an era of engineering daring stood out for its size, cost, and audacity. They would wall off their city with a three-mile concrete barrier, seventeen feet high, sixteen feet wide at the base, and five feet wide at its top. Then, they would raise the elevation of the city behind it by as much as seventeen feet, out of reach of any storm. With confidence—or bravado—Galvestonians declared it would be the greatest engineering feat since the construction of the pyramids.

    Money was the project's first big obstacle. For one thing, though the shipping business quickly began to recover, much of the city's tax base had been destroyed, along with many of its roads, utility lines, and other infrastructure. Nevertheless, plans were drawn up and advertised, and a seawall bond referendum was held in November 1902. The measure passed by a vote of 3,085 to 21. Construction began immediately, and twenty-one months later the wall was finished.

    Meanwhile, engineers determined what the grade would have to be to meet the wall, and on every street workers painted white lines on utility poles to mark the height. Owners of buildings that had survived the storm were given a choice: jack them up, tear them down, or see them drowned in silt.

    To deliver the fill, engineers dug a canal down the middle of the island. Day and night, dredges moved back and forth between Galveston Harbor and this canal, dredging up fill from the harbor bottom and spewing it out on either side of the canal in a slurry of water and sand. The first area to be filled was along the seawall, then the rest of the city was filled, section by section.

    The lifting operation was one of sheer brawn. Laborers ran beams under the buildings and mounted them on screwjacks that burly men turned by hand. In this way, 2,156 buildings were laboriously hoisted, a quarter of an inch at a turn, until they reached the requisite height and new foundations could be built beneath them. Meanwhile, children climbed rickety catwalks to reach their schools; housewives hung their laundry from lines strung fifteen feet above the ground.

    Even substantial structures took to the air. At St. Patrick's Church, a three-hundred-ton brick structure, services continued as it rose to the grunts of laborers manning two hundred screwjacks beneath it. The building was raised five feet. The owners of several elegant Victorian mansions declined to subject them to the rigors of the screwjack. Instead, they let the pumped sand fill their first floor reception rooms or turned them into basements. The lawn of one graceful brick house, once surrounded by a ten-foot wrought-iron fence, is now edged by ornamental ironwork about a foot high—the top of the fence is peeking up through the surface of the fill that now surrounds it.

    Though a few wealthy citizens raised their trees as well as their houses, most of the vegetation that had survived the storm was ruthlessly drowned in the slurry of sand. Ardent gardeners boxed their oleanders and stored them on rooftops until they could replant them on higher ground, in topsoil imported from the mainland.

    When the project was finished, the city sloped from an elevation of about eight feet on the bay side to as much as twenty-two feet adjoining the new seawall. Water and sewer pipes, gas lines, and trolley tracks had also been raised. To cap the project, a protective layer of boulders, called rip-rap, was laid along the beach at the foot of the wall and a wide brick roadway was built along it, so all Galveston could enjoy the new vista by car or on foot. Although smaller grade-raising operations continued as late as 1928, the initial project was complete by February 1911. The wall itself cost about $1,250,000 and the fill more than $2 million. More than fifteen million cubic yards of sand had been pumped into the city. Property owners paid the cost of raising their own structures.

    As a flood protection measure, the wall was a fantastic success. At a ceremony in 1904 dedicating a monument to the effort, J. M. O'Rourke, one of the city's leaders, said it was unnecessary for him to proclaim the wall's merits. "If it ever has an opportunity you will find it well able to talk for itself," he said. On August 17, 1915, he was proved right. Another hurricane made a direct hit at Galveston. Though storm waves scoured its base and carried some of the rip-rap boulders over its top, the wall held. Most of the city remained dry and fewer than a dozen people lost their lives. Advocates and builders of the wall read this relatively low toll as proof that they had challenged the sea and won a bright future for their city.

    But Galveston had made a Faustian bargain, and it would pay the price. Bad weather, bad luck, bad timing, and the decision to bet everything on a seawall had put the city on a long, downhill slide.


Beaches and seawalls cannot coexist for long, especially in erosion-prone areas like Galveston. The reason is as simple as it is inexorable: an eroding shoreline is dynamic, but a wall is fixed. The water moves in, the wall stays put. Result: a narrower and narrower beach. Finally, the beach is gone, drowned in a process geologists call "passive erosion." Unless it is constantly extended, raised, rebuilt, and reinforced, no wall is a match for the ocean on an eroding beach. Eventually, it will be undermined and it will collapse. It may even accelerate its own destruction by inhibiting the natural ways beaches respond to bad weather.

    When a beach is threatened by a storm, it rearranges itself to cope. Harsh storm winds quickly carry lighter sand particles on the surface of the beach to the dunes, where the beach has already established reserves of sand. The heavier particles left behind form a kind of protective covering of coarse grains too heavy for the wind to pick up. If waves do bite into the dunes, the sand they carry away collects in underwater sandbars. These are exactly what the beach needs to break the waves offshore and weaken them before they hit the beach itself. The reserve battalions of sand are turned into frontline troops. Eventually, the storm passes. Now gentle swells pick up sand from the offshore bars, carry it inland and return it to the beach.

    This system offers every advantage. It operates automatically, requires no government funding, and provides, as a fringe benefit, the fun and beauty of the beach itself. But it has one giant drawback: it only works when people keep their houses, hotels, boardwalks, parking lots, roads, sewer lines, and the like out of the way—and the beach is free to move as it must to respond to storms. Nowadays, however, this kind of infrastructure is all over the coast. It is too valuable to lose, and the cry goes up: build a wall to protect it. Few people stop to calculate that the infrastructure's value derives in large part from the beach—the beach the wall will inevitably destroy.

    Sometimes the loss of beach begins at once, with the very placement of the wall. Property owners or civic leaders, eager to preserve as much real estate as possible, position the wall as close to the ocean as they can—in the dunes or even closer. The wall impounds all of the sand behind it. Now, when storm waves attack the beach, the beach does not have access to its reserves of sand. Bars still form, but at a greater cost: a gentle beach slope may turn into a steep decline, increasing the effects of the waves and leaving the beach even more vulnerable. And when gentle swells try to return sand to the beach, the wall stands in the way. The beach's primary defense mechanism for changing sea levels or wave conditions, the exchange of sand between dune and surfzone, is ended.

    Other problems also plague seawalls. Even the longest wall must end somewhere, and at that point its presence can cause severe erosion as storms waves cut around behind it. Plus, adjacent beaches are deprived of any of the impounded sand that might once have come into the water and drifted their way. As a result, erosion is often exaggerated at the ends of a seawall.

    Whether they know it or not, people who build seawalls commit themselves to the loss of their beach. Once the beach is gone, they are in real trouble. Maintaining even a modest seawall in the face of ocean onslaughts can be extremely expensive. In extreme cases, the costs can outweigh the value of the property the wall protects.


In January 190l, while Galveston was still reeling from the great storm, geologists working just inland discovered the Beaumont (Spindletop) oil field. The find brought vast new business to Texas, but wounded Galveston could not handle it. A small settlement further up Galveston Bay rose to the occasion; at first a municipal rival, Houston soon eclipsed Galveston, winning its business and then some. While Galveston barely held its own, Houston grew into the fourth largest city in the United States.

    Galveston's leaders turned to their beach as a source of revenue. With the end of World War I, they began touting the city as a vacation resort. But the beach was beginning to disappear. Within twenty years, the city had lost one hundred yards of sand. People who once watched auto racing on a wide beach were left with a narrow strip of sand at low tide and a gloomy vista of waves on rocks when the tide was high.

    A number of explanations were put forward to explain the loss of the beach; a jetty built at the east end of Galveston Island was one plausible villain. But underlying all of these explanations was one simple fact: in building the wall, Galveston had drawn a fixed line on a landscape of unstable sand. It had protected its homes and offices, its banks and warehouses. But it had lost its beach and its resort business with it. Prohibition, the Depression, the growing influence of Houston, and—finally—World War II left Galveston to gamblers, prostitutes, and off-duty servicemen. Its own people called it "an open city."

    Throughout, the sea continued its attack. Ocean waves began undermining the rock rip-rap at the base of the wall and flanking its west end. Another layer of rip-rap was added and, in another effort to protect the wall, thirteen rock ribs or groins were extended like fingers into the surf, to trap sand. These efforts helped, but only a bit. Twice the wall was extended. Today, it is more than six miles long, one of the longest in the world.

    But the Gulf is as fast as the builders. The last extension was designed with a ramp at one end, running down to the beach. That ramp is all but useless now. The beach it led to has vanished under water.

    There is no way to know if Galveston's leaders would have chosen another course in 1900, had they known then what the wall would do to their city. Nowadays, many coastal engineers say, the evil effects of seawalls are so well established that no one builds them anymore. Indeed, some coastal states have enacted regulations banning them.

    These regulations stand unchallenged—but only until erosion threatens to send roads or buildings tumbling into the sea. When a breach in a barrier spit left bayside homes in Chatham, Massachusetts, vulnerable to attack from Atlantic waves in 1987, the state's antiseawall provisions were attacked as well. Regulators in North Carolina, one of the first states to limit coastal armoring, look the other way when sandbags are used as de facto sea walls to protect a vulnerable coast road or a resort development. The South Carolina legislature weakened its beachfront building restrictions after Hurricane Hugo generated a storm of litigation from aggrieved owners.

    In a contest between the somewhat abstract idea that a wall may eventually damage the public's beach and property owners' all-too-certain knowledge that their buildings are about to fall to the sea, political reality usually dictates the decision: save the buildings, not the beach.

    In the aftermath of the 1900 storm, civic leaders in Galveston tried to wipe out any evidence that the ocean once flowed through the downtown streets. People who had placed markers to show how high the water had been were emphatically urged to remove them on the grounds that memories of the storm could only be bad for business.

    Today's municipal strategy is different. Once again, Galveston is marketing itself as a seaside resort. But, ironically, the storm that almost killed it is now one of its major attractions. Like other calamities—the earthquake in San Francisco or the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii—the story of the flood draws visitors to museums, shops, and commemorative exhibits in Galveston's restored Victorian business district.

    But the city needs more than memories of disaster to thrive as a coastal resort. So Galveston's leaders want to re-create the beach the wall destroyed. Once again, they talk about dredges and pipes and sand slurrys—and money. They want to pump millions of cubic yards of sand into the water in front of the wall, to re-create the city's lost beach. This kind of beach nourishment has become the remedy of choice all over the coast for communities that have armored their beaches out of existence or whose beaches are threatened by erosion from other causes.

    Until recently, the federal government, through the Army Corps of Engineers, might have paid much of the bill for such a project. In today's leaner times, though, the federal government is not eager to pay to construct recreational beaches. Its emphasis is on protection from storms. But as Mr. O'Rourke predicted in 1904, the wall has declared itself on this point, and the Corps of Engineers has agreed: as long as the wall stands, Galveston does not need additional storm protection. So the city must find the money itself.


Improvements in meteorology and hurricane tracking make it highly unlikely that a powerful storm could strike the coast of the United States with as little warning as the residents of Galveston had on September 8, 1900. On the other hand, the nation's vulnerable coastal population has increased one hundred-fold since then, so a warning that might have sufriced in 1900 would no longer give today's coastal residents enough time to escape.

    Until this century, few people lived near the beach. It was just too dangerous. If they settled along the coast, they built on high areas, well away from the water. Even Galveston's business district and haughtiest residential streets were well away from the Gulf. The hardy few who did build near the beach lived in modest structures they could either move or lose with relative equanimity.

    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 Americans will live within an hour's drive of the coast. By 2010, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration says, population density along 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.

    But the coast is not a stable landscape. Inlets open, heal, and reform. Seaside cliffs erode and slump. Sand shifts. Though we think of the land as terra firma, when we go to the beach on a stormy day we can watch geological change occur almost before our eyes.

    Much of this development began before science was able to say precisely what was happening in the geology of the coast. Even today much remains unknown about what happens in the mysterious region where air, water, and land meet. For one thing, research can be difficult to conduct; studying the surfzone is notoriously labor-intensive, unpleasant, and dangerous. Even worse, the nation's increasing commitment to living on the beach has created a powerful force against the application of knowledge already in hand. There is a kind of constituency of ignorance, people who have so much invested in coastal real estate that they do not want to hear how vulnerable it is.

    The biggest burst of development on the coast has occurred since about 1970, during a period in which there have been unusually few coastal storms, particularly hurricanes. If weather patterns were now to return to those of earlier years in the twentieth century, the property damage and loss of life could be devastating. On top of that, sea level is rising; if the earth is warming, and mainstream climatologists believe it is, the situation will only get worse. Geologists say 70 percent of the saltwater coastline of the lower forty-eight states is eroding, and some put the figure at closer to 90 percent. The Galveston solution—armoring—can hold off the sea, but only for a while. The best shore protection is a wide, healthy beach. No amount of rock or concrete can make a beach wider. And Nature always bats last at the coast.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2000

    Beach Health and Public Policy

    This book is an up-to-date assessment of the geotechnical, environmental, and economic issues behind shoreline regulation policies and beach development. At stake are the beaches themselves! Although America's east and west coastlines exhibit many differences in configuration and processes, the author provides ample evidence to support the thesis that hardened structures purported to 'stabilize' beaches are ineffective at best. Typically, somewhere nearby, beach deterioration is accelerated. Geologic, hydrodynamic, and meteorological complexities render engineering planning and modeling suspect or irrelevant. Success or failure of beach nourishment projects is in the eye of the beholder. To owners of threatened beachfront property, success means that the added sand lasts for a few years before additional replenishment is needed. To geologists and natural scientists, a project that requires perpetual maintenance to succeed is by definition a failure. Eventually, those with a long-term view supporting a policy of retreat and leave the beach alone will be vindicated. Global warming and rising seal levels will see to that. In the meantime, beachfront property owners and real estate interests comprise a vocal, well-funded special interest group committed to preserving their financial investments and chosen way of life. Dean presents a convincing case for the negative consequences and long-term futility of local, small-scale, beach protective measures. Large-scale replenishment projects done mainly by the Corps of Engineers have their supporters and detractors. In either case, these are very expensive and carry a considerable risk of not working as planned and/or not lasting for the hoped for duration of the project. Their high cost makes 'Big Govment' a welcome ally, even to those otherwise known for vociferous opposition to 'government handouts', 'wasteful spending', and higher taxes. Although we all know that only fools build houses on shifting sands, affluent owners of expensive beachfront homes somehow expect immunity from their folly. I enjoyed the book and found it up-to-date and highly informative. Occasional quaint phrasings, such as 'sediment-like sand', and the erroneous suggestion that some of the newly deposited sediment from the 1996 planned flood on the Colorado River came from Lake Powell, were so rare as to not substantively detract from the book. The book is must reading for those with strong interests, professional or civic, in coastal management and public policy.

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