Eye of the Storm

Writer: 
August 1, 2005

 


Pilkey is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of earth sciences in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences

Pilkey is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of earth sciences in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.
Jim Wallace

It was August 1969 when I watched TV with dismay as the eye of Hurricane Camille passed within ten miles of my parents' home in Waveland, Mississippi. Camille, with its 200-mile-per-hour winds, turned out to be the greatest storm to cross an American shoreline in the twentieth century. I arranged for someone to teach my class at the Duke Marine Lab and, accompanied by my brother, rushed down to bail out the folks. Dad was a manager for G.E. at the Saturn Test site and all employees--along with their families, dogs, and even goldfish--crowded into a building designed to resist an errant Saturn engine blast. My parents' home, three blocks back from the Gulf, was still standing, but the twenty-foot storm surge brought five feet of water inside.

A couple of months earlier, I had accompanied my civil-engineer father on a tour of beachfront houses to look at construction quality. He showed me which beachfront houses would survive hurricanes and which wouldn't, and explained why.

Post-storm, he and I made a second house tour. Camille was a Category 5 hurricane, and so none of the houses, well-built or otherwise, survived. I remember one in particular that was missing altogether--it had been so lightly attached that its pilings weren't bent or damaged in the slightest.

It took a long while before the Mississippi Coast recovered. A decade later, there were still vacant lots along the shoreline with steps leading to nowhere.

Ten years later, Hurricane Hugo, a Category 3 storm, struck Charleston, South Carolina. By then, we were a wealthier society: We had the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the post-storm response was different, to say the least. Hugo became an "urban-renewal project." Larger and more costly buildings immediately replaced damaged small buildings. Beachfront property prices held steady, and, within two years, the South Carolina coast was far more vulnerable to a bad hurricane than it had been in 1989. Subsequent storms along our East and Gulf coasts have, without exception, also amounted to urban-renewal projects.

Hurricane Camille piqued my interest in things coastal. I was a deep-sea sedimentologist and one of the world's leading experts on abyssal plains. (This is a fair statement, given that there were only six such specialists in the world at the time.) But after Camille, I wrote a book, How to Live With an Island, that included a section on high-wind construction written by my father. The book was three-eighths-inches thick and was sold by the state for $1.50. It was an instant success. I can't recall ever getting a single phone call about abyssal plains, but I was deluged with calls about my $1.50 book.

That was the start of things. I organized the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and began (with the help of fellow geologist Bill Neal) to create Living With the Shore (Duke University Press), a series of state-specific books about coastal hazards that now number twenty-four. In the process of writing and editing the books, we walked the beaches from Miami to Fire Island and Seattle to Inupiat villages north of the Arctic Circle. The books offered detailed maps of hazards, gave shoreline erosion rates, and mapped high-risk zones in readable fashion, even using street names.

Surely, people would not build in very dangerous places if they knew the hazards, we thought. But we were so wrong! Buildings continue to be constructed in the highest of high-risk places. My naïvetè was finally cured when I saw a large, brand-new house on Topsail Island, North Carolina, built in the middle of a shallow inlet formed during Hurricane Fran (1996). It was clear that this parcel of land had been, and would again be, a storm inlet. And our book had said so.

The potential for damage from hurricanes increases every year. Sea level is rising and the rate of this rise should soon accelerate. Global warming is expected to increase storminess in the North Atlantic, and more storms generally mean even more erosion. More buildings crowd the retreating shoreline, and, each year, the average size of threatened beachfront buildings becomes larger, as mom-and-pop cottages from yesteryear are replaced. Few beachfront buildings being built now cost less than $1 million. So it is probable that the political power of the beachfront lobby increases every year as well. The only bright spot is increased enforcement of high-wind building codes, leading to shorefront buildings that are considerably tougher than the cottage in Waveland, Mississippi, toe-nailed to its pilings.

Now we are entering a new hurricane season. Hurricane guru William Gray of Colorado State University predicts more storms than average in 2005, although perhaps not as bad a season as last year's, when Ivan, Charley, Frances, and Jeanne all crossed the shorelines of Florida. It seems that even four storms in one state in one year didn't change a thing--no pause for reflection. Our response to those events simply cemented the notion that nature at the beach is something to be confronted and defeated. Just to replace the sand on Florida's storm-eroded beaches cost taxpayers $240 million.

Sooner or later our society must back off the beaches as concerns increase about beach quality and as preservation of major coastal cities becomes a higher priority. The first step will be to discourage beachfront urban renewal. That would mean moving or demolishing threatened buildings, prohibiting the rebuilding (and certainly the super-sizing) of destroyed buildings, and ending further subsidy of beachfront development, including tax-supported beach nourishment and federal flood insurance. It's time to learn to live with the shoreline, not on it.