It’s been almost two weeks since hurricane Matthew limped out to sea, an exhausted tropical storm that took its toll on people and property alike.
The clean-up is well underway in South Carolina and elsewhere. I can actually see my backyard and my palm trees again after clearing away fallen branches and trees of small oaks, chestnuts, and the like.
My sister-in-law wasn’t so lucky. A storm surge coupled with marsh flooding encroached on her condo with devastating consequences. Yet the clean-up proceeds even amidst mountains of ruined furniture, bedding, walls, and rugs. Hopefully, she’ll have her home back before the holidays and life will return to normal for her.
What’s particularly troubling are the properties that line the beaches up and down the Eastern Coast. Many are humble bungalows and others stately mansions that look out on the breathtaking beauty of the sea that brought so much destruction. No walk to the beach for these folks. The beach is their backyard.
The only problem is after a storm of Matthew’s magnitude many people rebuild right at the dune’s edge knowing full well the wrath of the sea will one day again destroy part or all of their property. How can they afford to do this you may well ask.
And the answer is twofold. One, high insurance rates, part of which is paid for by federal subsidies paid for by taxpayers like you and me. Two, they revert to petitioning, cajoling, or suing their state and federal governments to indulge in one of several projects to try to keep the sea at bay.
Some of these projects involve the construction of groins more commonly known as jetties. Another is the construction of sea walls. Many are made of stone, others of metal, or other materials.
Other common techniques used to preserve beach, dunes, and homes butted up against the sea include beach restoration with sand, dune building, and in some places the planting of native plants in the water to slow or alter wave action.
The truth is none of these solutions really work very well. In fact, since I’m supposed to be telling the truth, I’ll give it to you straight. These projects work terribly or not at all.
For example, it was jetties built in 1879 that led to the demise of the Morris Island Lighthouse. Traditional patterns of the sea determining where sand would be deposited shifted because of these manmade structures, and now Morris Light stands destitute, a half mile from shore.
Because jetties interrupt the normal flow of sand, when one neighbor builds a jetty, it encourages a neighbor to do the same to protect his property. And the domino effect continues all along the coast.
The wall built along Sea Bright, New Jersey to protect the homes of a few hundred home owners starves the federal park of Sandy Hook of tons of sand. This is a recreational area where millions of people from New York and New Jersey flock to every year. How fair or sensible is that?
Every year municipalities all along the coasts of the United States spend millions of dollars to protect public and private property that will only be undone sometimes even before the project is completed.
It’s a complicated issue, so I’m not going to pretend there are simple answers, but people who live on top of the beach and those who live in places like Iowa and Kansas and New Mexico need to understand there’s a grave price to be paid for encroaching on the sea, And make no mistake about it, it’s humans who are encroaching on the sea, not the other way around.
The sea wants what is hers, and she means to have it. Every time a sea wall or jetty is built, we are frustrating the plans mother nature has for maintaining her beaches.
Humans have drawn a line in the sand, a line the sea does not recognize. She has her own line, and it is live and dynamic, ever shifting with each turn of the tide. In some places, that line shifts daily; in other places it may be monthly or yearly.
The reality is the ocean shifts sand around like a small boy at play. She puts it where she wants, scooping it away from places miles away and placing it where she will, and not the Army Corps of Engineers or anyone else on the face of the earth will thwart her.
Building in the zone where Mother Nature plays is dangerous business. We can’t keep trying to keep her at bay, no pun intended, and when we build sea walls, groins, and other structures, it only sends the sand she intended for one place elsewhere, and often that’s out to sea.
In some places in the United States, too much has already been invested in infrastructure and population making it impossible to even think about abandoning the area. But in other places, we need to reconsider what we’re doing to the beach. We think we’re doing good by restoring an area when all mother nature wants to do is build her beach as she sees fit.
One of the darkest and dirtiest secrets of beach restoration is that it’s self-defeating. The ocean works in a very complicated way, and its wisdom and rationale is not easily understood.
Sea walls are a good example. They’re often built at great expense to protect million dollar homes and not public beaches that hundreds of thousands of people might use.
Because of the way currents run and because wave action during a storm erodes the base of the wall, sand must be pumped along the wall, and a beach appears perhaps a hundred yards wide. Till the next storm snatches the sand away, leaving a pathetic swath of beach a few yards wide as is the case in Sea Bright, New Jersey.
Then the madness begins again: the rebuilding of sea walls, more jetties, and more pumping of sand. It’s a vicious cycle attempting to check a force almost as old as time itself.
I encourage you to learn as much as you can about the topic and enjoy the beach if you live near one. If it’s devoid of groins, sea walls, and boulders, you’re very lucky. And say a prayer that the next time mother ocean sends a storm ashore she’ll be gentle with your favorite beach.
The Uncommon Mariner