The beachfront town of Oak Island, North Carolina, might as well have a bull's eye painted on it. In the shooting gallery of Atlantic hurricanes, this barrier island has been hit again and again. Several storms blew through in the 1950s, but the one everyone remembers is Hazel, which destroyed nearly every one of the island's 300 homes. Then in the late 1990s, so many hurricanes hit so rapidly that it seemed like Mother Nature was pumping an automatic shotgun at the Carolina coast: Bertha, Fran, Bonnie, Dennis. But the worst was Floyd in 1999, which slammed ashore with a 13-foot ocean surge that washed completely across the island in some places. Floyd wiped out 50 homes, damaged another 250 and ripped away most of what remained of the town's battered beach.
The residents of Oak Island pulled themselves up from disaster and rebuilt after Floyd as they had a generation before. It's an inevitable cycle for those who--depending on your point of view--are either brave enough or dumb enough to build on a shifting bar of sand. After Hazel in 1954, Oak Island developed into a bustling place, as beach towns go, with a summertime population that swells to 40,000. But that development occurred mostly during a 40-year calm between the storms. Now that the Atlantic is angry again, the town has re- discovered its vulnerability. At high tide, there is almost no beach for the tourists to play on. Property owners who escaped the latest carnage worry that their nice-but-not-luxurious beach homes and modest oceanfront motels will cave in the next time a big storm readies, aims and fires.
The recent spate of hurricanes has placed Oak Island in the eye of a different kind of storm: the political debate over how to save shorefront communities that seem destined to wash out to sea. Oak Island and other coastal towns in North Carolina want the state and federal governments to pony up billions of dollars over the next 50 years to pump sand off the ocean floor and onto their beaches. These "beach nourishment" projects would not only restore the wide sandy beaches that Saturday-to-Saturday renters have come to expect. The projects also would provide a storm buffer for a beach industry worth $2.9 billion a year to the state economy. Moreover, they would protect valuable oceanside real estate--and the local tax revenues those properties generate--from the natural wrath of the ocean's pounding waves. "The beach IS the business in this town; it is our industry," says Oak Island mayor Joan Altman. "This is about protecting entire towns, their economies and their people's way of life."
Altman's plea for sand is echoed in beach towns not only in hurricane-prone East Coast states but also around the Gulf Coast, up and down the Pacific shore and across the Great Lakes. Sea level is rising at around 2 millimeters per year, fueling the natural process of erosion at the coasts. After a half-century of intensive shoreline development, that means a stunning amount of property is at risk. According to a study by the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, erosion over the next 60 years may claim one of every four homes within 500 feet of the U.S. shoreline. Facing the threat of extinction, coastal communities are more than ever turning to beach nourishment as their best bet for survival.
It is a strategy with deep roots in states such as New York, New Jersey and Florida, where the coasts first became urbanized a century ago. New Jersey, whose first nourishment project was in Atlantic City in 1936, is now embarking on the largest nourishment plan ever: a 50- year, $9 billion effort to keep sand on the state's entire 127-mile coastline. As communities that developed later watch erosion take its toll, a new set of states, from South Carolina to California and Michigan to Alabama, is committing to beach nourishment. California last year quintupled its spending on nourishment--to $10 million--part of which is helping communities in San Diego County rebuild their eroding beaches.
But hunkering down to fight against the ocean may be a futile game in the long run and could ultimately only make matters worse. Geologists warn that new sand washes away in a matter of years, making re-doing the job a perpetual commitment. Environmentalists argue that pumping sand ashore harms habitats for crabs, birds and other species. Fiscal critics call nourishment a bailout for rich beachfront homeowners who foolishly built in harm's way. And there is concern that nourishment merely makes beach towns lazy about doing serious land-use planning, inspiring local officials to approve more and even bigger development on risky spits of sand that history shows will get pounded by storms over and over.
A few critics of shoreline development paint such a bleak picture that they argue we should give in to the ocean and abandon the coasts altogether. As Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey puts it, erosion is not a problem until you build in its path. Pilkey's strategy of full-scale retreat is politically implausible in densely populated areas, but there is a growing movement that favors backing off the beachfront. In California, for example, the state Resources Agency is mulling a draft policy on coastal erosion that would place a priority on keeping development away from the waves and relocating endangered structures.
Beach nourishment's biggest shortcoming, however, is the ocean's limited supply of sand. Much of the sand washing off California's beaches is sinking to the bottom of deepwater canyons, never to be seen again. The ocean floor off the coast of south Florida is becoming so bare that the state is sounding out the Bahamas on a deal to import sand. Supplies aren't abundant offshore of Oak Island, either. "Eventually, beach communities are going to run out of options," says Bill Cleary, a coastal geologist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "There is simply not enough sand out there. Sea level is rising, and we believe we're entering a period of increasing storms. That spells doom for these beaches."
North Carolina's beach towns would be at a crossroads even if Floyd and the other hurricanes had never blown their way. Sand beaches are by their very nature dynamic. They shift naturally with the waves and depending on geology, a beach may erode--or even build up--by anywhere from an inch to hundreds of feet per year. The fact is that nearly every community that allows development on its coasts is putting homes, hotels, roads and sewer lines at risk of succumbing to the sea.
The North Carolina legislature took this into account when it passed a law regulating coastal development back in the mid-1970s. The law said that oceanfront homes had to be set back from the beach at a distance equal to 30 times the annual erosion rate. In other words, if a beach is known to erode at 2 feet per year, a new home could be no closer than 60 feet from the beach. It was a political decision that allowed developers and beach-lovers to build on oceanfront property but essentially gave those properties a 30-year lease on life.
It is now closing in on 30 years since the 1974 Coastal Area Management Act. And sure enough, ocean waves are licking ever-closer to the first row of beachfront homes. It seems that the difficult long-term decisions inherent in this debate of man versus nature were put off for a generation. The current coastal residents, suddenly roused by the hurricanes, are realizing that if they want to stay on the beach, they must fashion a strategy for dealing with an erosion problem that is never going away.
Their options are limited. The same state law banned property owners and government agencies from putting up seawalls, jetties and other "hard structures" as a tool for protecting shoreline development. Coastal experts agree that seawalls cause more harm to beaches than good: They cut off natural sand replenishment and eventually the beach narrows and disappears. Likewise, jetties and groins tend to stop the natural flow of sand along the shoreline. Although effective in some cases, they may save one beach only at the expense of the next one over.
With their hands tied in regard to hard structures, shore communities are turning to the "soft" solution: putting more sand on the beach. Wide beaches help keep the ocean at bay, even during big storms. In Oak Island, Mayor Altman simply points to two neighboring beach towns, Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach. Both beaches have had major renourishment recently, and both towns weathered Floyd without much damage. In Altman's view, a beach is not just something to lay your blanket on. It is a piece of vital public infrastructure, and just as a road requires repaving every so often, beaches should be replenished with new sand every few years. "There's an economic basis for this," Altman says. "Beach towns provide the majority of the tax base for the counties they're in. Tourism is the state's second biggest industry, and beach tourism is a significant component of that. So when you look at the cost of restoring and preserving beaches, it may seem expensive, but the cost of not doing it is far greater."
Oak Island and beach towns along roughy 65 miles of North Carolina barrier islands are looking to the federal and state governments for help. They're asking Congress to give the Army Corps of Engineers huge sums of money for beach nourishment. It is a drawn-out process involving many studies and even more politics, but the payoff is huge: The Corps commits to these projects for at least 50 years and the feds will pay more than half the cost. The state picks up most of the rest, leaving local governments to pay only about 10 percent of the bill. Dare County, which includes Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, has already landed a nourishment project expected to cost federal, state and local taxpayers $1.8 billion over 50 years.
Municipalities love this funding formula, but not surprisingly, it has many critics, and President Bush wants to increase local governments' share. The problem is that the beach towns are responsible for approving risky development--but it's the federal and state governments who pay the most for new sand when erosion runs its course. If the locals had to pay for nourishment themselves, critics say, they would make more responsible decisions about zoning, issuing permits and building infrastructure in hazardous areas. What's more, since the highest-risk property is also the most expensive--right on the beachfront--there's a perception that beach nourishment is a form of welfare for the rich. "We need to force that economic risk on the people who are willing to take it," says Dery Bennett, executive director of the American Littoral Society. "The cost shouldn't be spread over the general public."
The issue is coming to a head in North Carolina. Last winter, a legislative study commission recommended creating an agency to aid communities on beach erosion issues and setting aside up to $12 million a year for nourishment projects. This would mimic efforts in New Jersey, which sets aside $25 million a year and in Florida, which antes up $30 million. The money would go toward Corps projects or help pay for local projects that simply can't wait years for congressional approval. Unfortunately for North Carolina's beach towns, their push for sand dollars comes at a time when the state budget is millions in the red. A bill to set up the agency and fund has been put off until next year.
Equally important to the approach evolving in North Carolina is a recognition that every beach is different and nourishment is not always going to work. Off the coast of Topsail Beach, it's mostly hard rock. There isn't much sand there to pump. There is sand offshore at Oak Island, but it's questionable whether there's enough to last 50 years or longer. As a long-term solution, beach nourishment may simply prove much too expensive for some areas. State officials are keeping the door open on a strategy of partial retreat. Options being discussed are property buy-outs, conservation easements or giving beachfront property owners tax breaks to donate what's left of their land to public trust.
Geological time cycles, however, don't mix well with political time cycles and the leaders of towns such as Oak Island, up for reelection every two or four years, will not let their towns drown without a fight. If nourishment at some point proves untenable, they will likely ask legislators to let them build hard structures again. That would offer a short-term lease on life. But it would be a long-term disaster that would ruin the beaches and only leave the hard choices once again to a future generation. For as long as the sea continues to rise, communities that have chosen to build castles in the sand face an eventual day of reckoning. The question is how much money will they spend before they are annexed by a city called Atlantis.