The Geography of Risk by Gilbert M. Gaul
Hurricanes and nor’easters come and go leaving a trail of broken homes amid the debris of a lifetime of living and acquiring and they generate stories in their aftermath. Sometimes, as happened a couple of years ago in Southeastern North Carolina, a hurricane comes ashore, returns to the sea, and comes ashore again before departing northwards. Afterwards the streets gleam white with the destroyed stoves, washers and dryers, and refrigerators lined up waiting their turn for a final trip to a landfill.
These storms occur naturally as they have for millennia. They become a problem only when we continue to build more densely and closer and closer to the high tide mark while knocking down protective sand dunes for ever larger buildings that altered the flow of storm water across the barrier islands. Once upon a time these islands were a literal “barrier” that played a protective role in lessening the effect of storms on the mainland. The construction boom on our coasts has a real cost. The five most costly storms over the last one hundred years have happened since 2005. They range from $40 billion (Ike) to $161 billion (Katrina), and their “cost” in displaced lives continues to resonate today.
The winds and the water create a storm surge that must find new avenues, forever altering the shape of the beach. The financial costs for just beach re-nourishment are astronomical. Consider these numbers which do not include de the human-related costs. As September 2019 drew to a close FEMA approved more than $18 million to restore the beaches at just two North Carolina beaches damaged by Hurricane Florence one year ago. Nearly 830,000 cubic yards of sand (That’s more than eight times the concrete in the NFL stadium of the Carolina Panthers.) will be spread to await the next big storm to take it back into the ocean.
In The Geography of Risk, Gilbert M. Gaul, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, tells stories that incorporate the undeniable facts. The eternal battle is the animus between economic interests and the natural pull of the sea. Add the political battles between regulators and developers and the shore becomes a cauldron of double boiling and bubbling trouble. Gaul concentrates on the saga of Long Beach Island, New Jersey which has a history of unbridled development dating to the late 1920s when Morris Shapiro and his wife bought 53 acres of ocean-to-bay land for $53,000 and began to build tiny houses. Nearly all of those houses are gone today, replaced by mansions—some of them built on filled in marshland and destroyed dunes. That land is now worth about $400 million. Those initial lots cost $40 each! As more people built, the federal government began to provide flood insurance and that meant bigger and better houses were built because owners were no longer assuming the full risk for their property. The risk was now shared among those who purchased the insurance and by taxpayers. The cycle was self-perpetuating.
While Gaul concentrates on New Jersey, he journeyed far and wide to collect data and talk with the experts in the fields of climate change and beach geology, developers and government officials. The list of interviews stretches two and a half pages, but he condenses all that information into a science-based book that is incredibly accessible, informative, and persuasive. He spent days with Dr. Orrin Pilkey, “a short, square hobbit of a man” who is “either a prophet or the Antichrist of the coast” depending on your point of view. Pilkey, a retired Duke professor, has written more than 250 papers and 45 books “spotlighting the immeasurable beauty of barrier islands and the illogic of building houses on them.” Pilkey makes the central point of the book. “Beaches are always moving. Beaches are always eroding. It’s only a problem when you put a house there.”
Reviewer’s note: My wife and I own a small, shotgun cottage well off the ocean front on a North Carolina island. The east end of our island is washing away while the west end is building up due to the natural flow of the water and sand. In the last 30 years, the east end has lost about a half mile of first, second, and third streets along with the houses that used to be there. Drive to that end and you will see the ocean washing under houses that have been condemned. Walk a hundred yards away from those houses and you will find new houses being built! Pilkey is exactly right, and Gaul has written a book that climate deniers and developers will continue to ignore.