Houses on Florida's Vilano Beach built for the ocean view are now too close for comfort. A sea wall protected some parts of the beach from Hurricane Irma, but not all. Andrew Moore

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Permanence Is Just an Illusion

In the wake of an especially destructive hurricane season, conservationists and urban planners are grappling with how to protect coastlines—and are increasingly looking to nature for inspiration.

Truth be told, Vilano Beach may not be long for this world. This popular stretch of Florida beach, which is just over the Francis and Mary Usina Bridge from St. Augustine on the Atlantic Coast, is located on a barrier island, which is to say it’s part of a big pile of sand that, due to a particular mix of currents and tides, has temporarily accumulated along the coast. The shape of the island has shifted over time, according to the rhythm of storms and surges, but that never bothered the Least Terns and sea turtles and other species that nested here every year. If the beach moved, they moved with it. This concert of rising tides and shifting sand and nesting wildlife has played out for millennia.

Then about 100 years ago, human beings began building on Vilano Beach. At first it was just tourists making day trips from St. Augustine on ferries or in horse-drawn trolleys. Then a casino went up, a road was paved, motels appeared, homes were built on the beach, power lines were erected, and the whole ever-changing nature of the island came to a halt. Or at least, that’s what many people thought until last year, when Hurricane Matthew battered the coast, followed this year by the ravages of Hurricane Irma. These back-to-back storms not only destroyed dozens of homes and made Vilano Beach a poster child for shortsighted beach development, but they also reminded the people who lived there that they inhabited a spit of sand that is highly vulnerable to rising seas and more intense storms. If they want to stick around, they’ll have to radically rethink how and where they live.

When I visited Vilano Beach two weeks after Irma, the power of the storm was still evident: The parking lots of hotels were still buried in sand, jetties were jumbled, half-destroyed homes hung off hollowed-out dunes. I walked along the beach with Chris Farrell, 47, an Audubon policy associate in northeast Florida. Farrell, who has a master’s degree in biology, has lived in St. Augustine for a decade and knows the contours of the coastline very well. He strode with one eye on the gulls and terns wheeling overhead, the other on the beachgoers slathering themselves with sunscreen. “The ocean is still angry,” Farrell said, gesturing to the big waves pounding the beach. He told me how the slope of the beach had changed after the storm, and how Mother Nature wants to keep building dunes farther back on the island, but because of the roads and homes, there really is no room for that.

And then a wall interrupted our walk. Suddenly, this great open beach, this sweep of sand, felt medieval. The wall was built of wood and steel, maybe 10 feet tall, protecting a row of 30 or so homes that were built way too close to the water. Waves crashed against the base, splashing upward. This wall, I later learned, was erected after Hurricane Matthew blew through in 2016. This human-built structure says to Mother Nature, “You will go no farther.” After Irma, one resident told the local newspaper, “The sea wall saved us.”

Farrell eyed the wall with a mix of skepticism and despair. “Beaches are dynamic places,” he explained. “They move around a lot. Sand comes and goes. They have their own kind of rhythm. Walls do not.”

“But they make people feel safe,” I replied.

“Yes.” Then Farrell added: “Temporarily.”

We walked to the corner of the wall and he pointed out how the water had swirled in behind, eroding the sand and potentially destabilizing the structure. “Like everything out here,” he said, “permanence is just an illusion.” 

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ow we will live with water is one of the great questions of our time. Thanks to our reliance on fossil fuels, and to the fact that we continue to spew billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year, our planet is warming quickly. That is likely to create bigger, more intense storms. It will also accelerate the melting of the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. As the ice melts, seas will rise. The big question is, how far and how fast. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists recently projected that the seas could rise more than eight feet by 2100. And they won’t stop there.

Even a modest jump of three or four feet in the coming decades will cause enormous damage to coastal infrastructure and ecosystems. It will dramatically transform communities located on barrier islands like Vilano Beach (and Miami Beach, Galveston, Texas, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, to name just a few), inundate low-lying areas of coastal cities, shift nesting and migratory patterns for birds, spread the range of tropical diseases like the Zika virus and dengue, and turn freshwater and brackish worlds like the Everglades into saltwater environments.

How will people in coastal regions respond? If Vilano Beach is an indication, the first impulse will be to throw up walls and try to defend ourselves from the attacking sea. This is essentially what the Dutch have been doing for generations (26 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level). Of course it is what allows cities like New Orleans to remain inhabitable. Indeed, it’s hard to find a coastal city anywhere in the world that isn’t protected, to some degree, by a network of walls and barriers.

It’s not hard to see why. Building a wall is (compared to more long-term and nuanced options to reduce flooding) cheap, quick, and attractive to politicians wanting to prove they’ve acted boldly. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the smartest or the safest solution. In recent years, more and more coastal engineers and urban planners have begun looking to nature for inspiration in how to design and protect coastlines, as well as the animals (humans included) and ecosystems that thrive there. Even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the champions of the dredge-and-fill school of coastal development, has launched an Engineering With Nature Program. “Our first reaction after a big storm hits the coast is always to retrench and tell ourselves we can engineer our way out of this,” says Julie Wraithmell, interim executive director of Audubon Florida. “But after the initial knee-jerk reaction fades, you realize we need to do more strategic thinking about how we want to live in the future. Do we want to keep building walls and barriers, or develop a more flexible relationship with nature along our coasts?”

Walls inherently divide the world between the protected and the unprotected, the saved and the doomed. For example, the first stage of the BIG U, an elaborate multibillion-dollar barrier designed by Danish bad-boy architect Bjarke Ingels that is planned for lower Manhattan, will help protect several large public housing developments on the Lower East Side, as well as a Con Edison substation that flooded during Hurricane Sandy, causing a blackout in lower Manhattan. Still, “The BIG U is clearly about protecting Wall Street,” says Klaus Jacob, a disaster expert at Columbia University. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” But don’t hold your breath waiting for a barrier designed by a hotshot architect to be built off Red Hook, a largely poor, Latino and African-American area in Brooklyn, or Howard Beach, a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, which were both heavily damaged by Sandy and remain vulnerable to flooding.

For wildlife, walls are a disaster. They destroy the rich ecosystems where fish hatch and birds nest and feed, turning the coastline into a lifeless binary equation of water and rock (or steel or concrete).

Walls also breed complacency. After all, we trust engineers to keep the wheels on the cars we drive and the wings on the planes we fly in—it’s not surprising that we would trust them to build a barrier that can protect us from a storm. But in a world of quickly rising seas and increasingly intense hurricanes, that can be a bad gamble. During Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans residents didn’t evacuate low-lying neighborhoods because they assumed the levees would protect them; it was a miscalculation that hundreds of people paid for with their lives. Depending too much on walls and barriers also allows people to avoid the important work of increasing the resiliency of homes and other infrastructure, thus leaving them all the more vulnerable to any failures in the wall. “I have very serious concerns that [by building walls] we are essentially setting ourselves up for more Katrina-like New Orleans situations,” says Jacob. “If the protection doesn’t work, then you’re in really deep trouble.”

I saw this for myself during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. St. Augustine, which was founded by Spanish explorers in 1565, claims to be the country’s oldest city. It’s also very low-lying. When it rains, the streets stay wet for days. A central feature of the city is Castillo de San Marcos, is a 345-year-old fort that sits on the water’s edge, its old cannons facing the sea. The fort, like part of the city, is surrounded by a wall that, on a normal day, is six or seven feet above the water line. The wall is ancient and looks indomitable. Kids play on it. Lovers stroll on it.

I happened to be standing on this wall when Matthew hit. I retreated to high ground near the fort and watched, over a few hours, the sea rise higher and higher as the storm surge blew in. It seemed impossible that it would ever rise high enough to overtop the wall. But it did. And the moment it did, water poured into the old city. I walked around the historic streets and alleys in water up to my knees. I peered down one low-lying street and saw the ocean flow over the hood of a new Mercedes.

What I learned from this adventure was that the past is no prologue to the future. Just because St. Augustine has existed for 452 years, it doesn’t mean it will be here for the next 452 years. 

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t the boat launch near the mouth of the Alafia River near Tampa, on the Gulf side of Florida, the river is littered with half-sunk sailboats. One is perched in the mangroves like a big beach toy. “Some of these boats are just abandoned here,” says Mark Rachal, manager of Audubon’s Alafia Bank Sanctuary, as he gets an 18-foot V-hull boat ready to go. Nearby, volunteers are filling sacks with oyster shells, which they’ll haul out to damaged areas along the coast to create new oyster habitats and control erosion along the shoreline.

 

Rachal casts off, and we motor down the Alafia toward Hillsborough Bay. Rachal, 38, was an urban kid from Chicago who studied biology in college and now finds himself married to a judge, the father of three young kids, and the guardian of tens of thousands of birds at the Alafia Bank Sanctuary. It’s a surprisingly industrial landscape: To our left is the Big Bend power plant, sending plumes of steam into the sky; to our right is a phosphate plant that looks like something out of Blade Runner. Behind it are mountains of phosphogypsum, a byproduct of phosphate processing. “They’re capped off with dirt,” Rachal explains, “because the gypsum itself is radioactive.” In front of us is the hard edge of MacDill Air Force Base, a major military post that is headquarters for the war in Afghanistan, and that staged a medical mission to help patients in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Beyond the base, the towers of downtown Tampa shimmer in the distance.

As we get out into the bay, a stiff wind blows in from the west, kicking up waves. We bounce along for a few minutes and then approach a low, flat island lined with mangroves: Alafia Bank Sanctuary.

The sanctuary is made up of two islands: Bird Island and Sunken Island, each about the size of a Walmart parking lot. Mangroves line the shore, while Brazilian pepper trees (an invasive species here) dominate the higher land. As we approach, Brown Pelicans patrol the sky, and majestic White Ibises hide in the mangroves. During peak nesting season in March and April, these islands teem with as many as 10,000 birds, including 200 pairs of flamboyant Roseate Spoonbills. But it’s mostly quiet now. I watch an Osprey dive down to grab a small tarpon. Rachal scans for bubbles in the water ahead of us, the telltale sign of a manatee. A dolphin fin knifes out of the water. It’s surprising and hopeful to see that in this highly industrial landscape, nature is not only surviving, but thriving.

“These islands were built from the spoils when they dredged the river in the 1920s,” Rachal tells me as he cuts the engine and we drift close to the shoreline to get a better look at an ibis poking along.

Islands built from spoils? I had no idea. “These aren’t natural?”

“No. When they dredged the river, they piled up the mud here. And now nature has taken over.”

This is a common practice in Florida. Some of the swankiest neighborhoods in Miami, such as Star Island, are built from dredging spoils. But it’s one thing for hedge-fund billionaires to live on a spoil island. It’s another for tens of thousands of exquisitely sensitive nesting birds to call it home.