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.”
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.
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.
As Rachal explains, however, Sunken Island is just right for the birds. It’s far enough from the mainland that raccoons and other predators can’t swim out. It’s big enough. It’s off limits to visitors, so nesting birds aren’t disturbed. And perhaps most importantly, it is well maintained and, dare I say it, engineered. Rachal motors to the edge of the island, which is lined with Reef Balls made out of a special low-acidic, oyster-friendly concrete. The Reef Balls, which were installed and are maintained by Audubon, are placed to absorb some of the wave action from passing ships that might otherwise erode the island. At the point of the island most exposed to the open bay, artfully designed 8,800-pound concrete blocks called WADs (short for wave attenuation devices) have been installed to absorb larger waves and create quiet space for foraging shorebirds.
In part because of the well-engineered breakwaters, and in part because of the thick mangroves along the shore, damage from the storm surge that accompanied Hurricane Irma was modest. A few tipped over mangroves in unprotected areas, Rachal points out; that’s about it.
The longer I talked with Rachal, the clearer it became that this remarkable bird paradise is in fact a very human creation. Dredgers created the islands. Conservationists selected them to be protected. Reef Balls and WADs were carefully engineered to be creature-friendly. Wave erosion is monitored, and, if necessary, repairs are made. Predators (and too aggressive photographers) are kept out. The islands are thoughtfully managed to work in harmony with nature. And it works. The islands are teeming with life. I was reminded of a well-known quote from Stewart Brand, an Internet pioneer and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods, we might as well get good at it.”
fter a big storm hits a city, the question is not if the city will be rebuilt, but how. When Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston in August, it was particularly devastating largely because developers had paved over nature and turned the city into a giant mass of concrete and asphalt on the bayou. When the five-day-long deluge fell from the sky, the water had nowhere to go but up into homes and other buildings. Now, as the city rebuilds, it is exploring the idea of replacing flood-prone neighborhoods with green spaces that can absorb water during big rainstorms, as well as creating water retention areas (essentially artificial lakes) to hold the runoff in safe spaces.
Another lesson from Harvey: Mother Nature is pretty good at building storm buffers. Shortly after the hurricane hit, Iliana Peña, director of conservation for Audubon Texas, visited Port O’Connor, a coastal town that was directly in the path of the storm. “I was prepared to see a lot of destruction,” Peña says. Instead, the damage was minimal. “It’s possible it was because the town is behind some natural barrier islands, which helped to dissipate the impact of the storm surge. To me, it was a reminder that the best protection from a storm is a healthy ecosystem.”
The influence nature is having on conservationists and coastal engineers is clear from the projects that emerged out of the Rebuild By Design contest in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The competition, which was overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, awarded more than $900 million for six winning designs to rebuild the New York coast. It attracted some of the world’s finest architects and urban planners, and virtually every proposal could be said to mimic nature in some way.
The most elegant—and grandiose—idea was The Blue Dunes, a long chain of barrier islands that a group of scientists, architects, engineers, and planners proposed building in the waters about 10 miles off the coast of New York City. Like the breakwaters I saw in the Alafia refuge, The Blue Dunes were designed to absorb the Atlantic’s wave energy before it hits land, reduce the impact of high tides, and buy the city time to recalibrate for sea-level rise. Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze, who was one of the lead project designers, told me that despite its massive scale, the goal was to work with nature, not against it. “One of the lessons we learned from hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy is that we have to admit we can no longer fight nature,” he said. “We have to work with it, accept that it is changing, guide it to our will. It is a lesson we will have to learn, one way or another.”
Not surprisingly, The Blue Dunes proposal may have been too ambitious for the judges of the design competition, and it wasn’t funded. But a similar proposal is currently under construction off Staten Island. The Living Breakwaters, which was awarded $60 million, was designed by SCAPE, a landscape architecture firm in New York City founded by Kate Orff, who won a 2017 MacArthur “genius” grant. Like The Blue Dunes, it also seeks to guide nature, not fight it. It’s a way of thinking that Orff has been championing for a while now. A few years ago, she gained attention among city planners and urban designers for her radical-sounding proposal to restore Brooklyn’s polluted Gowanus Canal by reintroducing oysters. Living Breakwaters, which will be built along the Staten Island shoreline, is, in a way, an elaboration and extension of that idea.
Like all breakwaters, the mile-and-a-half-long system of barriers, which will be located between 730 feet and 1,200 feet from shore, is designed to lessen the impact of storms and reduce or reverse erosion. But Orff’s design takes it much further, engineering these breakwaters with ecological features like textured concrete units that make healthy habitats for young fish and encourage the proliferation of oysters to help further slow and clean the water. For Orff, the goal isn’t just to protect the coast, but also to draw people back to the water. “Sustainability and resiliency can be built, but by reconnecting with our shorelines, not walling off the 500-plus miles of the city’s coastline,” Orff wrote in The New York Times. She imagines kids gardening oysters in the protective areas behind the breakwaters, locals fishing, shorebirds thriving (tap around on the diagram above). It is about creating a natural coastline, artificially.
Ultimately, when it comes to dealing with big storms and big sea-level rise, even the most sophisticated engineering will take us only so far. One of the hard truths is that, as the waters rise, there are places we will have to let go. And the sooner we grasp that, and begin preparing for it, the better.
And there is a certain grace in giving in to nature, even in the most prosaic settings. Just a few miles north of the Living Breakwaters site is the neighborhood of Oakwood Beach, which Sandy hit hard. Hundreds of houses, which had been constructed in a particularly low-lying area on the island, were nearly worthless. If they were rebuilt, they would likely be destroyed by the next storm. So instead of demanding that the Army Corps of Engineers erect a wall, residents struck a bargain with state officials to move them out of harm’s way. During the past few years, while I was doing reporting for a book about sea-level rise, I visited the area several times. Each time, more houses were gone, knocked into piles of debris by bulldozers and then hauled off in dump trucks. On my most recent visit in May, a few abandoned houses still stood, but you could feel nature making a comeback. Scrubby meadows grew around old swimming pools. A female Mallard and her ducklings wandered through the streets and feral cats darted around. Seeing nature reclaim the neighborhood provoked a spooky feeling, like watching the reel of civilization play backward.
I have a similar experience in Florida when Farrell and I visit Summer Haven, a once-thriving resort community about 15 miles south of St. Augustine. The beach is lined by homes on stilts, but there are no walls, and no pretense that anything is going to stop the rising waters. Summer Haven is only accessible by crossing the beach at low tide; the coastal road has washed away. At high tide, the foundations of many houses are already in the Atlantic. The homes look shaggy, half abandoned. They are a postcard to the future, a preview of what’s to come on coastlines around the world. Farrell and I watch Sanderlings skitter along the beach and Laughing Gulls wheel overhead. It won’t be long before the water takes these houses and the beach will be theirs again. “Our world,” Farrell says, admiring the birds, “is changing fast.”