Sunday, November 4, 2012

High Speed Real Estate

I spent my first 10 summers, for two weeks a year, on a barrier island.

After spending several summers in the house owned by my great-grandfather, my father's parents purchased a beach house of their own on Long Beach Island in, where else, Brant Beach.

The summer stints were shared with my late Uncle Charles and his family, although he eventually built a house across the street where he and his six children enjoyed the beach at their own convenience.

For two weeks every August, my family took up residence on Farragut Avenue. In later years my sister and I were each allowed to bring one friend.

There were a number of set activities to which I was deeply attached, as young children tend to be. Each day we went to the beach in the morning (no late sleeper my mother), returned for lunch, then went back.

(Heaven forbid if you had to use the bathroom. The walk back was four blocks, including crossing the highly traveled Long Beach Boulevard, which runs the length of the 18-mile long island.)

On one night we would walk down the beach to Lucy's Fudge in Ship Bottom; one night we would got to the amusement park in Beach Haven; one night we would play miniature golf. Like clockwork.
My grandparent's house (now jointly owned
by my cousins) is the brown house at center.
My cousin Jim found this picture on a random
street cam. It seems wet but otherwise undamaged.

Even still, I recall with a puzzling fondness, nights sweating in sunburned pain on scratchy sheets in the upstairs hot box of a bedroom; the seagulls, cawing on top of the utility poles, waking you up too early in the morning; or sitting on the rusting glider on the front porch, with the sun-cracked vinyl cushions cutting at the back of my knees because my legs were too short to reach the porch itself.

These are strong memories and form a solid core of my personality. I will always prefer the sea over the mountains, despite just as many hours hiking in the Hudson Highlands with my parents.

My father, whose blog I sometimes quote here, is even more attached. He and his late brother Charles spent every summer on LBI, escaping polio their parents thought, and re-invented themselves.

My father, the awkward younger brother in Westfield, N.J., a town where everyone knew everybody and everybody knew and admired my uncle, became an accomplished sailor and learned how to be at peace when alone, and depending only on himself when in the fens of Barnegat Bay.

In the introduction to his book of short stories and poems, "The People Along the Sand," my father quotes the Robert Frost poem from which he took the title:
The people along the sand
all turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day. 
The beach, he writes, is a place of transition, a place of "edges," a place where you feel like you can reinvent yourself.

All of which is true, and all of which is why we flock to the beach when we want to relax.

I say all this so as to cushion what I want to say next. I know the deep emotional attachment to the beach that so many of us ave.

I know you can take my strong memories, and multiply them by millions and generations, and you get a bond that even logic cannot always break.

But int he wake of Sandy, logic demands the answer to a question. Should we break that bond for our own good and for the good of future taxpayers?

Barrier islands are the Autobahn of geology.
My thinking on barrier islands was forever changed by a National Geographic article I read years ago. In it, a geologist called barrier islands "high speed real estate."

The phrase has stuck with me. In geologic terms at least, barrier islands are the Ferrari of land types and the eastern seaboard of the U.S., home to more barrier islands than any other place, is the earth's geological Autobahn.

Here is what the U.S. Geologic Survey wrote several years ago in a report called "Coasts in Crisis" that sums up this difference most people do not recognize:
"We think of land as stable and treat it as a permanent asset. For most land, this premise is reasonable because land generally changes very slowly. Although tectonic and geologic processes, such as continental drift and erosion, are always at work, they usually result in very gradual changes that are barely noticeable during a human lifetime.
Although not as unstable as beaches created by lava flows,
barrier islands are a poor real estate bet, where permanence
is an assumed asset.
Coasts, however, are not static; they are dynamic. They quickly change shape and location in response to natural forces and human activities. These forces and activities continually push and pull at coasts -- sometimes in the same direction, but often in opposite directions. As a result, the shape of the coast-line changes. Sand and other materials are moved onto and off of beaches by currents and waves. Seasonal movement of coastal materials creates broad summer beaches followed by narrow winter beaches in an annual cycle. During major storms, huge waves and storm surges can move large amounts of coastal sediments and can flood vast areas in a matter of hours.
Barrier islands are not permanent. This will happen again.
On a larger scale, the coast itself moves as it tries to achieve equilibrium with the forces acting on it. Barrier islands and offshore sand bars move landward and along the coast, driven by longshore currents. Headlands are eroded back, moving the coast inland. Sediment is deposited on river deltas, extending the coast out into the water. Coastlines also move in response to changes in sea level; even if the land remains stationary, a rise in sea level will move the coastline inland.
Then there is the problem of how we react to this reality. 

Which is to say we don't. We ignore it.

Despite its speed, coastal changes seem slow within the time frame of our lifetime, and so we act to preserve the places that were special to us without the realization that they were ever only the way we remember them for a short while, and that memory has no more validity than its current state.
Our desire to be close to the water usually does not end well.

As USGS put it: "Because we treat the coast just like all other land -- as a stable platform on which we can safely and easily build -- some of our actions directly conflict with the dynamic nature of coasts."

And there are more of us along them every day, which means more impact on a fragile eco-system and more people in harm's way when the inevitable change comes, sometimes violently.

Again the USGS:
Conflicts between people and nature have always existed along the coasts. The increasing desirability and accessibility of coasts as places to work and live have intensified these conflicts greatly over the past 50 years. The 1990 census shows that 25 of the 30 coastal States have had dramatic population increases since 1980; the largest increases were in Alaska (36 percent), Florida (31 percent), and California (24 percent). Coastal areas across the United States now have population densities five times the Nation's average.
75% of Americans live near a coast.
Currently, 50 percent of the Nation lives within 75 kilometers of a coast; this number is projected to increase to 75 percent by the year 2010. (This shows you how old this report is.) 
As the coastal population grows, so does the need for additional facilities for transportation, recreation, potable water, and waste disposal. Pollution is already severe near large coastal urban areas and has hurt recreation activities and the fishing industry.
In other words, not only does this trend to the sea move in contravention to common sense, it also endangers an industry that is designed to meet a basic need of humanity -- food.

And the results of over-developed coastal development are no different than  salting a farm field. It poisons the ocean's nurseries.

Does this make sense in the long term?

The economic counter-balance to this concern is supposed to be tourism.

N.J. Gov. Chris Christie 
Question is, do we need tourism to survive?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who also grew up along the shore and evidently has a strong attachment to his memories, has vowed to rebuild the shore just as it was. 

That's an understandable thing for a politician with higher aspirations to say to a shell-shocked public, reassuring and comforting to those who lost everything in what, from an objective standpoint, is a questionable investment.

And, when you think about it, it is an investment being made by all American taxpayers, many of whom are not solvent enough to own a property at the shore or to spend two weeks a summer there.

For without federal and state money to re-build eroded beaches, without federal backing of flood insurance, would these properties be so valuable?

Why should taxpayers subsidize this poor investment?
How is this different than subsidizing housing or medical care from the poor, which we constantly complain we can no longer afford? 

Who deserves the taxpayers' help more? Those who can't find jobs and are stuck in poverty's cycle; those in schools without supplies or qualified teachers; or those who purchase a second home at the shore, which they rent out during the summer to cover their costs?

They congratulate themselves on their expertise, their ability to afford the investment. But they are not paying the true costs. We all are. 

Are the jobs created by tourism paying as well as those that would be created by investing that federal money in emerging green industry? Or our crumbling infrastructure?

Why are we preserving the frosting while letting the cake collapse?

Consider: It is taxpayers, including the ones from Montana and Iowa, who help to cover flooding damage losses from storms like this. 

Because the private sector is too smart to take the risk.

Insurance companies crunched the numbers and concluded they would lose money trying to cover flood damage and losses at the shore.


Because it is going to keep happening, over and over. Whether you believe in climate change or not; even if sea levels did not rise, coastal areas, particularly barrier islands from Florida to Maine, will continue to flood. And, apparently, we all will continue to pay to bail them out.

Why are we paying to cover this bad risk, this bad investment? Gov. Romney likes to talk about Obama's bad investment in Solyndra.

After all, the market has already made it clear that an investment in barrier island real estate is a sure loser -- unless -- the government promises to cover your inevitable losses.

Long Beach, N.J. Does this really make sense?
It pains me to say this and no, it will not keep me from going to the shore whenever I can. But this is an emotional argument, not a practical or fiscally responsible one.

We are subsidizing an unsustainable lifestyle and that is not a good use of scant public funds. But don't expect any elected official to point this out.

After all, how could he or she win election when 75 percent of the nation lives within 75 miles of the coast for a reason? They like the coast.

As for the science of barrier islands, I don't expect you to take my word for it.

Below I have attached parts of a tutorial about how barrier islands work titled, conveniently, "How Barrier Islands Work," by Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D.

It is not complete, go to the link to read the whole thing, but a piecemeal collection of the parts I consider most relevant to this discussion.
Barrier islands are fragile, constantly changing ecosystems that are important for coastal geology and ecology. 
  • Development has posed dangers to these ecosystems and has also increased the risk of property damage every year from hurricanes and Nor'easters.
  • Barrier islands serve two main functions. First, they protect the coastlines from severe storm damage. Second, they harbor several habitats that are refuges for wildlife.
  • Salt marsh -- a low-lying area on the sound-side of a barrier island. Salt marshes are generally divided into high and low marsh areas. High marsh areas get flooded twice each month with the spring tides, while low marsh areas get flooded twice daily with the high tides. Cord grasses stabilize the salt marsh area, which are one of the most ecologically productive areas (amount of vegetation per acre) on Earth. In fact, the salt marsh ecosystems of the islands and the coast help to purify runoffs from mainland streams and rivers.

Barrier islands are constantly changing. They are influenced by the following conditions:

  • Waves - Waves continually deposit and remove sediments from the ocean side of the island.
  • Currents - Longshore currents that are caused by waves hitting the island at an angle can move the sand from one end of the island to another. For example, the offshore currents along the east coast of the United States tend to remove sand from the northern ends of barrier islands and deposit it at the southern ends.
  • Tides - The tides move sediments into the salt marshes and eventually fill them in. Thus, the sound sides of barrier islands tend to build up as the ocean sides erode.
  • Winds - Winds blow sediments from the beaches to help form dunes and into the marshes, which contributes to their build-up.
  • Sea level changes - Rising sea levels tend to push barrier islands toward the mainland.
  • Storms - Hurricanes and other storms have the most dramatic effects on barrier islands by creating overwash areas and eroding beaches as well as other portions of barrier islands.
The impact of storms on barrier islands depend upon qualities of the storm (storm surge, waves) and upon the elevation of the barrier island at landfall. To quantify the impact of storm damage, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has devised a "hazard scale" as follows:
Photo by Susan Burke Mangano
Sandy deposited so much sand into Ocean City,
N.J. it was easily and Impact 3 or Impact 4
  • Impact 1 - Wave erosion is confined to beach area. The eroded sands will be replenished in a few weeks to months and no significant change occurs in the system.
  • Impact 2 - Waves erode the dune and cause the dune to retreat. This is a semi-permanent or permanent change to the system.
  • Impact 3 - Wave action exceeds the dune's elevation, destroys the dune and pushes sediment from the dune landward (approximately 300 yards/100 m), thereby creating overwash. This change in the system pushes the barrier island landward. 
  • (As the photos and video that accompany my article in today's Mercury shows, one of which is shown above, this is what Sandy did to Ocean City, N.J.)
  • Impact 4 - The storm surge completely covers the barrier island, destroys the dune system and pushes sediments landward (approximately 0.6 miles/1 km). This is a permanent change to the barrier island or portions of it.
Using taxpayer money to replenish beaches is a waste
when you consider the impact lasts for a few years at best.
Sand erosion by longshore currents and wave actions can dramatically change a beach.
To preserve the beach, humans must re-nourish it with sand dredged from other sources, a process known as beach nourishment. Beach nourishment is an expensive undertaking, often costing millions of dollars.
At best, beach nourishment is an expensive, temporary effort to halt the inevitable shifting sands of barrier islands.

(Freudenrich then provides an example with which many of you may be familiar.):

Ocean City, Maryland
Ocean City, which is located at the southern end of Fenwick Island along Maryland's eastern shore, has been a popular beach resort for a long time. 
In the 1920s, several large hotels were built there, and by the 1950s, development boomed dramatically and lasted almost 30 years. 
In the 1970s, ecological concerns about the island were raised, and laws were enacted to halt dredging of channels and filling in wetlands.
A hurricane opened the Ocean City Inlet in 1933 (the inlet separates Fenwick Island from Assateague Island to the south). To keep the channel navigable to the mainland, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed two rock jetties. 
Although the jetties stabilized the inlet, they altered the normal north-to-south sand transport by the longshore currents. The result is that sand built up behind the north jetty and the sand below the south jetty was quickly eroded. 
Jetty's interfere with ocean beach building and
add sand on one place, causing its loss in another.
The accelerated erosion has shifted Assateague Island almost one-half mile (.8 km) inland. In a very short time, human interventions have permanently altered the barrier island profile."
So to summarize.

We love the beach.

Each year, more and more people move closer to it.

As a result, even if barrier islands were not moving so fast, more people closer to where hurricanes hit means more loss of life and property, and more tax money to repair and replace what has been lost.

But of course, making such use of public resources unsustainable is the fact that barrier islands do move -- fast.

Should taxpayers be subsidizing this impractical investment? No.

Will any politician ever speak these words? No.

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