Seawalls and the Tyranny of Small Decisions
“They start at 6 a.m., if you can believe it,” my friend told me with a hint of frustration. This was his neighborhood, and we were both gawking at a huge pile-driver sitting atop the dune across from the Turtle Shack in Flagler Beach."
The machine is being used to sink pillars 30 feet down as foundation for the new concrete seawall being constructed by the Florida Department of Transportation. I hadn’t visited Flagler Beach in more than a year, and sitting there with my friend, looking at the scale of the construction underway, it was clear that the city and its beaches will never be the same again.
These seawalls are being installed along both North and South A1A in the name of protecting local businesses and property. But will they? Most people would agree that being business-friendly in Flagler Beach also means acknowledging that local shops and restaurants are unlikely to thrive if the local beach disappears. And with sea level rise and stronger hurricanes as a result of climate change, the destruction and loss of beaches not only in Flagler, but around Florida, is already becoming a stark reality.
One section of seawall in Flagler Beach wouldn’t be a problem if it were the only seawall around. This was the case for some time, with a mere 150 feet of seawall outside the Topaz Hotel being the loath of the town for more than a decade. But after the ongoing seawall projects are complete, this will be far from the case. Flagler Beach’s seawall length is set to increase 88 fold, from 150 feet to nearly 2.5 miles. And the fact is that the Flagler Beach seawalls are yet more pieces in an ever larger and ever more troubling trend in the hardening of America’s shorelines.
A shocking study conducted by researchers at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, reported in the prestigious journal Science, used data from NOAA to show that nearly 15 percent of the entire United States’ shoreline is covered in concrete. That is over 14,000 miles of seawall, or enough to stretch from Flagler Beach to Los Angeles and back again… three times. To make things worse, concrete shoreline is expected to grow to nearly 30 percent by 2100 if the current trend holds up. Hotspots for hardened shorelines include Boston and San Francisco, but most impacted of all is the south Atlantic and Gulf coasts, including Florida, which collectively account for 66 percent of all hardened shoreline in the entire country.
And while seawalls may (sometimes) work to protect coastal infrastructure, they can mean serious problems for beaches and the creatures that call them home, particularly as sea levels rise.
The paving of America’s coastline is, of course, not the evil plot of some nefarious man-behind-the-curtain. Rather, the wasting of America’s beaches amounts to death by a thousand drills, each inflicted by one private resident or one municipality after another. Along the way, no one seems to be paying attention to the over-all impact of these seemingly small decisions.
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