When I lived in Los Angeles — a 16-year sojourn from my native New York — I was fascinated by the sight of multimillion-dollar beach houses balanced on stilts just yards from the roiling Pacific surf. Though many of these swank digs were designed for sustainability, with green building principles in mind - equipped with state-of-the-art solar heating and recycled or natural materials - the owners seemed to have embraced a kind of green living that ignores logic. Having these homes in such close proximity to powerful waves was rather precarious — all it would take was a storm surge to remove most of the sand that comprised their front yards. And with nothing to break the flow of ocean, their living rooms would be the next to go.
But the wealthy minions smugly thumbed their noses at Mother Nature — never a wise idea — and then bemoaned their losses when they fell victim to her fury. Clearly, they had not considered the devastating effect that climate change has had on coastal zones. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in the last century, sea levels have risen five to six inches more than the global average along our mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coasts (evidently, homeowners in the coastal cities of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland are just as guilty of making light of the obvious).
Nationwide, about 5,000 square miles of dry land are within just two feet of high tide, and unless additional dikes and bulkheads are built, structures on that land will be inundated by the rising sea level, which is expected to swell between 0.6 and 2 feet in the next century, as a global average. Such a rise in sea level could eliminate 17 to 43 percent of U.S. wetlands, with more than half occurring in Louisiana. The recreational resorts built on the coastal barriers of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are protected by an oceanfront block that's five to 10 feet above high tide, but the bay sides are only two feet above high water and are regularly flooded. Erosion captures one to four feet per year, according to a 2000 study by FEMA, which puts the coast's major source of seasonal economy in peril.
Some states prohibit new houses in areas likely to suffer erosion and in Maine, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas, there are "rolling easements," which allow people to build, but only if they remove the structure if and when it is threatened — a rather pricey promise for the homeowner.
But the foolhardy folks who insist on building on our nation's coasts must think they're immune to nature's wrath. It would seem they think that living in sustainable structures protects them from the devastation wreaked upon those less fortunate. Perhaps they assume that tsunamis only occur on small Indonesian fishing villages dotted with grass-thatched huts. Perhaps they think that only the minimum wage workers living in New Orleans' Ninth Ward suffer when the levees break.
But the truth is, we're all vulnerable. On those same Indonesian islands, wealthy vacationers also lost their lives as the five-star concrete hotels collapsed from the power of the rushing waters; and in New Orleans and its environs, those living in stately manors also lost their homes (though they were likelier to have been evacuated safely). It would do those beachfront homeowners in Malibu some good to remember that the leading cause of a tsunami is an undersea earthquake — something that occurs often off the coast of California. If such a thing were to occur, it wouldn't just be their homes that are washed to sea — it would be the homeowners themselves.
So why do we keep building on the beach? Because we're inexplicably drawn to the water, dazzled by its aqueous depths, and soothed by its rhythms. Maybe we even share a sort of prehistoric memory of our watery origins. Maybe.
Or maybe we're just dumb creatures who build on the beach simply because we can. And because we paid enough for insurance to cover a new sustainable home when our current one gets destroyed. I wouldn't know. I live inland now, atop a hill and a good two miles east of the Hudson River.