I’ve been down to the Gulf of Mexico three times during the last year and a half, and on my second visit, almost exactly a year ago, I went out to Alabama’s Dauphin Island and made this short film.
A few months before, during the height of the BP spill, I had paid my initial visit to Dauphin Island with Bill Finch and Bethany Kraft, and blogged about it for OnEarth. Over the course of the year those blogs became the raw material out of which I built my new book, The Tarball Chronicles. Some readers might be curious about how blog becomes book, and the differences between creating something at the moment and having some time to go deeper. With that in mind, here is my initial blog post about Dauphin, and here is how the section appeared as part of a chapter in the book:
Things were going fairly normally, though Bethany and Bill and I were still wearing our marsh-wet sneakers and pants, until, heading down toward the west end of the island, we hit a roadblock. I felt like we’d driven right into a joke: a cop, a rent-a-trailer, and a woman who looked like my grandmother in a security uniform blocked the road. We asked what was going on. “They’re padding the beach,” the cop said. None of us knew what this meant despite the fact that our car was loaded with coastal experts. “Padding the beach” was a new one on us.
We tried to talk our way in; Bill after all was a well-known local environmental reporter and Bethany the head of an environmental NGO, but no go. So Bill, a little too fast, pulled his car into a side road, parked, slammed the door, and started marching down the road on foot. He walked impossibly fast, and I, after changing from wet sneakers into kayak booties that looked like black ballet slippers, was too far behind to catch up. Bill, it turned out, was pissed about being kept out of a place that he considered part of his home range. In my former life, as a cartoonist, I might have drawn smoke coming out of his ears.
Beyond security, we found huge piles of sand, some thirty feet high, lining the beach on the south side of the island, and further to the north two more rows of sand ran in lines down the island’s spine. Trucks full of sand rumbled up and down the road. Having lived on a barrier island for years, I instantly knew what was up. Sand from the calmer northern side of the island was being carted over to the Gulf-facing south side to protect the homes that were threatened by erosion and storms. What I didn’t know yet, but would soon learn, was that this was all being done -- trucks had been running up and down the island for two months already, and millions upon millions spent -- under the auspices of protecting the islanders, and more importantly the homes of the islanders, from oil. In fact the residents had been trying to bolster the sand in front of their Gulf-side homes for years but some very sensible environmental regulations prevented it. This sort of project was euphemistically called “beach re-nourishment,” though it nourished nothing. In fact, the reason it was banned was because it destroyed beach ecosystems. But when the oil started spilling, these keen-eyed opportunists saw their moment. They petitioned for some of the millions that BP had given the governor of Alabama and, since all rules were off during the gold rush of emergency, they finally got not just the beach re-nourishment project of their dreams, but had it all paid for. You may think people who take advantage of a disaster are venal, but you can’t say these folks weren’t smart.
Bill was so far ahead now, with Bethany a hundred yards behind, that I decided not to bother to even try and catch up. Instead I climbed over one of the sand piles that looked like they were dumped there to fill a giant’s sandbox, and down the other side. Abruptly, I found myself on a small skirt of beach. No wonder those homeowners were desperate for the sand, I thought. From the water there was only about twenty yards of sand and then a sharp scarp, or sand wall, above which their teetering trophy homes sat. One house already had waves beating against its foundation.
I am not heartless. I understood why a homeowner would want to try and pile sand in front of their home to keep it from falling into the sea. But there are a couple of problems with this approach, the first being it is almost always a mere postponement, until the next storm drags the new sand away. Millions of dollars are spent and then nature does what it was going to do anyway, just a little later. The larger problem is that this “solution” shows an almost complete misunderstanding of the way that barrier islands work. To start with “barrier” is really the wrong word; while these islands do defend the mainland to some degree, they are essentially permeable. They survive through a method quite different, and more fluid, than that of the homo sapiens that have claimed them as their homes.
Barrier islands migrate. They move, and grow, most often shoreward. This is happening constantly, but particularly during storms. The way an island handles a storm is through a kind of elemental judo, letting the water rush over, its sands breaking down and reforming, retreating to the marsh on its backside, rebuilding in a new place, giving and taking. An island lets the surge flow through it, breathing with the storm, never foolish enough to imagine it can block it. Think of Muhammad Ali fighting George Foreman, the way Ali hung back on the ropes. In short, the island survives through a primal rope-a-dope, an ancient and time-tested technique.
Since homeowners don’t like to be told that their backyards are migrating, they draw lines in the sand. But the ocean doesn’t care about lines. The residents on Dauphin believed in straight lines, suburbia, surveys. But no matter how much sand they pile, and how many of BP’s millions they use, they can’t change the fact that they just happen to have built their homes on a living island.
I hiked up the beach on the seaward side of the huge sand piles. The beach, I knew, wouldn’t be around for long. Pelicans dove over the water and natural-gas derricks dotted the horizon. Far from “re-nourishing” this beach, the tons of new sand was burying a world of coquina clams and crabs and thousands of tinier creatures. Sand was simply being piled, without thought to the world already there, and that sand would be blown and washed away. I remembered something the coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey once said to me:
“People fear storms but barrier islands need storms to live. Storms are the way the islands migrate and the way they build elevation. If sand is not pushed across an island by storms then the island drowns.”
Despite the ultimate ineffectiveness of dumping sand as a defense, it is done all over the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. But by hiking back across the island to the sound side I saw the true and particular genius in what the residents of Dauphin had done. When I finally caught up to Bill and Bethany, it looked like they were standing next to a series of Olympic-size swimming pools, until the pools gradually revealed themselves for what they were. They were huge holes, now filled with water, where sand had been dug out for the piles on the front side. Which meant they served a brilliant double purpose. Not only did they “re-nourish” the beaches in front of the houses falling onto the sea, but they returned the houses on the tamer sound side to what they once were: oceanfront property.
When the island had naturally migrated toward the mainland, it had left these backside residents high and dry, with landlocked docks that ran out from the backs of their houses, docks that once were on the water but now found only sand. Until two months ago. Now the docks reached the water again, the new Olympic pools connecting them to the Sound. Which meant everyone was happy! The islanders, both Gulf and Sound side, were happy because they finally got what they wanted. The Governor was happy because the islanders might vote for him. And BP was happy because these folks sure weren’t going to be complaining about a disaster that they had cannily turned to their advantage.
“Everyone is happy,” Bill agreed. “Except the island.”
And, of course, Bill himself. One thing he was particularly unhappy about were all the beach grasses and plants, grasses and plants that held the island together, now uprooted and dead in the massive sand piles on the Gulf side. But if he was unhappy, he was also energized. Gone was the professorial figure of the morning, dispensing Latin names of plants. Here was a new Bill, charging around, assessing the damage, beginning to make calls to his editor and local politicians, ready to uncover this mess.
On the walk back to the car I slowed to take notes -- I scribbled down the words “Organized Chaos,” which appeared on a sign on the front door of one of the beach houses -- which left me behind again, and Bill and Bethany made it to the car long before I did.
I tried to speed up, but it was dangerous. A rush hour of oversized vehicles crowded me off the street. I had grown used to all the dumptrucks rumbling past, but now, in the homestretch back to the car, dozens of Humvees flew by, coming from God-knows-where. Bill was ready to go, eager to spread the news of what was going on here, so he ignored the septuagenarian policewoman and drove past the barricades to pick me up. This created quite a clamor at the security booth. One of the security cars trailed us as we left the island, and when Bill dipped in and out of sidestreets, they followed. When we finally turned for the bridge Bill waved goodbye in the rear view window.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said quietly. “They claim they are trying to protect themselves from the oil. But these clowns have done a thousand times more damage to this island than any oil will.”
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at Harvard...David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at Harvard, and founded the literary journal Ecotone. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.MoreClose
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