Tinker Ready

Coastline Cassandra gets helping hand from Fran

Coastline Cassandra gets helping hand from Fran

1,861 words
27 October 1996
The News & Observer Raleigh, NC
(Copyright 1996)

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Outside the lobby of the Oceanfront Holiday Inn, the rising tide moves slowly toward the hotel sun deck. Inside, Orrin Pilkey, renegade geologist and defender of disappearing beaches, sits back in his chair and tries not to gloat.

“I’m very encouraged by Hurricane Fran,” he says, then catches himself. “Well, by the response of the government.”

Pilkey knows better than to celebrate a storm that killed 24 people, damaged about 30,000 homes and put the lights out for a week in parts of the Triangle. Still, there is no denying that Fran’s losses were his gains. For 20 years, the Duke University professor has been predicting that a major hurricane would flatten North Topsail Beach. Last month, one did.

Now, people who once dismissed him as an alarmist Chicken Little of the Sea are starting to listen. His message: Oceanfront buildings cannot be protected from storms without destroying the beach. Seawalls cause erosion. So if we barricade our buildings instead of moving them back, our beaches will disappear.

He sums up his philosophy this way: “It’s treating the public with contempt if you save the building at the price of the beach.”

That’s nonsense to the owners of the $22 million high-rise Shell Island resort on Wrightsville Beach, but not to the State Coastal Resources Commission. After Fran, the commission upheld the state’s ban on seawalls by rejecting a proposed wall that would protect Shell Island from the encroaching sea. The commission also set guidelines that will prevent about 800 beachfront property owners from rebuilding after Fran.

Those decisions sit well with a man who admits that he’d like to see the entire first row of Atlantic coast homes and high-rises tumble into the sea.

“It would be a major accomplishment if we could prevent Hurricane Fran from becoming an urban renewal project,” says Pilkey, who heads Duke’s Program for the Study of Developed Shoreline.

Pilkey has come to this shorefront hotel at Myrtle Beach to preach his sermon and pitch two new books and a video. Fran gave him an unexpected public relations boost, and he is milking it for all he can get.

He knows it won’t last. Over the years he has alienated beachfront homeowners, seaside developers, lighthouse preservationists and coastal engineers. He’s been called zealot, a publicity seeker, and a member of the “lunatic fringe.”

Then Fran hit and his phone started ringing off the hook. An editorial writer at The Herald-Sun of Durham called him “a prophet.”

Eugene Tomlinson, the chairman of the state Coastal Resources Commission, said he has always held Pilkey in high regard. Now, he thinks people who haven’t may have to reconsider.

“As a result of these past two hurricanes, his credibility will increase quite a bit,” he said.

Still, not everyone is ready to line up behind the professor. “I think people have a right to build where they want to as long as they accept the risk,” says Robert Owens Jr., chairman of the coastal Dare County Board of Commissioners. “I can’t see a $22 million project falling into the ocean because some academic says it should.”

Pilkey has his critics within the academy as well.

Robert Dean, head of the coastal and oceanographic engineering department at the University of Florida, says Pilkey may be succeeding as an activist, but he’s failing as a scientist.

Dean points to Pilkey’s new book, “The Corps and the Shore,” which calls the Army Corps of Engineers’ multimillion-dollar beach-reconstruction program a waste of money. Dean supports beach replenishment, but Pilkey argues that the piped-in sand washes away long before the beach engineers say it will.

“I think he’s very selective both in the projects and situations he discusses and also in the data he selects,” Dean says. “I get irritated with him because he doesn’t really look at both sides. But I guess if he did, he wouldn’t be able to be the missionary he is.”

Pilkey waves off the criticism. He sees no conflict between his roles as activist and scientist. He says people attack his methods only because they can’t refute his conclusions.

“Baffle me with facts, don’t make accusations about my lack of data,” he says. “I am on a mission, but it’s a mission backed by good science.”

Pilkey’s not content to fight his battles in professional journals and at academic meetings. He boasts about getting thrown off the grounds of an oceanfront condominium. While most academics shun media attention, Pilkey invites it. He’s quoted on National Public Radio and has been profiled by The New York Times Sunday Magazine. He likes being a media darling; he’s a pro.

“I’ve come to the point where, if they spell my name right, I know I’m having an impact,” he says.

The next day, a Myrtle Beach television station reports that “Doren” Pilkey will lead a group of students and reporters on a beach preservation tour of the Myrtle Beach area. Pilkey shrugs it off.

Pilkey’s beachfront tour begins early on a gray October day in the Holiday Inn parking lot. Pilkey herds the group into a pair of vans like an eager Boy Scout leader.

“This is going to be really neat!” he says.

Except for the tinted glasses and bulging belly, Pilkey is nearly Neptune-like. Short, solid and graying, he stands by the surf and gives his spiel as if he speaks for the silent sea.

He does know its depths. Pilkey built his career on the study of deep sea sediments. Still, there’s a bit too much absent-minded professor in him for the sea king mantle to fit. Always a bit disheveled, Pilkey gives the impression that if he didn’t have Velcro straps on his sneakers, they would never stay tied.

Nature gave him the cue to shift his emphasis from the ocean floor to the ocean front. In 1969, Hurricane Camille destroyed his parents’ Mississippi home. So he came to the surface and began looking at what happens when the waves hit the shore.

Accustomed to working in a field that had little relevance to everyday life, he was in for a shock when in 1977 he published “How to Live with an Island.”

“The response was unbelievable,” he says. “I realized that there was someone out there who was hungry for this. There certainly wasn’t a hunger for information about abysmal plains.”

Since then, he’s written or edited more than 20 “Living with … “ books about the nature of different coastlines around the country. His latest, “Learning to Live with the Shore,” is a compendium of all of them.

The Myrtle Beach tour was timed to promote the book and a new video called “Living on the Edge.” They are designed to help people avoid building, buying or renting beachfront property that is likely to be damaged or destroyed by high winds, high waves and storm surges.

“Development has proceeded with no regard to hazards,” he says. “If you come down here as a potential property owner, the only contact you have with reality is a real estate agent.”

Pilkey says he has figured out a way to predict storm damage by looking at factors such as elevation, terrain and erosion rates. Fran seemed to confirm the accuracy of the formulas he uses to create “risk maps” of the shoreline. His map for North Topsail Beach identified nearly half of the town as a “high risk area.” When the storm hit, the community was submerged at one point and, for the most part, rendered uninhabitable.

Standing on the boardwalk near 37th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach, Pilkey pointed to a cluster of houses on the inland side of Ocean Boulevard.

“If I was living here, that’s where I’d like to live,” he says, “in that little forest.” The homes are set back from the beach on higher ground and the sea oaks will shield them from high winds.

A bit south on Myrtle Beach, Pilkey talks to a television reporter as a backhoe spreads a pile of imported sand. He tells her the Grand Strand beach renourishment project will fail like the rest of them. He has surveyed them all. He can rattle off the probable life span of the nation’s renourished beaches as easily as he lists his five grown children.

The Corps of Engineers says the new Myrtle beach will last for 10 years. That’s possible, Pilkey says, but it could also wash away overnight in a major storm. Corps officials just don’t know, he says.

Ivan Byrd wanders over from his beachfront rental carrying his young daughter on his shoulders. He watches Pilkey talk to the camera. Even though he comes here from Raleigh for a vacation every year, Byrd thinks the beach replenishment program is a waste of money.

“It’s a lost cause,” he says. “I think the ocean will take its course.”

He says he would be willing to stay a few rows back if it would help preserve the beach.

“I wouldn’t,” says his wife, Lisa Byrd. “I like to look out my window and see the beach.”

Pilkey needs to realize that there are a lot of Lisa Byrds in this world, says John Houston, the director of the Corps of Engineers’ Coastal Engineering Research Center at Vicksburg, Miss.

“What are you going to do?” asks Houston. “He wants to move people back, but that is just not going to happen.”

Like Dean, Houston thinks Pilkey “tends to bend his science to fit his philosophy.”

But then, Pilkey’s critics also agree on something else about the man: They like him. One geologist called their debates “Punch and Judy shows” – but when their debates are done, Pilkey goes out for beers with his critics.

Pilkey’s persistence has paid off, says Paul Gaynes, a geologist with the Coastal College of South Carolina and a consultant to the Corps on beach replenishment.

“He’s taken an enormous amount of criticism for forcing these issues into the forefront of consideration,” says Gaynes. “These are big issues and everyone has a strong opinion.”

Fran behind him, Pilkey is going to need all the credibility he can get. North Carolina and several other states now ban seawalls, but lawsuits challenging those bans are pending, including one filed by the owner of the Shell Island resort.

And even before Fran, the federal government had begun talking about less expensive seawalls as an alternative to expensive beach replenishment program.

So, at 62, Pilkey has no plans to slow down or temper his argument. He has seen enough change over the past 15 years in shorefront planning policy to know that he has made an impact.

“I’m right,” he says. “I know I’m right. I’m positive I’m right.”

The weather will tell.



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