Shored Up: A Film Review

"It's like a war zone."

The first words spoken in Shored Up, a documentary that highlights the destructive folly of unchecked coastal development, refer not just to the scenes of devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, but also the unwinnable battle being waged against rising seas and shifting sands.

At the heart of the movie is the story of how two regions, the Outer Banks of North Carolina and New Jersey's Long Beach Island, have taken two divergent paths in managing their beaches, yet find themselves in the same predicament: the ocean is encroaching upon shorefront development and all of the money it represents.

New Jersey's approach epitomizes the strategy of shore hardening, or using groins, jetties, sea walls and other hard structures to keep sand in place and storm waves at bay. Seen from above, the beaches in New Jersey resemble the jagged edge of a saw created by the nearly 500 groins built to capture sand in front of homes and businesses. The problem is that captured sand is really just stolen sand that would have been carried further down the beach by waves and currents. So like a reverse game of tumbling dominoes, once one groin goes up, another needs to be built a little further down the beach, followed by another and another.

North Carolina, on the other hand, wisely banned groins and seawalls decades ago, and the result is the wild, beautiful beaches of the iconic Outer Banks. However, the many natural forces and processes at play have brought the tides close to the oceanfront doorsteps of these narrow barrier islands. The response from a group of property owners had been to successfully lobby for four groins to protect a specific set of homes. But just as in New Jersey, groins simply rob sand from in front of a neighbor's property, making it unlikely that the requests will stop at just four because someone always loses the sand game.

You can see Shored Up as it continues to tour cities and towns across the country, or you can pay to stream it at home from the film's website.

As Shored Up makes clear, hardening the shoreline does not make beaches any wider. That requires beach replenishment, a process where eroded beach sand is replaced with sand sucked up from offshore, or as one Long Beach Island resident in the film describes it, "a band aid on a hemorrhage." In fact, the deceptively simple act of pumping offshore sand onto eroding beaches is the last step in a politically complex journey driven primarily by real estate money.

On Long Beach Island, for example, what once were beach cottages in the 1950s have in many cases transformed into beach mansions worth millions of dollars each, ironically growing in value after damage from big storms provided an opportunity to expand. With so much investment at stake, it has become politically unfeasible for local governments not to push for dumping more and more sand onto their beaches. But as the film explains, the towns themselves are getting an incredible deal. According to the film, in New Jersey the federal government covers 65 percent of beach replenishment costs, the state covers 26 percent and the town requesting the sand pays just 9 percent.

That's an absurd government subsidy because it provides a false sense of security that spurs even more coastal development, which can lead to yet more debt for the federal government's flood insurance program and other sources of emergency aid when disaster strikes. One of the film's most telling moments comes when even a long-time lobbyist for beach replenishment projects wearily admits that dumping sand on the beach is not a long-term solution.

All of this begs the question: What do we do about our addiction to living in increasingly dangerous coastal lands? The answers can be unsatisfying. Revise the National Flood Insurance Program so that it no longer subsidizes redevelopment in flood-prone areas. Have governments buy properties from residents who want no more of the frequent floods and then convert the land into open space. The truth is that we have a very simple choice: Continue to turn our beaches and other coastal lands into fortified bunkers lacking the beauty that once attracted so many of us to the shore, or retreat to safer ground and allow the beaches to act as our protection from storms as they always had.

Or as more than a few of the coastal residents interviewed in the film rhetorically ask, "Whaddya gonna do?" That's a fatalistic but honest question. It's hardly fair to tell families with deep roots in the shifting sands of barrier island towns that they need to pull up and move while not requesting the same of residents living in flood-prone neighborhoods in the nation's major cities, many of which are located close to or even below sea level. The problems of coastal living aren't limited to a small number of beach towns when about half of the US population lives in a coastal county.

Yet nowhere are the increasing risks of living by the sea more evident than they are in the nation's beachfront communities. The producers of Shored Up were perversely lucky in that they began filming several years before Superstorm Sandy smashed into the Mid Atlantic. Interviews with coastal scientists conducted long before the storm was even just a patch of rain in the tropics made it clear that no matter how much sand you dump on a beach or how many groins you install, the vulnerable barrier islands will be under water during big storms. And so many parts of New Jersey's islands were, leaving devastated families, destroyed infrastructure and spiraling government debt. 

It was, in fact, just like a war zone.