Hawaii Monitor: It Is Time to Plan an Orderly Retreat From the Beach
A wary respect for the ocean was drilled into me at an early age. Planners should embrace the same.
Reading time: 5 minutes.
Never turn your back on the ocean.
That was one of the first things I can remember being taught as a child. The ocean, my mother repeatedly explained, is unpredictable and always potentially dangerous. Turn your back on the ocean, and bad things can happen.
That wary respect for the ocean was drilled into me from a very early age.
It’s something everyone needs to learn before spending time at the beach or choosing to live along the shore.
Case in point — those North Shore residents and homeowners, aided by neighbors, friends, and even passersby, who have been frantically trying to save their properties after large winter surf literally started sweeping away the sandy shores the homes were built on.
The news for several days has featured gut-wrenching images of them trying feverishly to save homes teetering on the edge of newly created oceanfront precipices, trying to use rocks, sand bags and anything else available to stabilize the shoreline that remains.
Some have candidly criticized public agencies for not doing more to assist in the emergency efforts.
But beyond the immediate human drama is a hard fact. This kind of serious erosion is nothing new, and we can expect more of it going forward.
Back in 1988, before we bought a home in Kaaawa, we looked at North Shore real estate. One day we visited several available homes with a realtor who specialized in the area. We vividly remember being shown a small house which, we were told, was owned by the son of a fading Hollywood star. The small house featured a relatively wide stretch of lawn in front, and a smaller yard facing the ocean, where signs of serious erosion were obvious.
As we stood there taking in the ocean view, the realtor pointed to a spot at least 40 feet out into the waves.
“Do you see that tree branch sticking up? That’s your property line,” he said, letting us know that the legal lot was bigger than it appeared.
“You might be able to fill it in,” he said, carefully avoiding any specifics while referring vaguely to efforts by others to shore up properties with boulders, sea walls or other means of protection against the relentless waves.
That moment has been enshrined in our repertoire of funny personal stories, but it comes back to my basic point. Don’t turn your back on the ocean, or you could pay the price.
It’s a lesson that now needs to be translated into public policy, sooner rather than later.
Climate scientists agree we are already experiencing measurable sea level rise and, fed by global warming, its pace is likely to increase in the decades ahead.
At the same time, the globalization of Hawaii’s real estate market is attracting wealthy newcomers who are buying up oceanfront properties for new luxury homes. Try doing a Google search for “Hawaii ocean retreat” and you’ll probably see a number of multimillion-dollar beach homes.
Here’s where the public policy questions start getting serious, because anyone with the money to buy and develop Hawaii oceanfront property these days is also likely to have the kind of clout and connections to get the ear of elected officials when the ocean’s rise starts taking a toll on their own pricey hideaways.
They’re likely to expect — and push for — public policies and public investments to shield their properties from destruction.
But scientists say that’s a losing proposition. Attempts to harden existing properties and hold back the ocean actually end up accelerating erosion. Build enough sea walls, and beaches will just disappear.
The real solution, according to a UH geologist quoted by the New York Times in 2012, is to retreat from the ocean, moving homes and other structures back and leaving the beaches to evolve on their own.
According to the Times: “If we want beaches we have to retreat from the ocean,” he said. But, he added. “It’s easy to say retreat; it’s much harder to implement it.”
No one expects such a retreat to be easy or swift, but there’s historical precedent right here in Hawaii.
Following deadly tidal waves that hit Hilo in 1946 and again in 1960, a decision was made not to rebuild in the most dangerous areas. Blocks of downtown Hilo were turned into public parks, and neighborhoods moved inland. The tragic natural disasters cleared the way for the move in Hilo. A similar decision to cede certain shorelines to the ocean as a matter of public policy will be much harder on Oahu, where the population is greater and the overall investment in oceanfront property far higher.
The federal flood insurance program has already started building awareness by increasing insurance costs for homes in coastal areas. Private insurers are likely to follow. That’s a good step. How about some kind of uniform, mandatory disclosure of current and future hazards, including beach erosion and sea level rise, to be given to every potential purchaser of oceanfront property? It wouldn’t begin an immediate retreat, but would provide “fair warning” to those unfamiliar with the risks of living so close to the ocean.
Public officials are naturally reluctant to begin dealing in concrete terms with the possibility that retreat will prove the most effective long-term public policy. But with consciousness of global warming and sea level rise growing, it’s time for some significant initial steps to be taken.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.