AGAINST THE TIDE

The Battle for America's Beaches

By Cornelia Dean

Columbia Univ. 279 pp. $26.95

Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle

I hate to spoil anyone's vacation, but the next time you visit Ocean City, Md., you might consider what it's doing to Assateague Island, which lies just to the south. In 1933, reports Cornelia Dean in this survey of beach manipulation and its often perverse consequences, a hurricane bestowed a bonanza on Ocean City by cutting Fenwick, the island on which its sits, in two, offering new, easy access to oceangoing boats. To stabilize the inlet, the Army Corps of Engineers installed rock jetties, which "widened the beach in front of the town" -- but at the expense of northern Assateague. "Currents continued to carry sand away to the south," Dean writes, "but the jetties blocked the sand that normally would have arrived to replace it. Assateague Island began eroding fast. Today the stretch just downdrift of the jetties, the lush island the explorer Giovanni da Verrazano called `Arcadia,' is duneless and treeless."

The engineering at Ocean City is an example of how enhancing one beach can beggar another. In other cases, the dynamic is more perverse: Greed, shortsightedness, and entrenched patterns of private and governmental interference with natural processes have made many beaches not just the sites of frolic and relaxation beloved of vacationers but also magnets for self-defeating meddling.

Dean, who is the science editor of the New York Times, starts with the unassailable proposition that beaches are inherently unstable. Storms rearrange them, barrier islands migrate, dunes build up and break down, shoreline contours shift. "In the long run," she writes, "extensive development cannot coexist with an eroding beach -- and most American beaches are eroding." Also, she notes, eroding beaches tend to move inland if left alone, not to disappear. Which means that campaigns to stabilize a beach are usually little more than efforts to save buildings. Chambers of commerce and owners of second homes like to think of a beach in the configuration they are used to as a permanent foundation-cum-playground, deserving of protection, insurance and replacement when Nature acts up. Ironically, a resort community that is flattened by a storm has often been made more vulnerable by its own interference: To thwart erosion, beach communities install such structures as seawalls, which over the long run can alter wave action so as to undermine both themselves and the beach they are meant to save.

To illustrate this kind of cycle, Dean cites the case of West Hampton Dunes on Long Island, where in 1992-93 winter storms cut off a portion of the island, leaving some 90 houses unreachable except by amphibious vehicles. The homeowners sued the state and federal governments, alleging that a beach-erosion control project had contributed to the damage -- as it probably had (the suit was settled). And yet many local residents had cried out for erosion control. As Dean sums up:

"For many environmentalists and coastal scientists, West Hampton Dunes is a dismal example of what happens when people disregard the realities of the coast, build on an unstable landform, and then try to avoid the inevitable consequences by armoring the beach. To suit their own purposes, they jettied inlets rather than letting them close naturally to restore the natural flow of sand. When erosion worsened, as it inevitably would, they built groins. When groins made the problem even worse, they turned to federal, state and local governments -- that is, to the taxpayers. The taxpayers, in turn, find themselves committed to spending tens of millions of dollars to protect the property of people who, in many cases, had every reason to know that they were building in an unsafe place . . . According to initial estimates, the eventual cost of the project works out to about $300,000 per house in the damaged area -- about what it might have cost to buy them out."

Although as a whole this is a distressing book, Dean does present cases in which foresight and attentiveness have prevailed. For example, the Nature Conservancy has quietly -- and in some cases surreptitiously -- bought up and preserved barrier islands along the Atlantic Coast. But for the most part Against the Tide is a tale of landowners and boosters joining forces to undermine a beach's long-term health in order to preserve their investments and lure more tourists.

Dean might have gone to greater lengths to overcome her book's Eastern bias -- if you're looking for information about West Coast strands, you won't find much of it here. And sometimes her writing has the flat, toneless sound of recycled journalism. But she is impressively well-versed in her subject and willing to acknowledge the paucity of hard information on certain aspects of beach dynamics.

Her most sobering sections concern the problem of evacuating beaches when tropical storms are bearing down on them. Many stretches of the Atlantic Coast, she notes, are so built-up, so thronged with people during vacation season, that there is no such thing as a quick getaway. Forecasters are loath to call for an evacuation until they are pretty sure that a storm will actually hit, and sometimes they can't make the call until 12 hours before landfall. Meanwhile, to focus on one particularly vulnerable region, it has been estimated that "it would probably take more than eighty hours to evacuate the southeast Florida coast." The crowding has gotten so bad that "some preparedness officials [are being led] to a conclusion that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago: maybe people should be encouraged to ride out the storm where they are."

The chapter in which Dean discusses this predicament is entitled "The Big One" -- a moniker that I used to think belonged exclusively to the much-feared threat of a gigantic earthquake along California's San Andreas Fault. Dean has borrowed it for the monster storm that will almost surely hit a populous section of the East Coast's overbuilt beaches one of these days, and after reading Against the Tide, I can see her point.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.

CAPTION: Fire Island, N.Y., after a hurricane in 1962