The beach, particularly the Southern beach, provides and atraction for people that comes close to being magical. One element of that magnetism is undoubtedly the fact that it is so big and so untamed. And it is specifically because the beach is untamed that people who want to live there must take precautions.
A house or cottage or even a mobile home pad that would be quite safe on an inland location might be subject to flooding, wave and wind damage, and absolute destruction in a coastal setting. A stretch of barrier island beach that looks like a perfect real estate investment on Labor Day might be severely eroded and changed in other ways - all of them quite natural - by Christmas.
An obvious solution is to live somewhere else and to visit the beach, as did many Indian tribes, on a temporary basis. But for those whose love of the beach is overwhelming, there is help. Copious amounts of it may be found in a book named From Currituck to Calabash: Living with North Carolina's Barrier Islands, by Orrin H. Pilkey Jr., William J. Neal, and Orrin H. Pilkey Sr., and published in 1978 by the North Carolina Science and Technology Research Center, Research Triangle Park, N.C., 27709.
The book is full of information on what happens with and to barrier islands when people and nature visit them, and it lists clues for finding cottage sites that are safest. The more vegetation you see, for example, the more stable the site is likely to be. A home built on stilts or piers, as many are in southern Florida, may reduce the possibility of damage from storm surges. Similarly, a structure on an elevated section of beach is going to be safer than one hunkered down among the dunes.
The younger Pilkey was asked not long ago what he would do if he wanted to build a house at the beach. "A lot would depend on how much money I had," he replied. "If I had a lot, I'd build a cottage on a barrier island in any place that had a good view of the sea. Generally speaking, if you have a good view of the sea you're in a dangerous place in terms of waves and winds and storms. Then, after I built it, I'd try to adopt the philosophy that I might lose my investment.
"If I had an intermediate amount of money, I'd choose my site more carefully. Maybe I'd settle for a view of the lagoon or sound rather than the ocean.
"And if I wanted something that my children could inherit - I doubt if I could build anything on the beach that would last long enough for my grandchildren to inherit - I'd certainly build it on the lagoon side. Even then there'd be some risk."
Pilkey, who lives considerably above sea level in the North Carolina Piedmont, does not own property at the beach. "When I go there," he said, "I rent a cottage from somebody else."