Superstorm destruction was good news for jolly prophet of doom

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. -- Superstorm Sandy made Orrin Pilkey smile.

For more than 40 years, the renowned coastal geologist has preached a message of gloom: The beaches are moving. People need to get out of the way.

His message was unwelcome to many powerful people. Real estate developers slammed Pilkey in the press; wealthy alumni of his academic home, Duke University, heckled him during speeches; revelers in seaside bars challenged him to fistfights; and the town of Folly Beach, S.C., officially declared him persona non grata. Yet Pilkey has persisted and scored some big wins, persuading states to enact new building restrictions on the shore and ban seawalls and other structures that protect buildings but destroy beaches.

But the national conversation spurred by Superstorm Sandy about rebuilding along the coast marks a new high point for the 78-year-old prophet of doom.

"It is so satisfying, what's happening now. People in New Jersey are saying, 'Maybe we shouldn't build back,'" Pilkey said, pausing to sip coffee as he leaned forward across the dining room table in his nearly century-old farmhouse here in North Carolina's Piedmont region. "Thirty-five or 40 years ago, that was really outrageous."

Speaking enthusiastically about a storm that killed more than 100 people and caused untold billions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses may sound harsh, but to Pilkey, Sandy's devastation was only a matter of time given the scale of development humans have placed on vulnerable stretches of barrier islands -- one of nature's most delicate systems -- with the protection and even encouragement of the federal government.

Also, consider that the words are coming from a 5-foot-4-inch gnome with a wild white beard, a bouncing belly and an energetic Jack Russell terrier with one pointy ear and one floppy ear sitting in his lap.

Over the years, Pilkey's infectious enthusiasm has spawned a cult following of geologists and environmentalists. He has written engaging, accessible books on beach geology. And he has spread his gospel by taking generations of students, scientists and reporters on tours of North Carolina beaches to see coastal dynamics up close.

"For a long time he was sort of viewed as a prophet whistling in the wind," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the Washington, D.C., watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "But time has proved him right in the fact that it is unsustainable, what we're doing on our coasts.

Pilkey has been in the game long enough to know how it goes: A storm rolls through, calls for rethinking coastal development trail in its wake, then disaster assistance flows and interest wanes. Ultimately, houses, hotels and roads are almost always rebuilt.


But disaster funding hasn't come quickly this time, and the debate over it arises at a time when Washington lawmakers are fixated on the country's fiscal house.

Pilkey's message resonates with some fiscal conservatives who want property owners rather than the government bearing the risks of living in vulnerable coastal regions. And decades after his early warnings about increased hazards from climate change-induced sea-level rise, the issue is now getting serious attention from leaders in New York and New Jersey, as well as a number of powerful Democrats at the national level.

In fact, the Obama administration's aid request for the storm proposed $30 million for Pilkey's sparring partner, the Army Corps of Engineers, to "develop plans to address long-standing challenges and ensure the health and prosperity of the areas affected by Sandy by building for the future, rather than recreating past vulnerabilities."

Hearing that for the first time, Pilkey exclaimed: "Isn't that wonderful!"

All in the family

The Pilkey home is quieter these days. In its heyday it was a rumble-tumble place, filled with five kids and a menagerie that included dogs, peacocks, free-range chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, a goat and even, briefly, an alligator. (Pilkey's wife, Sharlene, quickly evicted the gator, which her husband brought home from a research trip during his early stint at the University of Georgia's Marine Lab on Sapelo Island. Sharlene was none too pleased when she found the surprise visitor in the shower one morning.)

Neighbors or a rival school's geology department would gather here on weekends for games of touch football out back, which on more than one occasion ended with a trip to the hospital. Pilkey's students and staff would often pop in -- nobody bothers to ring the doorbell at the Pilkey home -- for dinner, a book or a chat.

Family and work have never been separate for Pilkey. Before Sharlene gave up air travel, she worked on his research team and traveled with him advising foreign governments -- work that frequently subjected her to "unladylike circumstances."

"Orrin has a penchant for finding places that are not exactly the best places to stay," she said, relating an unprintable story about an overnight in what turned out to be a "house of ill repute" in Yugoslavia.

Family, in fact, is how Pilkey stumbled into his calling as the voice of the country's beaches.

He was born in New York City but grew up in eastern Washington state where his father, Orrin Pilkey Sr., worked at the Hanford nuclear weapons facility. He and his brother, Walter, spent their days combing the region's arid grasslands collecting Indian arrowheads. That hobby eventually led him to study geology at Washington State University.

During his doctoral work at Florida State University, Pilkey's academic interest focused on deepwater ocean geology. Abyssal plains -- the flattest, smoothest part of the ocean floor -- became his specialty.

"It's really interesting stuff, but probably nobody cared," he said.

By the time Pilkey arrived at Duke in 1965, where his first job was directing the university's marine research institute, he already had a kernel of interest in coastal and barrier island geology.

Then, in 1969, a trio of events came together to point Pilkey toward his life's work.

First, there was a long, hot, dull cruise on a research boat off the Carolina coast, where Pilkey took refuge in the scientists' lounge. There he befriended a fellow geologist from the Smithsonian Institution, and the two started talking about beaches.

That geologist, Jack Pierce, told Pilkey shocking things about seawalls (they protected the property behind them but destroyed the beach in front of them) and beach nourishment (it shielded beachfront property but was paid for mostly by taxpayers who didn't live anywhere near the shore).

"He was fascinated by this, but I was outraged by it," Pilkey recalled.

Then came Hurricane Camille. The storm, one of the 20th century's most lethal, rammed into Pilkey's parents' retirement home in Waveland, Miss.

In the weeks after the storm, Pilkey and his brother made frequent trips to Mississippi to help their parents dig out. The brothers liked working with their hands -- they had spent college summers together as smoke jumpers in Montana -- and as they toiled, they talked about how little the public knew of the dangers of building on the coast.

Shortly thereafter, Pilkey's father retired, only to find that he had few hobbies or interests to fill his time. The brothers, both academics, decided to start book projects with him. Walter's was a textbook on mechanics; Pilkey chose coastal development.

What resulted was a slim handbook titled "How to Live With an Island," published in 1975 by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Economic Resources. The book sold for $1.50.

It focused on Bogue Banks, N.C., an island near Duke's marine institute, but its lessons about how and where to build were broadly applicable to barrier island communities.

It was the first book of its kind, and it struck a chord.

"Holy cow, we got all kinds of attention," Pilkey said. "People wrote and asked if they could quote the book. Are you kidding? Nobody had ever called me up about abyssal plains. There was no particular public interest in abyssal plains, to put it mildly."

Pilkey became hooked on the idea of doing something that had an impact on society. "I got out of the deep sea as quickly as I could," he said.

Four years later, he wrote a book called "The Beaches Are Moving," which was a wild success and even got named an alternate Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

Next, he undertook a series of books called "Living With the Shore" looking at nearly every mile of shoreline in the United States -- each co-written with local authors.

In both his books and his teaching, Pilkey has emphasized making science accessible and relevant to the rest of the world.

"He was always there telling you to apply the method of science to drive what were you doing -- that was really fun," said Robert Thieler, a former doctoral student of Pilkey's who now works as a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "But at the same time, he would say, what good is this going to be to the larger society?"

'They're monsters'

Pilkey is not shy. During field trips to the shore, he would often pull up to expensive beachfront homes, sometimes parking in their driveways, and lecture students about the stupidity of having built there. In general he pays little regard to private property lines.

This has resulted in a number of unpaid parking tickets and more than one threat from property owners, but so far no arrests.

Pilkey's harshest criticism, though, is reserved for the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal entity tasked with building shore protection projects.

The Army Corps' military, can-do culture clashes head-on with Pilkey's deference to natural processes.

In his 1996 book, "The Corps and the Shore," Pilkey faults the agency as being too focused on solving near-term problems while ignoring underlying geologic conditions. Barrier islands are all slowly migrating landward, and attempts to stop this will be pricey and ultimately futile, he says. Replenished beaches erode faster than the original beach. Hard structures such as jetties protect some areas but make erosion worse elsewhere.

Pilkey also contends that the Army Corps hides its design failures behind excuses about "unusually strong" storms.

"These people, if you know them individually, they're the kind of people that you would want your children to play with their children," he said. "But as a group, as an agency, they're monsters. ... They're not necessarily driven by what people want; they're driven by the need for that agency to have jobs, to have contracts."

This hasn't gone down well with the corps.

The corp's Wilmington, N.C., district, ground zero for many of Pilkey's fights over the years, declined to comment for the record. But Tom Jarrett, an engineer who worked for the district for 34 years and battled Pilkey over many projects, said Pilkey's arguments are more about philosophy than they are about science.

"In my opinion he was more of an activist than a true scientist," Jarrett said. "He's written a lot of papers and expressed a lot of opinions, but in terms of the scientific backing of particular issues, I would take issue with some of the stuff he's done."

The majority of buildings on the shore are small businesses, Jarrett said, and the protection the corps provides them is vital to the local economy. Moreover, he emphasized, all corps projects must provide more in protection value than they cost.

"The whole deal with protecting coastal development falls down to the bottom line -- is it economical to do? And if not, what are your other options?" he said. "Some places it makes sense to do what Pilkey would like to do everywhere -- and that is abandon the property -- but you have to go through the economic assessment."

Beach locals are often less circumspect in their opinions of Pilkey.

"People here think he's a stupid educated nut," said Carol Dillon, an 84-year-old Cape Hatteras native who owns the Outer Banks Motel and has done battle with Pilkey for more than two decades. "He thinks he knows it all, and he knows nothing about what goes on here in Hatteras Island and how to protect it."

In fact, Pilkey has become so notorious around the state that his name alone is enough to kill a proposal, according to Pricey Harrison, a Democratic member of the state's House of Representatives.

"Now he's become enough of a pain in the neck to some of the development community here in North Carolina that I think if you mention his name in connection with any policy, it's probably toxic at this point," she said.

Impact in Washington

Pilkey hasn't taught full time at Duke since 2006, and although he still relishes a trip to the beach, these days that trip is more often to the human-sized "zen beach" he and Sharlene built in the screened-in porch of their house than it is three hours east to the Carolina coast.

Although he may be raising less of a ruckus on the shore than he once did, his ideas are front and center in the ruckus unfolding in Washington, D.C., as Congress grapples with how to respond to Sandy.

Both the aid bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate in December and the one passed Tuesday by the House would flood the corps with cash to rebuild beaches and construct new protections. But fiscal conservatives have registered their displeasure, voting more than 3-to-1 against the $50 billion package that passed the House on Tuesday night. And earlier this month, 67 House Republicans voted against what was thought to be an uncontroversial measure to raise the National Flood Insurance Program's borrowing authority to pay claims promised to victims under the policies they bought.

The bills would also fund studies about infrastructures' ability to withstand future, stronger storms, as well as equipment and research to better predict what those storms might look like.

Ultimately, there is little doubt that much of the Northeast will build back after Sandy. But the disaster has sparked a deeper and longer conversation about coastal development than ever before, and the issues it has raised are likely to be carried forward when the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee takes up work on a major water policy bill.

Many who work on coastal issues say Superstorm Sandy may prove to be a turning point in how the country manages its shores.

"I think there's going to be an effect from Sandy on all beach projects, but I just can't tell you which way it will go," said Harry Simmons, president of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, a nonprofit focused on combating beach erosion.

As the debate continues, Pilkey is hardly done offering his suggestions. He has made frequent appearances in the media following Sandy and has been penning high-profile opinion pieces.

He has also been brainstorming with colleagues -- many of them former students -- about studies, projects and ways of getting their message out while the national spotlight is pointed in their direction.

"He has an army of former students who have become strong advocates, as academics or in other forms, and are big proponents for better coastal management policy," said Harrison, the North Carolina representative. "They are now in the right places to carry his message forward."

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