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A Coastal Paradise Confronts Its Watery Future

Half the land in the city of Satellite Beach is only 6 feet above the waterline. (NPR)

Dan Reiter, 37, is a long-board surfer and contractor who used to live in Tampa, Fla. Then he discovered the surf breaks along a stretch of coast south of Cape Canaveral. "It's one of the most beautiful places in the world to live and surf and raise your kids," says Reiter, 37, as we watch head-high waves roll into Hightower Beach.

But there's trouble in this coastal paradise. It's on a low-lying barrier island that's getting lower as sea level rises. So the cities here are looking for ways to keep the water at bay or retreat from it.

Reiter applauds these efforts but thinks that ultimately they will fail. "The idea of planning is really important to lengthen how long we can stay here," he says. "But you know in the end it's the same as living on a fault line, or just living in general. You know you're going to die at some point."

The question is: When? And the city of Satellite Beach is working hard to make sure it's not anytime soon.

About 11,000 people live in the city, which advertises itself as a wholesome place for families rather than as a tourist attraction. Locals jokingly call their home "Mayberry by the Sea."

In the end it's the same as living on a fault line, or just living in general. You know you're going to die at some point.
Dan Reiter, Satellite Beach resident and surfer

Sea-level rise has been a hot topic here since 2004, when a pair of hurricanes scoured away the beach, damaged several properties and destroyed at least one waterfront home. "When that house went into the water, that was very surprising to people," says Courtney Barker, the city manager.

It was no surprise to coast scientists, though. About half the land in Satellite Beach is less than 6 feet above the water. And the direst projections of sea-level rise put some neighborhoods underwater within a few decades.

Whether or not those projections are accurate, Barker says, the problem is something the city can't ignore. "We have evidence of coastal erosion and we have flooding during rain events that has gotten worse," she says. "We're at a point where we recognize that we may have a problem in the future, and we need to sit down with the public and hash out a way to address it."

But, how? At one extreme, the city could retreat — abandoning structures that are in harm's way, or moving them to higher ground. Unfortunately, there's not much higher ground available.

At the other extreme, the city could gird the coast with seawalls, levees and dikes. But that tends to increase erosion elsewhere, and geologists say the ground here is so porous that water would still seep in.

So next week, the city will hold a public meeting to begin a debate about how to become more resilient. "Everything is on the table," says Frank Catino, mayor of Satellite Beach.

A Man-Made Problem

The fact that Satellite Beach is actually talking about sea-level rise puts it far ahead of many other communities, says John Fergus, a retired Air Force officer who has encouraged the city to begin planning. But Satellite Beach also faces some major challenges, he says.

To show me what he means, Fergus takes me on a pontoon-boat tour of the waterways on the lagoon side of the island. "Where we are right now used to be palmetto scrub," he says as we glide past a Mediterranean-style waterfront mansion and many simpler homes along the narrow canals.

The neighborhood we're in was transformed from swamp to subdivision in the 1950s and 1960s, Fergus says, by dredging canals and then using the spoil to build up adjacent land. As a result, he says, many homes sit just a few feet above the water, along a coastline that is entirely man-made.

And most other parts of the city also have been shaped by people. Almost every buildable lot is occupied. The beaches are covered with sand brought in from other areas. Even the city's nature park is on a man-made island.

This sort of artificial landscape is common in this part of Florida, says Randy Parkinson, a coastal geologist who has spent years studying the challenges facing coastal cities. "When I first came up to this area from Miami, I tried to find a wetland that had not been altered by human activity," he says. "But there are no natural habitats left."

That's a big problem in an era when the sea is rising and storms may be getting more powerful, Parkinson says: "I see a train wreck."

But Satellite Beach is doing some things that could help it avoid or at least delay that wreck, he says. To show me what he means, he takes me to Hightower Beach Park, not far from where I spoke with Reiter, the surfer.

About 15 years ago, the city acquired this half-mile of coastline from an owner who had been planning a condo. Instead, the city rebuilt the dune and protected it by planting sea oats and building a wooden crossover for beachgoers. The result, Parkinson says, is, "a buffer between the Atlantic Ocean energy and your urban landscape."

Projects like this one will give people on this island a bit more time to figure out what to do next, he says. But they won't stop sea-level rise.

Reiter says he doesn't want to leave the area but probably will be forced to at some point. "Let me put it this way," he says: "My daughter is 7 and I'm not planning on leaving her the house as a legacy. So when she's 40 and 50 years old, I think we're probably going to be somewhere else — maybe somewhere in Virginia, up on a mountain."


This story is part of the NPR Cities Project, a series of reports about how location affects the urban experience.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In coastal places, some communities are rethinking their proximity to water in light of rising sea level.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The choices are straightforward but not easy - defend the shoreline with flood walls and the like or retreat, stop development along the water, even remove what's already there. Reed Noss calls that process a managed retreat. He's a Florida biologist.

SIEGEL: Noss says as seas rise, plant and animal life are adapting, migrating. Mangrove trees, for example, are moving to higher ground.

REED NOSS: There is a natural retreat going on. And you can actually see it. They look like they're literally marching in on their stilt-like prop roots. They're coming right into what was pine forest. And other natural communities being invaded by these mangroves - this is a natural phenomenon.

SIEGEL: Reed Noss says cities should take a hint.

NOSS: If the natural communities are shifting, that should tell us something. Maybe we ought to shift location of our communities as well.

BLOCK: One city wrestling with this problem is Satellite Beach, Florida. NPR's Jon Hamilton went to take a look.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: When I arrive in Satellite Beach, the surf is definitely up. Short-boarders are carving across head-high waves. The ocean is so loud it almost drowns out the cicadas in this beachside park. I'm here to meet Dan Reiter. He's a long-boarder who lives a few miles north.

DAN REITER: You came on a really good day, actually, because Hurricane Cristobal is out there and it's sending some heavy chop.

HAMILTON: Reiter is 37. He used to live in Tampa. Then he discovered the surf breaks along this stretch of coast south of Cape Canaveral. He moved here for the lifestyle.

REITER: It's one of the most beautiful places in the world to live and surf and raise your kids.

HAMILTON: Satellite Beach is so wholesome and family-oriented that locals refer to it as "Mayberry by the Sea." But there is trouble in this coastal paradise. It's on a low-lying barrier island that's getting lower as sea level rises. So communities are trying to adapt. I ask Reiter whether he thinks they'll succeed.

REITER: The idea of planning is really important to lengthen how long we can stay here. But, you know, in the end it's the same as, you know, living on a fault line, or just living in general. You know that you're going to die at some point

HAMILTON: For a more optimistic view, I drive a mile inland - almost to the Banana River on the other side of the island.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMILTON: All right, City Hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

HAMILTON: Nearly 11,000 people live in Satellite Beach.

COURTNEY BARKER: You can go back.

HAMILTON: Thank you. Courtney Barker is the city manager.

BARKER: How are you?

HAMILTON: She says erosion and sea-level rise have been a hot topic here since 2004. That's when a pair of hurricanes scoured away the beach, damaged several properties and destroyed a waterfront home.

BARKER: You know, when that house went into the water, that was very surprising to people.

HAMILTON: Barkers pulls out a government flood map to show me where the damage occurred.

BARKER: This is Shell Street. It's right there at the south end of our city. And it's a pretty popular beach access.

HAMILTON: The maps show several areas designated as vulnerable to flooding.

BARKER: I can find an aerial map.

HAMILTON: About half the land in Satellite Beach is less than six feet above water. The most dire projections put some neighborhoods under water within a few decades. Barker says that's something the city can't ignore.

BARKER: We have evidence of coastal erosion and we have flooding during rain events that has gotten worse, you know. And that's pretty much where we're at. We're at a point where we recognize that we may have a problem in the future. And we need to sit down with the public and hash out a way to address it

HAMILTON: The question is how? At one extreme, the city could simply retreat, abandoning structures in harm's way or moving them to higher ground. Unfortunately, there's not much higher ground available.

At the other extreme, it could armor the coast with seawalls and levees and dikes. The trouble is the ground here is so porous that water would still seep in. So next week, Satellite Beach will hold a public meeting to start debating how it can become more resilient. A couple of blocks from City Hall is a dock where I meet two people. They know a lot about the city's past and are trying to ensure its future.

HAMILTON: Hi, Jon Hamilton.

RANDY PARKINSON: Hi, Jon, nice to meet you.

HAMILTON: One of them is Randy Parkinson, a coastal geologist. The other is John Fergus, a volunteer who has encouraged the city to begin planning for sea-level rise.

HAMILTON: We step onto a pontoon boat, and Fergus steers us into a network of waterways.

JOHN FERGUS: Where we are right now used to be palmetto scrub. It's now a canal. And where those houses are was Mangrove Swamp.

HAMILTON: In other words, this is all man-made. We glide north, past Mediterranean-style waterfront mansions as well as older and simpler homes along the finger canals. Many of the houses are just a few feet above the high tide line. Fergus tells me this kind of development was pioneered in the 1920s by Charles Rodes. He's the man who transformed Fort Lauderdale's swap land into the Venice of America.

FERGUS: His solution was to take a dredge, make a canal, dump the spoil next to the canal and, just like here, you magically then took low-lying swamp, and you elevated that the land. But not only did you have buildable land, it was waterfront land.

HAMILTON: That's what happened here in the 1950s and '60s. Randy Parkinson, the coastal geologist, says a natural coastline retreats as sea-level rises. Dunes move inland - so do the mangroves and wetlands. But he says a man-made subdivision can't do that.

PARKINSON: When I first came up to this area from Miami, I tried to find a wetland that had not been altered by human activity. But there are no natural habitats left.

HAMILTON: In Satellite Beach, almost every buildable lot is occupied. The beaches are covered with sand brought in by truck. Even the city's nature park is on a man-made island. Parkinson says this highly artificial landscape is common in Florida. And he says it's a big problem in an era where the sea is rising and storms may be getting more powerful.

PARKINSON: I see a train wreck.

HAMILTON: And is Satellite Beach going to be part of that train wreck?

PARKINSON: All indications are right now that it's trying to avoid that.

HAMILTON: I ask how, and Parkinson takes me back to the Seaside Park where I talked to the surfer. He says this is where Satellite Beach is doing something very smart. About 15 years ago, it acquired a half-mile of coastline from an owner who'd been planning a condo. Parkinson says the city had a better idea.

PARKINSON: Behind us is the dune, which would be the highest natural elevations.

HAMILTON: He says the city rebuilt the dune then protected it by planting sea oats and building a wooden crossover for beachgoers.

PARKINSON: This has essentially been restored. It is a buffer between the Atlantic Ocean energy and your urban landscape behind.

HAMILTON: Parkinson says maintaining that buffer will give people here time to figure out what to do next. Dan Reiter, the surfer who fell in love with this stretch of coast, says he's not leaving any time soon. But he doesn't expect to stay forever.

REITER: Let's just put it this way. My daughter is 7, and I'm not planning on leaving her the house as a legacy. So when she's 40 and 50 years old, I think we're probably going to be somewhere else.

HAMILTON: John Hamilton for the NPR Cities Project.

REITER: Maybe somewhere in Virginia, up on a mountain or some high ground - on a ridge somewhere.

HAMILTON: Not the Virginia beaches?

REITER: No. no.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, we'll hear about an aggressive effort to move people away from the ocean in New York City.

BLOCK: And we want your stories and photos of nature reclaiming urban space - maybe a tree flourishing in an abandoned house, a backyard turned fox den, a crack in a sidewalk brightened by flower.

SIEGEL: Give us a glimpse of what's happening in your hometown of nature making itself known. You can do it through Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram. Use the hashtag #nprcities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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