The Lesson from Dauphin Island about Rising Seas


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The Lesson from Dauphin Island about Rising Seas

John Englander
By John Englander and 12/02/18

Dauphin Island is a truly idyllic community south of Mobile Alabama. With about 1,200 full-time residents, it is a coveted summer retreat, with civil war history (“Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead”) and a premiere “birder’s paradise.” I visited last week and met with Mayor Jeff Collier who is working to balance the stability and economy of his island. The dual threats of coastal erosion and rising sea level are becoming more and more obvious. In addition, the island’s history with hurricanes demands that smart development keep that threat also in mind.

Seawalls can defend property, but usually accelerate adjacent beach erosion as shown with this house at the western end of Dauphin Island.

Fascinating Film

The story of Dauphin Island with its mix of southern charm and the realities of barrier islands is told in a superb new film “Flight of the Frigate Bird.” Produced by Roberta Swann and Ben Brenner, as part of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program. The film covers everything from historic living in harmony with nature, to human hubris and forgetting the wisdom of prior generations.

Most important it portrays the tough choices as homeowners and elected officials pursue conflicted policies: Protecting beaches with seawalls on a barrier island whose location has always changed with the shifting sands has always been dubious. The challenge is now rising to new heights.

Flight of the Frigate Bird is informative and insightful. In fact, it is the best message I have ever seen on the challenge of rising seas and coastal erosion in a coastal community. In full disclosure, I have a small part in the film but my praise has nothing to do with that. When you have a few minutes, I strongly encourage you to watch it — the video is posted at the end of this article.

While Dauphin Island is a secret to most, its lessons should resonate with barrier islands everywhere. In the U.S. that ranges from Padre Island in Texas, to Captiva/Sanibel in Florida, to Hilton Head in South Carolina. The challenges for stability and survival of barrier islands plays out in hundreds of places globally. Small islands have always been magical, alluring places with amazing beaches, vast waterfront vistas, and as getaways from “the big city.” Unstoppable rising sea level and worsening coastal erosion now threaten nearly all of those summer vacation vistas.

New houses keep replacing destroyed properties in exposed coastal areas. In the U.S. FEMA policies make this worse by encouraging risky coastal development.

Dauphin Island and this film allows anyone to see the dilemma now in front of us as we enter this new era. Its smallness and quaint authenticity make it possible to see the big picture with great clarity. There is no easy answer for Dauphin or the other barrier islands. A policy not to rebuild houses in vulnerable areas would be one form of retreat and adaptation, but undermines the tax base, needed to keep funding improvements to infrastructure.

Honest information and a good public discussion of the realities and the options will hopefully allow the islanders to chart a good course. Perhaps Dauphin can lead the way with enlightened policies about development on barrier islands and other coastal communities in the face of a rising sea.

The Mayor encouraged me to return to visit “the sunset capital of Alabama” with my family. Given its charm and beauty that’s certainly possible. If we do plan a trip, we will avoid the predictable king tide days that cause flooding. Rising sea level will not be a major issue in the next few years. In the longer term, it’s a different story.

CCR REPOST from John Englander’s website: