[Paleopsych] NYT: From the Air, Scientists Comb a Ruined Coastline for Clues and Lessons

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From the Air, Scientists Comb a Ruined Coastline for Clues and Lessons
New York Times, 5.9.2


   The six-seater Cessna was flying low and slow along the Gulf Coast. Two 
coastal researchers, straining against their seatbelts, were leaning out a 
gaping hole where the port side door had been removed, photographing overwashed 
sand, piles of seagrass and new inlets, the marks left on the region's barrier 
islands by Hurricane Katrina.

    But then the plane banked sharply, and the researchers aimed their cameras 
landward, toward Waveland, Miss., or what was left of it.

   ''My God. My God,'' said Robert S. Young as he caught his first sight of 
what would be miles of desolate landscape where houses, stores, churches, 
hotels and other structures used to be.

    Neighborhood after neighborhood appeared to have been raked clear, with 
nothing but concrete slabs to say where buildings had stood. Far into the 
woods, boards and beams and other remnants of these buildings lay in piles, a 
wrack line of debris left where the storm had dropped it.

    In Gulfport and Biloxi, wrecked casino barges lay across city streets or 
leaned against high-rise buildings, some tilted on their sides, all with 
windows blown out. Where railroad and highway bridges once ran, there were only 
platoons of pylons marching into the water. Here and there a truck or S.U.V. 
moved slowly down sand-choked roads, but there were few other signs of life.

    ''I have been on the scene of every major hurricane'' since Hurricane Hugo, 
said Dr. Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University who has been 
studying coastal storms since 1989, when he was a graduate student assigned to 
measure that storm's impact. ''This is the worst I have ever seen.''

    Since Hurricane Katrina struck, much of the nation's attention has been on 
New Orleans, where overtopped and breached levees stranded tens of thousands of 
residents and left much of the city under water.

    But the scientists on the plane, Dr. Young and Andrew S. Coburn, associate 
director of the Duke University Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, 
are looking instead at the Gulf Coast, where the storm came ashore.

    They and other researchers are mapping changes in beach formations, 
patterns of damage, debris fields, wind and water flow, and inland and offshore 
topography for clues about why this storm was so destructive, and so deadly.

    The work is part of scientists' continuing efforts to engage coastal 
officials and policy makers on how to make the coast safer -- and on whether 
some parts of the coast can ever be made safe enough.

    ''We have never learned that lesson,'' said Abby Sallenger, a scientist 
with the United States Geological Survey who has studied storm effects on the 
East and Gulf coasts for years. Dr. Sallenger does not advocate wholesale 
retreat from the coast, he said, but ''the coastal research community should 
come together and come to some conclusions about where it is safer to go.''

    ''What's happened before is you come back and you not only rebuild, you 
rebuild bigger,'' he continued, but ''there are some places where you should 
think twice about putting up a pup tent.''

    Scientists who want this point to be heard, and who think Hurricane Katrina 
may be an ideal opportunity to make it, are eager to obtain as much good data 
as possible about the storm and its effects.

    For example, Shea Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for 
Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans, said analysis of debris 
fields would be illuminating. ''Debris tells you how high the water was, how 
fast it was moving, where it was going, where were the soft spots,'' he said.

    Researchers from Florida International University and the University of 
Florida are studying data from 10 portable towers, fortified to survive winds 
of more than 200 miles per hour and equipped with instruments to measure wind 
speed and direction at ground level and at 15 and then 30 feet above the 

    Much real-time data transmission was halted during the storm when cellphone 
systems failed, said Stephen P. Leatherman, who heads the International 
Hurricane Research Center at F.I.U. But instruments on the towers stored their 
data and researchers should be able to obtain detailed measurements, he said.

    Scientists like Dr. Sallenger are also trying to improve estimates of 
likely hurricane impact by going beyond barometric pressure and wind speeds, 
the basis of the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, to include factors like the 
elevation of the landscape and the shape of the beach where a storm might 

    Advancing this goal was one of the reasons Dr. Young and Dr. Coburn took to 
the air. Their chartered plane took off early Friday afternoon from the 
Pensacola Aviation Center here, and they spent the next four hours flying as 
far west as Grand Island, La., 180 miles away.

    There was very little air traffic, and that was good, said the pilot, Gene 
Giles, better known as Skip, because it was not clear that air traffic control 
was operating normally.

    When the small plane crossed paths with military helicopters, as happened 
two or three times, the researchers held on as Mr. Giles wigwagged to signal he 
had seen them. At one point, the plane banked sharply to avoid a C-130 that was 
coming in over the Gulf, heading for a landing at Biloxi.

    One of the first places the researchers photographed was Dauphin Island, a 
15-mile strip of sand at the mouth of Mobile Bay. Dauphin Island is regularly 
breached by coastal storms, and its mainland bridge was knocked out in 
Hurricane Frederick in 1979. Many coastal researchers regard it as an 
outstanding example of unwise coastal development.

    ''We paid $38 million for a new bridge,'' after the hurricane, said Orrin 
H. Pilkey Jr., director of Dr. Coburn's program, who has been an ardent 
advocate of retreat from hazardous coastlines since his parents experienced 
Hurricane Camille on this coast in 1969.

    ''There was a brief period when they debated not rebuilding the bridge,'' 
he said in a telephone interview, ''but they did, and development skyrocketed 

    Even on its east end, where elevations are relatively high and the island's 
dune system is relatively robust, there were clear signs of storm damage. A row 
of groins stood out in the water, the beach they were meant to protect having 
eroded away behind them. A sea wall of rock riprap was out to sea. The ocean 
had overtopped it.

    But it was on the west end of Dauphin Island that devastating storm damage 
was most apparent.

    This part of the island had long since been without protective dunes. Some 
houses were simply gone, leaving nothing but pilings.

    In places, the island's one road was obliterated. And everywhere, there 
were huge fans of sand on the island's back side, sand that had washed over 
from its ocean beach, leaving stranded houses seemingly wading on pilings into 
the surf.

    On a developed barrier, like Dauphin Island, this sand movement is a 
disaster. ''It's as if the island is sliding out from under the houses,'' Dr. 
Young observed as the plane flew over them.

    But on undeveloped islands, it is a normal and advantageous response to 
rising sea levels -- as sand washes toward the back of the island it is, in 
effect, retreating away from the ocean.

    Sand that washes from the ocean sides of the islands is deposited in their 
marshy bayside fringes, where it is left in large fans. Eventually, this sand 
is colonized by beach grass and other plants.

    New marshes form on its landward fringes. The island will look the same; it 
will just be farther landward.

    Dr. Young and Dr. Coburn could see this process at work as the plane flew 
over Petit Bois, Horn and other uninhabited islands of Gulf Islands National 
Seashore -- more evidence, Dr. Young said, that damage to barrier islands is 
largely a matter of interference by people, ''a human tragedy,'' as he put it.

    ''It's amazing how much better natural shorelines look after a storm than 
developed shorelines,'' he said.

    Once the plane reached Waveland, Miss., however, there was little to feel 
good about.

    When a storm like this makes landfall, pushing a wall of water with it, 
nothing along the beachfront will survive the assault, even structures built to 
withstand high winds. ''Nothing can withstand waves,'' Dr. Pilkey said.

    Under assault by a storm surge, most structures simply fall apart, and 
their debris batters buildings behind them, ''missile-ing,'' Dr. Pilkey called 

    ''Stuff is thrown back into the next house and it doesn't have a chance,'' 
he said.

    Eventually the debris piles up and forms a kind of dike, which breaks the 
action of storm water and offers some protection to structures behind it.

    Dr. Coburn and Dr. Young have seen this kind of wrack line of debris 
before. But this time, they said, it was unusually far inland, testimony to the 
hurricane's strength.

    When coastal scientists survey storm damage, they often speak cynically 
about people who have chosen to build their houses in harm's way. This time, 
for Dr. Coburn and Dr. Young, it was different.

    ''It's hard to be callous,'' Dr. Young said as Mr. Giles sent the plane on 
another sweep along what remained of the Gulfport, Miss., shoreline. ''People 
lived here. People's lives are scattered around down there.''

    Dr. Sallenger, of the Geological Survey, said he hoped that as events 
unfolded in coastal Mississippi and nearby, the realization of what occurred 
there would bring scientists and policymakers together.

    ''There are a lot of smart people from the research guys to the engineers 
to the people who build these things,'' he said. As people consider how and 
what to rebuild, he said, ''Let's just do it better.''

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