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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

In Oregon, the impact of El Nino has contributed to severe beach erosion that is reshaping the coastline and threatening the homes of people who once thought they loved the drama of the sea. In one community west of Portland, residents who gambled on buying a home close to the ocean’s edge are in danger of losing that bet, and have found that the state isn’t willing to cover them. Neville Eschen reports from Oceanside, Oregon.


CURWOOD: Floods and mudslides in California. Tornadoes in Florida. Deep freezes in the South. This winter's El Nino-driven weather may be a preview of what's in store as the planet's climate slowly heats up. In Oregon, the impact of El Nino has been less calamitous, but severe beach erosion is reshaping the coastline and threatening the homes of people who thought they loved the drama of the sea. In one community west of Portland, residents who gambled on buying homes close to the ocean's edge are in danger of losing that bet and have found that the state isn't willing to cover them. Nevill Eschen reports from Oceanside, Oregon.

(Sounds of surf, people calling out)

ESCHEN: Residents of the exclusive gated community known as The Capes in Oceanside, Oregon, have the beach close by, and from their homes a dramatic view of the coast. Lenora Lawrence says she's felt very fortunate to live in a place where the ocean, the landscape, and the sky fill her windows.

LAWRENCE: (In a shaky voice) When I first moved in I would get up several times a night and look out to see what the ocean and the sky were doing, you know. You can see constellations here that you don't see in town. And I still do that sometimes.

ESCHEN: But recently, the view has become too dramatic. The sandy bluff on which the development sits is giving way, threatening to toss as many as 32 gray-shingled townhouses onto the beach 170 feet below. Lenora Lawrence and her husband Jim fear losing everything.

LAWRENCE: Our second home is not in our garage. I think we'll be living in our car if we don't (laughs) if we lose our house or if it's condemned for some reason.

ESCHEN: The threat to some of the Lawrence's neighbor's homes is even more immanent. Many were built just 10 feet from the edge of the bluff. Now the edge is creeping even closer to Null Nord's house.

NORD: It makes one feel rather uncomfortable, and also having a yellow sign on the front of your door: Dangerous, Do Not Occupy.

ESCHEN: Along with more wind and rain, the El Nino weather system has brought higher, stronger tides, and changed the current along the Oregon cost.

(Surf and voices)

CASEY: You see where the surf and the waves have eroded the dunes here. There were dunes, a big dune mass out here --

ESCHEN: All the way, yeah --

CASEY: Probably out to where we're standing here now.

ESCHEN: Down on the beach, Capes homeowner Jim Casey points out how the bigger waves are scooping away the base of the bluff.

CASEY: All these trees that are on the beach here, you'll see them all the way down here, they were up on that banking up in front of the Capes. And they've all, as that sand came down, the trees fell out and were all swept down here.

ESCHEN: In February, homeowners asked the state to allow them to build a rock wall on the beach to protect the bluff. But unlike many states, Oregon's beaches are owned by the public, and a 20-year-old law meant to discourage building in risky coastal places prohibits most new rock walls and other beach structures. To the bitter disappointment of Capes homeowners, Governor John Kitzhaber denied an emergency exception. The Governor's Chief of Staff Bill Wyatt says that as grave as the homeowners' plight is, the state could not bend its rules to protect private property from extreme weather.

WYATT: It's a part of the natural process. Beachfront protected structures are not part of the natural process. You can cause erosion in ways that really do change the character of the beach. The purpose behind this rule was to maintain the beaches in a natural state to the
greatest extent possible.

ESCHEN: Other residents tend to support the Governor's decision not to allow a rock wall. In fact, many feel the houses themselves never should have been built.

JOHNSON: Being an Oregonian, you always think this will never happen to your state, because we protect our coastline so much. But when, I guess when you think coastline you don't realize the hills right next to the coastline aren't really that protected.

ESCHEN: Sharon Johnson, her husband, and her sister are among the many curious onlookers who have been going to the beach to look up at the threatened houses.

JOHNSON: They've kind of desecrated the coastline with all these stupid houses that shouldn't have been built this close to the edge anyway. You don't build a house on a sand dune, for crying out loud. Where's your head?

ESCHEN: But developer Dr. Frank Piacentini, who owns one of the houses himself, defends the decision to build so close to the edge.

PIACENTINI: We wanted to do a development within the county that everyone would be proud of, and we felt we did that. Unfortunately, through an act of God and severe extraordinary conditions, things have changed.

ESCHEN: The dune that this year's El Nino storms have washed away had been there thousands of years. Dr. Piacentini says the experts he hired to study the bluff years ago all agreed that it was stable.

PIACENTINI: We felt very comfortable with their report. And that report was accepted by the county, not only once but numerous times.

ESCHEN: Some local residents and state officials had expressed concerns that the land was unstable when the project was proposed 15 years ago. But county officials say they did not have the resources to argue with the developer's experts. The county's okay of the project led prospective buyers Jim and Lenora Lawrence to feel they had nothing to worry about, despite the state law against beach reinforcements and the fact that landslide insurance is not available.

J. LAWRENCE: We felt that we were protected by the county and the state, and also by the builder's board. We were wrong.

ESCHEN: Now the Lawrences and other Capes residents are scrambling to protect their homes themselves. New studies suggest they might be able to stabilize the slope and save most of the houses without building a rock wall. But any such effort likely would still need state or county approval. Homeowners association spokesman Brian Chapin warns what could happen if something is not done soon.

CHAPIN: The environmental catastrophe that would unfold if one of these homes were to fall 170 feet from its current perch down to the beach is something that I don't believe we've seen in Oregon's history, in Oregon recent history. The number of nails in a structure of this, the amount of glass, the shingles that would break free, the insulation that would be in the foam or in the surf.

ESCHEN: But other homeowners worry about liability if their houses do fall onto the beach, and they don't want to risk harming the very thing which brought them to The Capes in the first place. The owners have at least one of the houses closest to the edge might even take it down. Homeowner Noel Newhard moved out. He says he's learned a very old lesson.

NUARD: I guess we should have listened to that place in the Bible where it says not to build on sand.

ESCHEN: It's a passage from Matthew that a lot of people here quote these days. It refers to a wise man who built his house on rock and a foolish man who built his house on sand. When rain, floods, and winds beat against the house built on sand, the passage says, great was its fall. For Living on Earth, I'm Nevill Eschen in Oceanside, Oregon.



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