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Seawalls and the Tyranny of Small Decisions

| April 11, 2019

The drill building the seawall on  the north side of Flagler Beach last week. (© FlaglerLive)

The drill building the seawall on the north side of Flagler Beach last week. (© FlaglerLive)

By Chad S. Boda

“They start at 6 a.m., if you can believe it,” my friend told me with a hint of frustration. This was his neighborhood, and we were both gawking at a huge pile-driver sitting atop the dune across from the Turtle Shack in Flagler Beach. The machine is being used to sink pillars 30 feet down as foundation for the new concrete seawall being constructed by the Florida Department of Transportation. I hadn’t visited Flagler Beach in more than a year, and sitting there with my friend, looking at the scale of the construction underway, it was clear that the city and its beaches will never be the same again.


These seawalls are being installed along both North and South A1A in the name of protecting local businesses and property. But will they? Most people would agree that being business-friendly in Flagler Beach also means acknowledging that local shops and restaurants are unlikely to thrive if the local beach disappears. And with sea level rise and stronger hurricanes as a result of climate change, the destruction and loss of beaches not only in Flagler, but around Florida, is already becoming a stark reality.

One section of seawall in Flagler Beach wouldn’t be a problem if it were the only seawall around. This was the case for some time, with a mere 150 feet of seawall outside the Topaz Hotel being the loath of the town for more than a decade. But after the ongoing seawall projects are complete, this will be far from the case. Flagler Beach’s seawall length is set to increase 88 fold, from 150 feet to nearly 2.5 miles. And the fact is that the Flagler Beach seawalls are yet more pieces in an ever larger and ever more troubling trend in the hardening of America’s shorelines.

A shocking study conducted by researchers at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, reported in the prestigious journal Science, used data from NOAA to show that nearly 15 percent of the entire United States’ shoreline is covered in concrete. That is over 14,000 miles of seawall, or enough to stretch from Flagler Beach to Los Angeles and back again… three times. To make things worse, concrete shoreline is expected to grow to nearly 30 percent by 2100 if the current trend holds up. Hotspots for hardened shorelines include Boston and San Francisco, but most impacted of all is the south Atlantic and Gulf coasts, including Florida, which collectively account for 66 percent of all hardened shoreline in the entire country.

And while seawalls may (sometimes) work to protect coastal infrastructure, they can mean serious problems for beaches and the creatures that call them home, particularly as sea levels rise.

Chad Boda.

Chad Boda.

The paving of America’s coastline is, of course, not the evil plot of some nefarious man-behind-the-curtain. Rather, the wasting of America’s beaches amounts to death by a thousand drills, each inflicted by one private resident or one municipality after another. Along the way, no one seems to be paying attention to the over-all impact of these seemingly small decisions.

This process of post hoc decision-making has been termed “the tyranny of small decisions” by the famous economist Alfred E. Kahn in the 1960s, and the idea was later extended to environmental degradation by a well-known environmental scholar Eugene Odum in the early 1980s. When reviewing the history of coastal wetland loss along the US east coast between 1950 and 1970, Odum made a stunning and troubling observation.

“No one purposely planned to destroy almost 50 percent of the existing marshland along the coasts of Connecticut and Massachusetts,” Odum wrote. “In fact, if the public had been asked whether coastal wetlands should be preserved or converted to some other use, preservation would probably have been supported. However, through hundreds of little decisions and the conversion of hundreds of small tracts of marshland, a major decision in favor of extensive wetlands conversion was made without ever addressing the issue directly.”

The main point is this: many uncoordinated small choices can result in large-scale, often destructive outcomes that nobody asked for and nobody really wants.

Today, more than half a century later, Florida is facing the same fate. And unlike in Odum’s time, we can no longer claim ignorance. The tyranny of small decisions is now a well-known phenomenon, and it has seriously important lessons for a state like Florida, which is committing the same kind of mistake noted by Odum, but on a much larger scale and at a much faster pace.


“The wasting of America’s beaches amounts to death by a thousand drills, each inflicted by one private resident or one municipality after another.”


Given that a full 90 percent of the nearly 400 Flagler Beach residents who answered a public survey I conducted in 2016 claimed that a healthy beach was absolutely central to their quality of life, it seems clear that nobody wants Flagler’s beaches to disappear, and yet that is exactly what could happen in the absence of better beach management policies, particularly at the Department of Transportation.

Adding one more seawall here, one more seawall there, can and has added up to a far more significant impact on the environment. Continuing to build even small seawalls will only hasten the degradation and eventual loss of the beautiful beaches that make Florida the world’s most popular tourist destination. We have known for over a decade that East coast states and local governments plan to develop the majority of lands most vulnerable to sea level rise, which will lead to even more seawalls in the future. However, the scientific consensus is clear: taking an ecosystem-based approach to managing coastal habitats and beaches, in particular building living shorelines rather than concrete walls, is going to give us the best chance at ensuring a healthy beach for generations to come.

To avoid this terrible but silent seawall tyranny, we have to start thinking bigger, and acting smarter. This means planning on a much longer time scale to account for sea level rise. It also means thinking and planning on a landscape scale, so that erosion control projects work with rather than against the natural dynamics of the barrier island ecosystem Flagler Beach residents call home.

From my perspective, the FDOT seawall projects were forced on Flagler Beach, so the blame lies elsewhere. Florida’s coastal management policies at the state-level need a major rethink to account for the impacts of climate change. And Florida needs political leaders with the foresight to accept the challenge and lead the way forward.

Dr. Chad S. Boda, a Florida native who has advised the Flagler Beach City Commission on beach erosion, researches and teaches on Sustainable Development at the Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies in Sweden. See his previous pieces for FlaglerLive here.

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25 Responses for “Seawalls and the Tyranny of Small Decisions”

  1. Steve Robinson says:

    Well, I’m waiting for Part 2! What exactly does Dr. Boda suggest is the right solution (if there is one)? In spite of the $25 million being spent on dune replenishment, one major storm will take away all that sand, and more. And I’m speaking as a homeowner on the barrier island.The fact is that it’s time to acknowledge that living and recreating on an ever-shifting sandbar has an endgame that we may be able to postpone but not avoid.

  2. GA Barker says:

    I understand the problems of aesthetics, but let’s face it, we can keep rebuilding roads and businesses will continue paying high premiums because the constant claims for water damage and increasing replacement costs. Maine, NY, Jersey all have walls. It jst makes comn sense.

  3. mike tee says:

    It’s not a bad thing.

  4. Rick Belhumeur says:

    I don”t think that Dr. Boda understands that this will be a “buried seawall” and will remain so in perpetuity. There are no new exposed seawalls being built in Flagler Beach, nor have any been proposed. If a storm like hurricane Matthew exposes the seawall, it will be re-covered.

  5. William Dorne says:

    Chad, I enjoyed your very well written article. I feel very sad. I don’t think our politicians or the general public have the foresight or will to make the hard decisions that would have be made now to save our beaches for future generations.

  6. Butch Naylor says:

    From the information presented at public workshops and reported on Flagler Live,
    the so called 3rd Segment of the project calls for construction of a sea wall
    behind the existing dune, concealed by more sand and vegetation.
    The reported location is from North 18th Street to Osprey Drive in Beverly
    Beach. This distance is approximately 1.1 miles.
    In his article, Dr. Boda mentions 2.5 miles.
    Does he have additional information which has not been publicized,
    or is he mistaken?

  7. Chad Boda says:

    Commissioner Belhumeur is correct that the seawall will be buried initially. The point of the article however is that sea level rise and storms will make re-covering the seawall too expensive or even impossible in the future. The last seawall in Flagler was supposed to be covered as well, and we all know how that turned out.

  8. Chad Boda says:

    The article refer to seawall construction in both North and South A1A in Flagler Beach

  9. oldtimer says:

    Barrier islands lose their purpose once we start covering them with concrete and building on them, Nature didn’t put them there for our sole use

  10. Outside Looking Out says:

    I stopped reading this article at the second paragraph when Libby Chad started mentioning the ever present democrat money maker – climate change. Global warming made a lot of people rich and when that failed, they went for climate change. Al Gore is proud.

  11. Lou says:

    Typical example of “socializing” expenses for the benefit of a few.

  12. Butch Naylor says:

    Dr. Boda: I have never heard sea wall construction mentioned for south Flagler Beach A1A.
    Since the current and only publicized plan for sea wall construction is North 18th Street, north to Osprey Drive (1.1 mile), why does your article state 2.5 miles of sea wall, both north and south?

  13. Chad Boda says:

    Seawall is a general term for hardened coastal infrastructure. We link to the south side project in the article. Send me an email and I would be happy to explain.

  14. Ben Hogarth says:

    Well I hope the proposed sea wall is planned for 216 feet above sea level because that’s the National Geographic estimate for how high sea levels would rise if all polar ice caps melted…

    I think Steve Robinson hit the nail on the head – what is the endgame? Well, I can tell you it won’t be OUR endgame if we don’t figure out this human generated climate change problem – it will simply be our end.

    For anyone who doubts that climate change and sea level rise is real, I strongly urge you to rethink your politically convenient “religionand switch to one that is inclusive of popularly accepted science. You can rebuild sandbar and sea wall time and again, but no matter how much money you spend – Mother Nature WILL win.

    For those people who own waterfront property now – in fewer years than once imagined, you are about to own actual ocean property. Something tells me it won’t be quite as valuable…

    These hurricanes simply amplify what is a perpetual crisis. If you think the emergency has ended once the hurricane has left – you are in for a rude awakening. There are millions of lives who will be impacted in coming years. You don’t need a climactic event to understand that we have pushed our ecosphere to limits and it’s changing as a result. It’s changing as fast as it needs to – and it’s faster than what we can keep up with.

    The U.S. Army Corps listed the dune repair project in Flagler as a 50 year restoration effort costing millions upon millions of dollars. Let me spare you all the dramatic wait – at the rate of sea level rise as we speak now, in 50 years there won’t be a beach to save. And that’s not even considering projections of future rate of carbon emissions and greenhouse effect.

    What have we done?

  15. deb says:

    Complain complain complain. People complained that the road was falling into the ocean, people complained that nothing was being done to protect their property, people complained that the state and Feds were fixing the road area, so my take, you can complain but the work is going to get done and just maybe your home or property along the road will make it though the next major storm that skirts or hits this coast, all because of this new barrier being installed. .

  16. Rick Belhumeur says:

    The Earth has evolved over many millions of years and it’s surface is forever changing. That’s very well documented. Some day that wall and all of Flagler Beach may be underwater… nothing we do now can change that. All living things on this planet could cease to exist if the right sized meteor comes our way. We are here for only a very short period in time and we can only try to manage what we have, while we have it, as best we can. We as humans can plan for the future, but I don’t think there is much we can do to change it.
    In the end, Mother Nature will rule!

  17. WILLIAM J NELSON says:

    One will NEVER stop Mother Nature. I’ve said it many times, we are just throwing money away. What they are doing is a temporary stopgap (true, it will protect the coastline for a few years) BUT, go to Chatham Ma. and see the $$millions spent at the point, only to see the many homes washed away into the ocean, and that in a bay area!! The advise of the Army Corp is just a “grab” of Government money to keep them in business.

  18. snapperhead says:

    “However, the scientific consensus is clear: taking an ecosystem-based approach to managing coastal habitats and beaches, in particular building living shorelines rather than concrete walls, is going to give us the best chance at ensuring a healthy beach for generations to come.

    To avoid this terrible but silent seawall tyranny, we have to start thinking bigger, and acting smarter. This means planning on a much longer time scale to account for sea level rise. It also means thinking and planning on a landscape scale, so that erosion control projects work with rather than against the natural dynamics of the barrier island ecosystem Flagler Beach residents call home.

    From my perspective, the FDOT seawall projects were forced on Flagler Beach, so the blame lies elsewhere. Florida’s coastal management policies at the state-level need a major rethink to account for the impacts of climate change. And Florida needs political leaders with the foresight to accept the challenge and lead the way forward.”

    The “doctor” lays out a lot of vague suggestions and generalities. How about some specific plans and price tags for your plans to save our coastlines Doc?

  19. Ramone says:

    According to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we have less than 12 years before the world ends. If this is true, we might as well enjoy being able to drive up and down A1A to visit all our wonderful shops and restaurants.

  20. Thomas says:

    Thank you, Flagler Live, for publishing this information.

  21. Concerned Citizen says:

    What amazes me is how political parties became responsible for climate change LOL. And how some people want to deny it’s existance.

    The earth has been around for billions of years. According to history “if it’s accurate” Humans have been around for only a fraction of that time. I’m pretty sure the earth saw climate change as dinosaurs roamed around.

    Although I ‘m not a college trained meteorologist I have taken enough courses and have been a weather enthusiast for a long time. I have seen the changes just in our local weather during the 20 years i’ve lived here. From cycles of mild winters to cold ones. From non active Hurricane seasons to active. It’s a process in change.

    Our sea levels are rising due to melting ice. Sea temps are warming up and causing more intense storms.Humans have a good bit to do with this but Mother Earth is a living breathing planet. She will continue to change whether we exist or not.

    We can mitigate some of these changes but it’s a temporary measure. In the end Mother Nature will claim what she wants and she doesn’t much care if you’re Replubican or Democrat.

  22. Charlie says:

    A tsunami 75ft tall hitting Flagler Beach with winds 200mph+ will NOT leave anything but swamp. Its coming people, and its coming sooner then you realize.

  23. Ellen says:

    Lou…. “socializing” benefits for a few? Last I checked, our beach was a PUBLIC place. With that mentality, I hope your behind stays landlocked. Don’t you dare come across that bridge and park your butt on this beach. I’m so tired of jealous county residents using our town for everything it’s worth, leaving their trash behind, bringing crime, and then complaining about crap like this. Go rot somewhere.

  24. JohnX says:

    The sea will rise @ 2mm a year. Most experts agree on that. Which is not anything you will notice in the next 20 years. Maybe in a hundred. So the issue is put in a sea wall or let nature take its course. If the latter, move the road back 100 yards along with all the businesses, to give a reasonable dune area a chance to form. That would be best, but its not going to happen. Too bad.

  25. JohnX says:

    Also, global temperatures have declined the last two years. Might be three at the end of this year. So the science is unclear. Very unclear.

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