Monday, February 8, 2010

Surfliner stories: against the elements

Last week California was battered by a series of ferocious storms. You may have heard about the fear of mudslides in the areas burned out by the wild fires. But another problem was along the coast, where the storms coincided with very high tides. There was a water spout near Long Beach, and localized tornado warnings. Highway 101 runs very close to the ocean; it’s always unnerving to have surf or beach gravel spatter your windshield while driving. And the rail tracks run close to the ocean in parts of Orange County and San Diego, with the single track barely above beach level in some spots, and seeming to skim along the surface of the tidal inlets and lagoons. Indeed, on Thursday, there were train delays due to flooding along the tracks in San Diego County.

A few days later, I was on Amtrak’s efficient Pacific Surfliner making the run up to Los Angeles. It was a sunny morning (although more rain was due later) and I turned away from my computer to look at the ocean. The rail line runs right along the beach near San Clemente, slightly elevated with a slope of boulders to act as a breakwater. The tide was right up against the bottom of the boulders, and I wondered whether the trains were delayed by surf last week. A little further along, the train is separated from the beach by a narrow road and a series of homes. They are actually double-wide trailers, but this little neighborhood has about as much in common with a regular trailer park as an old Ford Pinto has with a Lincoln Navigator, as most have been customized and expanded almost beyond recognition. They are right on the beach; at what point, I wondered, does the tide come in?

A little further again, and there were proper houses between the tracks and the beach. Typical of many California beach neighborhoods, the houses are packed tightly alongside each other, so that you can only get brief glimpse of the water in the small gaps between them. And the styles of the houses vary enormously, from fat wood-shingled homes that look like they should be in Maine, to tile-roofed Spanish style with central courtyards, to boxy modernist structures with lots of squared-off glass, to chunky stone that evoke fog and mountains. The only thing they have in common is that they all look very expensive. It is clear, peering through to the sand beyond, that many of these homes are very close to the tide. On the ocean side, you can see that many of them are constructed on low pillars. I could see there was a steepish slope down to the water , so I wonder if the sand has been built up as a breakwater, or whether the presence of the houses acts as a barrier that funnels the ocean to take out the sand. (This picture shows the old San Diegan, precursor to the Surfliner--probably in the 70s. I couldn't find an up-to-date version showing these houses).

What’s it like in those homes when the tide is high and the storm rages in, with the full force of the open Pacific behind it? Do the owners lie in bed at night, listening for the incursion of water? Do they fret over having an expensive edifice literally built on sand, knowing that it cannot, and will not last? And what headaches and nightmares does the city have, with a number of residences built on indefensible space?

It’s the same old problem as with people who build homes up canyons, far from the reach of city fire trucks, and then complain when the suburbs don't go that far out. What is the limit of civic responsibility for a defiant homeowner exercising his freedom to live where he chooses?

Originally posted at Daily Kos

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