Pier and concrete ship, Aptos, CA. January, 2021. Photo: Ryan B. Anderson.

Why, after disasters, do communities keep rebuilding? And why, in particular, would they keep rebuilding certain problematic structures, like seawalls and piers? These are questions that often get asked every time another storm, or hurricane, hits a coastal town. It’s a good question, and the answer is about more than a simple cost-benefit or risk analysis. Why? Because people are complicated. 

Along the California coast, where I have been doing a lot of my research for the past few years, there’s a strong tendency toward rebuilding after disasters, loss, and damage. This includes structures like seawalls and piers, which are often repeatedly damaged by storms and other environmental events. 

So let’s talk about seawalls and piers. What do seawalls do? They are mostly meant to protect property and infrastructure on the back beach; they do not protect beaches themselves, and generally contribute to beach loss over time. As the coastal scientist Orrin Pilkey puts it, seawalls protect buildings at the expense of beaches. Seawalls have certain purposes, but they come with all kinds of problems, trade offs, and impacts (like coastal armoring in general). What about piers? These are raised structures that provide access to the water offshore for activities ranging from boating to fishing. Wharves, in general, tend to be for more commercial purposes. Both piers and wharves have their benefits, but they also come with environmental and other negative impacts. 

Now, let’s get back to that question of rebuilding after disasters. Seacliff State Beach, which is located in Aptos, California, in Santa Cruz County, is a good example of this kind of problematic cycle. It has gone through a pattern of seawall construction, destruction, and reconstruction seven times since the 1920s (check this piece by Gary Griggs for details; see also Griggs and Fulton-Bennett 1987).  

This pattern continued with the devastating storms that hit Aptos, Capitola, and Santa Cruz earlier this year. The seawall and State Park infrastructure were hammered, yet again, by a confluence of high tides, big waves, and coastal flooding. The question is whether the seawall at Seacliff will be rebuilt for an eighth time. 

We can see similar cycles of building and rebuilding up and down the coast. The history of the Oceanside Pier, located in San Diego County, is yet another example.

The first Oceanside pier was built in 1888. It was 1200 feet long, and it was actually called a ‘wharf’ because folks had hopes for its commercial potential. Local citizens and investors raised $28,000 via subscriptions or pledges. This sounds like a quaint amount of money, but keep in mind that would be about $1 million in 2023 dollars. Many local boosters had high hopes about making some money on this new venture.

Unfortunately, in 1890 a storm swept in and destroyed most of it.

By 1891, efforts to rebuild were already in motion. By 1894, another 600 foot structure was built at a new location (which is where the current pier still sits today). Local boosters still had big hopes for commercial potential, and this structure wasn’t quite enough. So they extended it for another $2,000 in 1896. There were proposals for extending it again around 1900, but alas…it was wrecked by storms in 1902.

So they built a third structure, this time 1300-1400 feet long. By 1915, it was severely damaged and reduced to only 800 feet. The story, as told by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, is that local citizens wrote to the local newspaper calling for repairs. The sentiment was, apparently, “…if the pier goes, with it goes all hope of the town having summer visitors.”

They fixed it. I think you see the pattern. Over the years, the fourth (1920s) and fifth (1940s) piers were constructed, costing $93,000 and $200,000 respectively (about $1.5 million and $2.7 million in 2023 dollars). 

By the mid 1970s, pier number five was in bad shape due to a fire and more storm damage. The city built the sixth and most recent pier the following decade, in 1987, for $3 million (about $8 million in 2023).

Here’s what the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce has to say about this whole saga of building and rebuilding the city’s pier

“Thousands of people walk out on the pier each year. It is one of the most photographed landmarks in Oceanside and San Diego County. Oceanside’s first pier is gone but it has been written deep into the history of Oceanside. We are proud of our beautiful pier and the history it represents. We are equally proud of the citizens who have persevered and have dared to dream.”

Stepping back from both of these stories–Seacliff’s seawalls and Oceanside’s pier–it’s interesting to think about why this happens. Why do communities rebuild after destruction and disaster? Sure, on one level, it’s about money. Seacliff has been a popular beach destination–and revenue generator–for decades. The same can be said of Oceanside’s pier, which makes its appearance on the chamber of commerce page for a reason. There are always going to be certain factions pushing to support things that, they hope, will bring in money. So debates about costs, benefits, and risks will ensue. That makes sense. 

On another level, though, none of it makes any sense at all. Why continue rebuilding things that just keep getting destroyed? Clearly people know about these histories and risks…and they do it anyway. Isn’t this just a waste of time and money? And beyond that, aren’t such actions ultimately futile? It all seems somewhat bizarre.  

Unless, of course, we look at these kinds of structures as social and political things that have meaning beyond how much they cost or how risky they are to build. This is something that I have been looking at with some of my work, like this piece about Pleasure Point, which looks at the social meaning and history of a surf spot and new seawall. To understand why a particular community would rally around the idea of spending their money on building (and then rebuilding) such things, we have to understand what they mean to people, how these structures create certain spaces and experiences, and how they fit in with memories of the past and hopes–or dreams–of the future. 

The Pleasure Point seawall, 2021. This is an artificial seawall that was completed in 2012. It was constructed to mimic the natural bluff and help stabilize the eroding shoreline. Photo: Ryan B. Anderson.

There are lots of these structures up and down the coast, and they all hold their own stories, histories, and meanings. I can write about the various meanings of the Oceanside pier, because I know that pier. I grew up down in North San Diego County, and that pier has been a key part of the coast that I have always known. I have walked the length of that pier, surfed in its shadow, and seen so many of the ways that people use it. And now I take my kids there, so the social meaning of it just keeps going as experiences and stories get passed down. Piers and other coastal structures have their primary functions, but they also have a whole slew of other social functions and meanings as well. They serve multiple, sometimes competing purposes for various factions within communities. For some, a pier is a place of work and sustenance (i.e. fishing), while for others the very same structure is a space for leisure, fun, or sport (like surfing). Either way, the meanings and functions of such structures get embedded within daily life, becoming part of the landscapes and places that people connect with. They are more than just structures that extend into the sea, retain sand, or (attempt) to hold back the sea. So, in this light, it makes sense why people would want to protect, preserve, and, if necessary, rebuild such things.

Oceanside Pier, July 2022. Photo: Ryan B. Anderson.

Still, at some point, it may be time to let go. I feel like we’re going to be seeing more of this along the California coast in the coming years. For now, as I said above, ‘rebuild’ seems to be the prevailing sentiment in California. But there are some signs of change. There was an old pier at Seacliff State Beach (see image above) that stood for a long time. Since the 1930s, actually. It was built to connect with the famous WWI era concrete ship in Aptos, which was parked alongside the shore and turned into a beachside entertainment attraction…until it cracked and began to slowly fall apart. 

Over the years, the pier and the ship took one beating after another, but both managed to stay in relatively decent shape. They became icons of the local coast, and favorite places for fishers and other beachgoers. But those big storms that hit in January of this year were one storm too many: the ship was knocked around and the pier was heavily damaged. The powers that be decided, this time, against rebuilding the pier. The decision to do so was met with a lot of sadness and frustration for people who were attached to that old pier. It was, in the end, demolished and sent off into the great structural beyond with a public farewell ceremony (see this, and this). 

In the coming years, as tides continue to rise and coastlines erode, more communities will likely reach the point where rebuilding such structures–despite the histories, social meanings, and place attachments–is no longer an option. When that time comes, there will inevitably be voices that assess such issues solely in terms of risk, and, even more likely, money. Others will focus on environmental impacts and the problematic aspects of such structures. All of this matters, of course. We need to talk about costs, risks, and impacts. But at such moments it will also be vital–especially if we’re trying to actually get people to listen to one another–to take the time to understand the social meanings of the piers, wharves, seawalls, boardwalks, and other structures that will, inevitably, succumb to the power of unruly coasts and unrelenting seas.

References

Griggs, G.B. and Fulton-Bennett, K.W., 1987. Failure of Coastal Protection at Seacliff State Beach, Santa Cruz County, California, USA. Environmental Management, 11, pp.175-182.

About the Author: Ryan Anderson