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Film Review: The Future Of Coastal Communities

Filmmaker Ben Kalina poses for a portrait in Philadelphia on Monday, Nov. 12, 2012.

CREDIT: AP/Geoff Mulvihill.

While it may seem that Hurricane Sandy has been covered by every possible environmental angle, a new documentary brings a refreshing discussion to the table.

In his documentary, Shored-up, Ben Kalina set out to document the human efforts to literally beat back the sea along the U.S.’s East Coast.

Rather than tackle the environmental harms or benefits of coastal restoration, Kalina follows the money to show the shocking gap in responsible fiscal management—a federal plan that subsidizes high risk ventures and then bails out the same mistakes year after year.

While touching on the coasts of New York, Florida, and North Carolina, the film always returns to model coastal community Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Long Beach Island has a long history of summer tourism along its white, flat, sandy beaches where hundreds of summer homes are built. But instead of a tourism pull, the audience sees Long Beach Island through its long-term residents: surfers, politicians, and researchers who watch their island slowly wash into the sea while summer vacationers continue to irresponsibly build doomed vacation homes right on the water’s edge.

Tide after tide, year after year, the ocean erodes the dunes that protect these coastal properties. Federal programs provide beach engineering aid to re-build the dunes, but as the film points out this is just a very expensive short-term solution. Eventually, the dunes will be washed away again, and another expensive project has to start over.

But instead of following the trend of covering the environmental impacts, Kalina chose a different angle.

“You have to talk to people not just to represent one side of how we think about the environment, and accept that people love these places because they are beautiful,” Kalina said about making his film about the economic side of coastline development. “There are economic realities on why people develop therewe have to work with that and say, ‘we need to do something differently.’”

Most importantly, Shored-up is not a partisan film, but includes both the left and right voices that are involved in conserving coastal communities and protecting their inhabitants.

“You can just look at this from a fiscal perspective, as a fiscal conservative, and just be horrified by what is going on and the short sightedness of how we incentivize building in terribly dynamic places,” Kalina said. “The idea that this is not an issue for conservatives is absurd.”

The film weaves between the conundrums of city planning with Long Beach Island city officials, manual beach engineering with the Army Corps of Engineers, and interviews with coastal ecologists. From all backgrounds, the individuals interviewed tell a riveting, but always tragic, story.

It is particularly amazing how much scientific and economic knowledge the local politicians provide as they discuss the natural history of their cherished coasts.

Almost as if on cue, Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast while Kalina was making Shored-up.

This aspect adds a chilling sense of premonition to the tone of the filma grim sight into the future of coastal communities in the face of climate change and sea-level rise, particularly to those who have no where else to go.

Residents who have been on the coast for generations are at risktheir assets tied to these high risk areas. The film is empathetic to their plight, seeking to point out the disparity between permanent coastal residents and the summer multi-million-dollar vacation homes that are receiving most of the federal aid.

“I think economic issues are the most important issues to talk to people about,” Kalina said.

Shored-up was featured in the Washington, D.C. Environmental Film Festival on Saturday, March 22, and the film is traveling along the East Coast in the upcoming months.

Check out its website to find a showing near you.



Alexandra Branscombe is a reporter with Generation Progress. Follow her on Twitter @alibranscombe.

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