Carl Wernicke: Weather Shapes Life On The Coast

Dec 7, 2016

Credit IHMC

People across Northwest Florida breathed a sigh of relief last week when the first rains in recent memory swept in to ease what had become a serious drought. This week’s rains brought more comfort.

They also reminded us that no matter how powerful and sophisticated we think of ourselves as a society, we share something with past civilizations: we remain at the mercy of the weather, which of course is a function of the climate.

And there are no shortages of reminders these days, both here and elsewhere, of just how powerfully nature dictates to us.

Last week we all watched in horror as runaway wildfires, fueled by the ferocious drought across the southeast, scorched Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee. Firefighters hoped for rain to calm the fires, and they eventually got it … but only after fierce winds ahead of the rain drove the fires out of control.

After last week’s rain eased our dry conditions, I went for a long walk along the north shore of Santa Rosa Island, from Battery Langdon to Fort Pickens. The front had passed through, and under a clear blue sky the winds had swung to the north. They were howling.

On my drive into Gulf Islands National Seashore, I passed workers busy with machinery and hand-held rakes sifting chunks of asphalt from the sand. These are the remains of the road that has been repeatedly smashed by hurricanes and tropical storms in recent years.

Closer to the fort I saw workers busy on another project, moving the road north, away from the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, in an effort to protect it from the repeated pummeling by these storms. There has been talk about letting the road go if it keeps washing away, as even the federal government balks at spending millions of dollars every few years to rebuild a doomed road. As it is, all it takes now is a high tide and strong winds to close the road and force evacuation of the campgrounds.

When I reached Fort Pickens, I came up off the beach on the walkway to the new ferry pier. Hailed as a new tourism draw and a cool new way to get to the fort, it has also quietly been seen as a potential lifeline for Gulf Islands. If another storm comes along to knock out the latest new road, there will be more talk about not rebuilding it. That would be a serious step for one of the area’s major tourism draws. But with the seas rising, the impact of every storm becomes more serious.

Obviously, no one knows what a changing climate will do. Perhaps the recent pattern of hurricanes going up the East Coast will continue, and the Gulf Coast will enter another period like we saw between 1926 and 1995, when Northwest Florida avoided a direct hit for 69 years.

Or, maybe another Ivan comes along and opens a permanent channel between Fort Pickens and Pensacola Beach. In 2004, Ivan surprised a lot of people by destroying the I-10 bridge, a modern piece of concrete engineering.

We pride ourselves, in all our technological prowess and power, in thinking that we can’t be made to disappear, unlike those civilizations whose buried remains we study today. Of course, the engineers who built Fort McRee on the eastern tip of Perdido Key in the 1830s might be puzzled if they came back today.

Where did that fort go?