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Alabama Voices
Losing Our Shield
By BRUCE ADKINS, Dauphin Island
October 06, 2008

We are trying hard to impress on everyone in the nation the value of Dauphin Island as a barrier against sea swells in protecting the whole Mobile and Baldwin County shorelines around Mobile Bay and the Mississippi Sound, from Bayou La Batre to the Chickasaw shipyard/industrial area, Alabama State Docks properties, Theodore Industrial Complex, including all of Mobile's industry, and including roads, bridges, and homes south of us.

Waters will rise during hurricanes, but rising water is nothing compared to rising water with sea swells of 27 feet on top of it. Sea swells continue to move north during any hurricane visiting the Gulf of Mexico until they impact a shoreline.

The rash of hot opposition to Dauphin Island getting tax dollars to help bolster the barrier island against nature until Corps Of Engineers dredging damage can be repaired is understandable since most opponents are not fully informed about what has happened to our sand for 40 years. Much opposition is outside our state, which tends to indicate a conspiracy to push opposition for something which many do not understand.

The industry of Dauphin Island is in peril of being washed away with the next storm if something is not done and done right this time. Our main industry is beach house rentals, which has become very limited due to the mentality of our state and some of the people of our state, and even our nation.

People from all over the nation come here because they can rent a beach house to call their own for a week or two a year. Those private houses are for the most part small businesses, no different than any other shop in town. These houses stay rented out all summer and most of the winter and provide revenues to the town, state and federal coffers.

People who funded the building of these businesses pay taxes on the income they derive from them, spend thousands to local contractors and building supply companies, pay taxes on that income, attract money to the area from all over the nation, and are no different than anything on Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, or any other resort area in the country.

Dauphin Island and Mobile County have long supported the shipping and energy industries that help our nation thrive. For this support, Dauphin Island's residents and its coastline have paid a high price.

I am 59 years old, and when I was a child coming to the beach on Dauphin Island, it was quite a walk in the sand to get to the Gulf waters from parking areas, and then a small child could stray another 150 feet in the shallows of gentle waves before getting to chest-deep water.

For decades, the dredging of the Mobile ship channel has starved the island of the sand that is essential to its survival as a barrier island. Simply because it was cheaper to do so, millions of yards of sand that belonged on the coastline of Dauphin Island and would have protected us have been dredged and dumped far offshore.

We cannot just sit by for 50 years and wait for the new changes in dredging practices to rebuild our beaches. Those 50 years prior have removed about 500 feet of valuable sand along our whole shoreline, and in the process allowed storm tides to do major damage to the natural island shores.

This ship channel dredging was done to increase revenue to the state by allowing deeper draft vessels to use our ship channel. If Dauphin Island is allowed to continue to disappear, our shipping will be in as bad, or worse, peril than New Orleans, which is losing business daily to Mobile due to the impact from storms.

This island is just as important as any of the other barrier islands -- not to mention plus the local, state, and federal revenue generation that ours supplies, which others don't.

We need a program of coastal restoration to protect the 45-mile long Alabama coastline -- more than a third is Dauphin Island. As an 18-mile-long barrier island, Dauphin Island acts as a first defense to hurricane assault and guards the mainland.

It is time to right this wrong and make amends. Unlike our neighbors to the east, who ban oil and gas rigs, Mobile County and Dauphin Island have fostered energy production and exploration. Again, we have paid the price. We have lower property values as a result of production platforms that mar our Gulf views. We have oil/gas field vessel traffic that erodes our harbors.

It is time to recognize Dauphin Island's contributions and sacrifices to our state and nation. It appears that Dauphin Island has been relegated to providing natural gas production to the nation, with no forethought as to the impact.

But this is not just about Dauphin Island, it is about the security of the Alabama coastline. Take away this barrier island and the mainland will be far more vulnerable to storm attack.

Dauphin Island, as far as we know it, has been in the same location for more than 300 years and has suffered devastating hurricanes long before that, but was able to recover the beaches due to the natural sand flow from east to west.

It is still here and it continues to act as a barrier island in place to protect the mainland, but it is slowly going away and is very near the end of its protection of the mainland.

Without this island, there would be no Coden or Bayou La Batre. The storm surge from a Category 3 hurricane such as Ivan would devastate Mobile, and the city would look like New Orleans following Katrina.

It is now acknowledged that the maintenance/deepening of the ship channel has prevented new sand from reaching Dauphin Island for 50 years. Therefore, much of the highly publicized erosion is directly due to actions of a federal agency.

Although there are a number of working families who live on the west end, mostly on the north shore, the vast majority of the hundreds of beach houses there are rentals and are in constant demand.

And, finally there is a growing understanding that a major benefit of coastal restoration of Dauphin Island involves the protection it provides the mainland. The stronger our coastline, the less damage there will be to areas north of us.

Our attempts at providing more public access to our beautiful beaches is quite expensive to us as a small town since the town has never owned waterfront property before and it must be purchased at today's super-high prices.

We cannot maintain such facilities if our shores are allowed to recede due to high industrial usage with no thought toward impact mitigation. All of this industrial usage is highly beneficial to the whole nation.

With the cost of today's vehicle fuel, without Dauphin Island, tens of thousands of beach-craving Americans will have to drive the extra distances to reach Florida beaches or those in Baldwin County.

We understand that things have to be done in the name of commerce for our country, such as deepening and widening the ship channel, but once evidence surfaces showing negative results in changing Mother Nature's schedule, things need to be done to negate those impacts.

The very act of making the ship channel more usable in today's markets has put the entire state docks at risk should major loss of the barrier against sea swells occur, which will certainly happen at the next storm if some emergency measures are not started immediately.

If we are to allow operations to continue which benefit the entire country, we are going to need help from the entire country. It will be a tiny amount compared to the assistance other shoreline areas get, but will make a huge difference.

Where else can you dwell in a beach house with your family on vacation, just steps from pretty white beaches and cool maritime breezes? We are worth it. With the development of most other beach towns, we are becoming more a national treasure as a small, quiet place to spend your vacation.

But without the same consideration state and federal projects give to other parts of our nation, all this could end soon, and beach vacations will revert to staying in 30-story concrete towers on crowded beaches in other states.

Bruce Adkins, a retired Mobile Firefighter, lives and writes from Dauphin Island.

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