Can Seawalls Save Us?


Pacifica, California, just south of San Francisco, is the kind of beachfront community that longtime residents compare to Heaven. One of its streets is called Paradise Drive; local fishermen brag that Pacifica Pier is among the state’s best places to catch salmon, striped bass, and crab. Every few years, a superbloom blankets the coast with golden wildflowers. When the sun cuts through the region’s famous fog, the sky sometimes glows, as in a Turner painting.

Some of Pacifica’s most dramatic views could be found on Esplanade Drive, where mid-century developers built bungalows on top of a cliff. For almost fifty years, residents gazed out from their back yards to see whales splashing in the Pacific. Then, in 1998, a group of homeowners gathered to say goodbye. “I cannot express how spectacular it has been living here,” one of them, Joe Parker, said at the time. “I’ve seen dolphins out there. I recognize all the seabirds.” Beverly Axelrod, who had spent fourteen years on Esplanade Drive, recalled how her ocean view had “healed everything.” But then a series of vicious storms, fuelled in part by the warm waters of El Niño, had washed away more than thirty feet of the cliff beneath their homes. Workers had to saw Axelrod’s house in half to prevent it from falling into the sea. Ken Lajoie, a local geologist, said that, even after the wind and waves abated, more of the cliff would crumble. The city ultimately condemned seven houses to be bulldozed. One woman was now paying the mortgage on a house that didn’t exist; Axelrod compared the demolition to “being at the bedside of somebody who’s dying.”