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The New Yorker

THE GRASS MAN

Published August 19th, 1996 in The New Yorker

GETTING TO KNOW THE VOLCANO

FAR-FLUNG CORRESPONDENTS about the Caribbean island of Montserrat, and volcanic activity there… The sound of the first rockfall was almost faint, like billiard balls cracking together. Next came what could have been the roar of a freight train–so close that it seemed that at any moment the speeding avalanche of rock, superheated gas, and ash would vomit out of the mist to engulf us…. Volcanoes, in direct proportion to their deadliness, seem to attract tourists of a particularly foolhardy sort. Pliny the Elder, who was perhaps the most celebrated of them, suffocated in the eruption of Italy’s Vesuvius in A.D. 79–killed by curiosity… I had come to the thirty-nine-and-a-half-square-mile British dependent territory of Montserrat to see the Soufriere Hills volcano, which, on July 18,1995, had waked up from a four-hundred-year nap… Writer accompanies guide George Skerritt to take microgravity measurements… The island is revered as a nerve center of the international calypso scene and also as the home of the Beatles producer George Martin’s AIR Studios, a recording facility popular with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett and Sting… After the eruption began in 1995, an international team of scientists, from Trinidad’s Seismic Research Unit, the United States Geological Survey, and the British Geological Survey, arrived to advise it during the crisis… At the twenty-four-hour monitoring facility, in a vacation villa. Dr. Rick Hoblitt, a visiting U.S.G.S. volcanologist, explained that Soufriere Hills had been steadily building a potentially dangerous lava dome which increased the danger of a sudden violent explosion and a massive pyroclastic flow… In the course of evacuations, some eight thousand Montserratians have been displaced. More than three thousand have left the island entirely… Three times daily, between calypso tunes, activity reports from the observatory are read over the government’s radio station, to which people listen avidly… Despite their precarious situation, the Montserratians I met had not chosen to attribute any “motive” to the mountain’s violence, but instead seemed to be accepting it soberly and practically–perhaps in the hope of calming the volcano by example… If it is the fate of volcanoes to become tourist attractions, then Montserrat is sure to become an A-list destination for thrill-seekers.

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Beachless

Published December 16th, 1996 by Wade Graham

OUR FAR-FLUNG CORRESPONDENTS about beach erosion, the Army Corps of Engineers, and hurricanes…. Tells about Topsail Island, North Carolina, which is 26 miles long but no more than a few hundred yards wide… Tells about “beach renourishmem projects”, a program that a growing number of critics have come to see as tantamount to money being poured into the sea… Tells about the Army Corps of Engineers “Newjerseyization” of coastal beaches… Coastal geologists assert that, while the construction of hardened structures may save buildings, it actually accelerates beach erosion, bringing about the gradual disappearance of the natural resource that inspired people to build there in the first place. New Jersey was the first state to undertake intensive development and fortification of its beaches, beginning with the town of Cape May. Throughout the nineteenth century, residents of the fashionable resort kept their distance from the sea, building well behind the dunes. In 1911, boat owners convinced the federal government to stabilize the inlet to Cape May Harbor to the north. The harbor jetties interrupted the natural flow of sand to the southerly beaches, prompting the town to build groins to catch what little flow was left…. Down the same path went Ocean City, Atlantic City, Asbury Park, and so on, until fifty percent of New Jersey’s once famously wide strands had been reduced to rubble: mile anfter mile of seawalls facing angry waves and the wrecks of previously-built structures. Newjerseyization is well under way in other states: 27% of Georgia’s, 70% of Virginia’s, and almost 100% of new Hampshire’s tiny but beautiful coast. Even on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, which is economically dependent on beaches, nearly a quarter of the sandy beaches have deteriorated or disappeared as a result of some seven decades of beach construction…. Once a beech has been “engineered,” it is, in effect, prohibited from responding to storm waves by flattening and becomes progressively steeper, thus increasing destructive wave energy instead of absorbing it. As Orrin H. Pilkey, a Duke University geologist, observed, “seawalls destroy beaches, period.” … Over the past 45 years, more than 200 million cubic yards of sand has gone to renourish American beaches. Sand is expensive–as much as five dollars per cubic yard–and the cost of a new beach can run to about $2 million per square mile. In a typical corps project, 65% of the cost is borne by federal taxpayers… As geologists point out, renourishment effectively institutionalizes erosion: once you have done it, you must do it again–and then again–since renourished beaches tend to wash away faster than originals do…

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