Princeton film festival to feature documentary on Superstorm Sandy

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

Memorial Day Weekend, Jersey Shore goers celebrated the return to their beach communities. They walked the boardwalk, dug their heals in the clean soft sand, ate foods barbecued on the grill, watched the sun set over the ocean – and let everyone know the Jersey Shore is back in business.

On July 12, the Princeton Environmental Film Festival will screen Ben Kalina’s Shored Up, a look at the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy last fall, and a look ahead at what we are sure to experience again. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast an active summer season with as many as 12 major hurricanes.

The film opens at Union Beach, an entire community in ruins. A mother recounts how she took her son to the old neighborhood he no longer recognized. Going through remnants of their lives, they sift through family photos. “It’s not really your life, it’s your stuff, but it’s been with you for so long you feel like it’s your life,” she says.

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As sea levels continue to rise, the film reminds us, people continue to make their homes on the seacoast. It’s Mother Nature versus human nature – and we humans keep making the same mistakes.

Kalina interviews scientists, politicians and historians, but he especially likes the insight provided by residents. We see old-timers on Long Beach Island reminiscing about when there was much more land mass, when it was more like a forest than a desert. New Jersey loses half a foot of shoreline a year. Houses that were once inland are now on the beach. In 1962, Harvey Cedars lost half its homes – the ocean met the bay, and everything in between was gone.

Many residents left, but 20 years later a new generation came to discover the joy of the beach community. Who doesn’t want their kids to play on the beach? They came and built big houses, some with as many as 14 bedrooms. In Harvey Cedars, the beach was rebuilt.

But beach replenishment is a band aid, say those interviewed. The water will take it away, as the coastline continually shifts. It’s the energy and wildness of the beach that makes it so beautiful, says one resident.

There are those who boil it down to the economy: jobs in construction, restaurant and hotel business. If you want tourism you need beach replenishment.

Although the Jersey Shore represents about half of one percent of all shoreline in the U.S., it receives 37 percent of Federal beach replenishment funds, according to the film. Jersey Shore beachfront properties, priced from $2 million to 425 million, are investment properties. So why, asks one interviewee, should these residents pay less in taxes than they do for the seafood they barbecue? Replenishment helps not only existing properties but encourages more development. The more valuable the home, the more likely it will get a beach replenishment project, because there has to be payback. So a small house will be rebuilt as a large house in order to get beach replenishment.

One person interviewed compares the situation to Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill, only to have it fall and have to start all over again. Beach replenishment is not addressing the problem of sea level rise. Flood insurance only helps boost coastal development, because it takes away the risk factor.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is shown saying Hurricane Sandy was a wakeup call to climate change. But here we are, less than a year later, soaking up the sand and the surf, not doing much to stop it.

Filmmaker Kalina, who lives in Philadelphia, enjoys taking his family to the beach. “I’m not an anti-beach crusader,” he said. “This is the world my kids will inherit, I want them to go to the beach and do the things I did as a kid – we can’t take these things for granted.”

Passionate to communicate his message about climate change, Kalina put a lot of his own money into the $120,000 project, and volunteered his time to make it. He started filming in 2010, inspired by John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, a 1989 chronicle of three attempts to control natural processes. Kalina read about the Army Corps of Engineers keeping the Mississippi River on a steady course, but unable to control its flooding, and began noticing similarities in the barrier Islands of New Jersey, where beach replenishment does little to deal with the sea levels rising.

Kalina uses animation to help make some of the science visual. “While I’ve spent many days on the beach seeing groins and jettys – like a vestige of some ancient culture — aerial shots and time lapse shots put it in context, so you can see what’s happening. When you go to Long Beach Island, you drive over a bridge, and you forget you’re a couple of miles out in ocean. Viewed from up above, you know how vulnerable the shoreline is.”

The Princeton Public Library’s Environmental Film Festival continues June 12, 6:30 p.m., with a screening of the documentary Shored Up at the Princeton Garden Theatre, 160 Nassau St., Princeton. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with director/producer Ben Kalina, sea-level researcher Ben Horton and Surfrider Foundation manager John Weber.


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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