HALEIWA, Oahu — Alice Lunt didn’t worry too much when she saw waves splashing close to her home on Oahu’s North Shore on Christmas Eve. She had seen the ocean edge close before. But before dawn, a neighbor woke her with a call.
“Everything was washing away,” she remembered the neighbor saying.
The water claimed Lunt’s deck that day, and washed away a concrete slab the next night — part of a fast-moving collapse of the shore that also ripped out a neighbor’s backyard and forced another to cut away rooms to save the rest of their house.
The Christmas swell damaged at least five oceanfront properties in the neighborhood, rekindling a decades-old debate about how best the state and homeowners should respond to beach erosion and the increasingly rising waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Some property owners want to be able to install a seawall or something similar to protect their property. Doing so, scientists claim, could lead the sand on the nearby coastline — including Sunset Beach, home to some of the world’s top surfing contests — to disappear.
“Do you build a seawall and potentially condemn the beach to extinction in front of the seawall but at the same time buy a lot of time for homeowners on the nearby land to figure out how to move away from that situation?” asked Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii coastal geologist. “Or do you not build a seawall, condemning the homes and the developed land to extinction, but allow the beach to survive?”
Fletcher said building seawalls always comes to mind wherever severe erosion occurs. He said studies show seawalls built on chronically eroding shorelines such as Sunset Beach will only lead to more erosion down the coast.
Fletcher noted other Oahu communities already lost large chunks of beach because of seawalls.
These are stark options for Sunset Beach, where multimillion-dollar homes line the shore and the globe’s top surfers converge each year for the World Cup of Surfing.
Large surf that regularly hits the North Shore each winter brought the Christmas swell, not a freak storm.
But more fundamental factors are also at play. One is sea levels have been rising for years, pushing the ocean inland. Another is the Sunset coastline is chronically eroding, just like 70 percent of the beaches on Oahu, Maui and Kauai islands.