Should we rebuild post-Sandy? "Shored Up" poses the big question

By Eric San Juan
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 23, 2013

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Big Ben: Temple grad Ben Kalina’s documentary about building on barrier islands, "Shored Up," airs Thursday night.

In some ways, Mother Nature made Ben Kalina’s point better than he could have.

Not that it came as a surprise to him: When Hurricane Sandy struck one year ago, Kalina was wrapping up production of Shored Up, a documentary about the impact of climate change on barrier islands and the wisdom—or lack thereof—of building in such fragile landscapes. In it, the Philly filmmaker touches on increasing development along those inherently unstable stretches of coastal land and how beach replenishment efforts do little to stave off the inevitability of nature having its way with man’s constructions.

Though work on the documentary began years before Sandy, in a sense, “this really was about Hurricane Sandy all along,” or at least the potential for events like it, Kalina tells PW.

Barrier islands, narrow stretches of sandy, dune-dotted land that skirt the coast, make up a thin line separating the ocean from inland bodies of water. Their very nature makes them prone to sudden changes. Inlets can open and close literally overnight, and during the worst storms, the ocean and bay waters meet, flooding everything on them. Barrier islands, like those along the Jersey shore, are little more than “a moving pile of sand in the ocean,” Kalina says. Just a few short generations ago, building on them was sparse. Now, these areas boast some of the most desired real estate in the region–and also some of the most vulnerable.

Climate change is important to Kalina, and Shored Up—which airs this Thurs, Oct. 24 on DIRECTV’s Audience Network just prior to the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in New Jersey—sprang from his long fascination with the topic. Now a South Philly resident with his wife and children, Kalina grew up in a New England skiing town. At an early age, he realized his hometown’s ups and downs were really at the mercy of Mother Nature. A good snow season meant tourism, jobs and a thriving local economy. Change the weather and all that falls apart.

The same holds true in coastal communities, often in a far more dramatic way. Indeed, the higher sea levels that inevitably come with climate change are already posing disturbing questions for those who live and work along the ocean.

When Kalina read about surfers on Long Beach Island, N.J. sparring with the Army Corps of Engineers over proposed beach replenishment there, he saw a story worth telling. Past beach replenishment projects destroyed surfing conditions, prompting the Surfers’ Environmental Alliance to request changes in how such projects are done. And, the Army Corps of Engineers listened. The next beach replenishment project was a success, and while surfers were happy with the results, in an ever-changing environment like a barrier island, the costly improvements have a very limited lifespan. Maybe, Kalina thought, modern life on these islands is not sustainable.

The Temple graduate, whose previous documentary experience includes A Sea Change, a 2009 film about ocean acidification, and After the Cap, about the 2010 Gulf oil spill, began the process of educating himself about barrier islands. His goal? To talk about our relationship with the ocean and what it means for communities like these.

“To be able to tell that story, you have to be able to do deep research to know what the story is,” Kalina says. “That’s how I approach my films in general. Initially, I have a basic idea about how the science works, but I’m not really sophisticated when it comes to the details.” Years of research—so that he becomes knowledgeable on the details—follows. Not being a scientist can be a benefit, he says, because it forces him to learn about complex issues in a way the layman can understand. In turn, that allows him to communicate those ideas in a clear, simple manner.

For better or worse, the topic of climate change is a politically charged one. The politics of the issue, though, is something Kalina chooses to leave on the sidelines. The topic of who or what is to blame—mankind, natural cycles, whatever—is secondary, he maintains, to the question of how it will impact our lives in the years to come. No matter the cause, it’s happening. So, what do coastal communities do about it?

“I really tried to create a film that was not about seeing people attack one another. It was about creating a dialogue,” Kalina said, “because we don’t need more people bickering.”

Shored Up airs Thurs., Oct. 24 at 8pm on DIRECTV’s Audience Network.

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