By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
We have the third-longest coastline in the continental United States. Our beaches represent an $11.5 billion industry, employ directly and indirectly approximately 200,000 people, and Texas, because of our historic 1959 Open Beaches Act, is the only state in the union that does not have private beaches. The people of Texas own our beaches and can walk on our beaches.
--General Land Office Commissioner
Ellis Pickett stands in the open doorway of a foully overtaxed Porta-Can perched on a plank dune walkover at Surfside Beach, propping the door open with his foot, aiming the glare-shrouded lens of his Nikon at the interior, stirring shit up.
"They haven't cleaned this in weeks."
There's a soda can in there, beside the plastic seat. He took a picture of the same soda can the week before, on the most recent of his obsessive rounds photographing the Texas coastline. Pickett--a Liberty resident by circumstance, home oxygen equipment salesman by trade, aging surfer by instinct, and environmental activist by temperament--doesn't take pictures of pretty sunsets. Pickett uses his camera to document the oceanic minutiae that tell the story of how, when, where, and why the beaches he loves are going all to hell.
The rear cab of his Ford F-150 is weighted with thousands of 35mm color prints, and the Porta-Can series is just the tiniest tile in the mosaic: The village of Surfside charges an annual $8 fee--one of the heftiest prices in the state--to drive on its beach, and that money is dedicated by law to the village's beach-maintenance fund. So why the hell, Pickett wants to know, can't the village maintain a decent public toilet at the most popular dune walkover in town?
Given the fact that Surfside is famed--to the limited extent that it is famed at all--for the best surf on the upper Texas coast, and given the fact that Surfside's volunteer mayor owns and operates a surf shop, and given the fact that this particular walkover is the point of entry of choice for the thousands of surfers who come here every year to surf and presumably spend, given all this, the shitty stall is a mystery to Pickett. But there are conundrums up and down this coast, and all he has is all day, so Pickett takes the picture, and the tour continues, down the walkover and onto the beach where the Octagon used to be.
"Meet at the Octagon" was all the planning necessary for decades' worth of surfer congregations in Surfside. The misnamed house's six-sided shell was a landmark situated at a sort of surfer's ground zero. Parallel lines of breakers extend into the gulf, and most days the sandbars sprout modest swells, but in heavy weather especially the surf builds long and clean.
Surfers still know the spot, still meet "at the Octagon," but the Octagon is gone. After 1998, when Tropical Storm Frances whittled 60-foot chunks off the coast in Surfside, the Octagon entered its death throes, stranded on the beach. Earlier this year, its roof began to collapse. Village officials finally circled the pilings with barbed wire, drove a fire truck onto the beach to knock down what was still standing, set the remains on fire, and left them to burn for three days and nights while the tide washed around them.
Ellis Pickett spends entire afternoons on this piece of beach, picking up shards of glass, rusty nails and wire, pieces of stove, asbestos shingling, whatever didn't burn. Stand where the Octagon once stood and give your eyes a moment to adjust to the bright, and the half-buried detritus comes into focus everywhere. There's a plastic trunk full of it in the bed of his truck, and the hell of it is, it should never have been there. Never would have been there if anyone were enforcing the Open Beaches Act, which requires, among its thicket of regulations, the removal, at owner expense, of houses stranded on the beach by erosion.
But the Open Beaches Act, as Pickett reads it, as in fact it is written, is no less threatened with erosion than the sandy public easement it was designed to maintain, unobstructed and hazard-free. Ellis Pickett can't snap a shutter in Surfside--with its abandoned homes standing in the surf, its rental properties seaward of the dunes, its privately constructed concrete bulkheads, its chunks of rebar-threaded concrete riprap on the beach, its "Private Property" signs, its city sewer connections laid through the dunes to tottering houses--without documenting another violation.
It's ugly work, but he thinks people ought to see this. If they see it, he suspects, they'll begin to realize what they're losing, and they'll start wondering to whom or what they're losing it, and once they start figuring that out, Pickett thinks, they'll be as pissed off as he is.
Third-term Surfside Mayor Larry Davison--his name, title, and City Hall phone number have been scribbled on the Porta-Can's wall by some disgruntled visitor--has seen Pickett's photographs of seeping septic tanks and hazards on the beach, and he's pissed off just fine. He didn't like the way members of the nonprofit environmental Surfrider Foundation, whose 2-year-old Houston chapter is chaired by Pickett, dressed up in toxic-hazard suits after the Octagon demolition and photographed children playing in the sand littered with broken glass.