France tears down beach apartment block as rising sea bites

Over 50,000 French residences exposed to coast erosion

By Reuters

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A view shows the demolition of the Signal building on the Atlantic Ocean coast in Soulac-sur-Mer, France. — Reuters
A view shows the demolition of the Signal building on the Atlantic Ocean coast in Soulac-sur-Mer, France. — Reuters

Published: Wed 15 Feb 2023, 2:27 PM

When it was built at the end of the 1960s on one of France’s most glorious Atlantic coastlines, the beach was over 200 metres away. Today, the hulk of the 80-flat Le Signal apartment block perches precariously on a dune just metres from the water and local authorities are tearing it down before it tumbles.

Four stories high, it targeted vacationers in Soulac-sur-Mer, at the northernmost tip of the Gironde estuary in southwest France, known for its broad golden beaches and pine forests.

But with beaches disappearing at a rate of about 2.5 metres per year in past decades, Soulac-sur-Mer suffered some of the fastest coastal erosion in France. By 2010, the ocean was lapping at the dune on which Le Signal was built.

In 2014, the local government decided to relocate the building’s inhabitants and began the long process of expropriation and removing asbestos before starting demolition earlier this month.

Behind a fence on a sunny day in February, residents and vacationers watched as an excavator bit pieces out of Le Signal’s empty hulk.

“The demolition of this building puts a finger on a key question of our times, climate change and its impact on ocean levels,” said 71-year-old local resident Guy Bouyssou, who also feared the village itself, just north of Le Signal, could be the next in line for water damage.

Adrien Privat, an official at French coast protection agency Conservatoir du Littoral, said that threat is very real.

“Le Signal’s situation is largely symbolic for what is happening in terms of coastal erosion France,” he said.

Privat said that global warming was having a major impact as higher average sea levels exacerbate other factors that cause erosion and make shorelines more vulnerable to storms.

He added the boxy building was a typical example of the extensive build-up of coastal areas in the second half of the 20th century, when urban planners had little regard for the fact that shorelines are dynamic and ever-changing.

“We estimate that some 50,000 residences are in zones that will require them to be moved by the end of the century. All of France’s coasts are under threat, and sandy coastlines more than rocky ones,” he said.

He said ever-rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms made it impossible to let people live in Le Signal without costly shore protection measures that could also have negatively impacted nearby shorelines.

He added that long expropriation procedures and the struggle to finance an environmentally sound demolition was a necessary rehearsal for things to come.

“Le Signal is a warning for what could happen in other zones and for the need to prepare for it now,” he said.

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