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Watching from a distance as Fred Sprinkle quickly set pilings with his excavator, I had the impression he was handling much smaller sticks of wood: Up went the pole, automatically swinging upright against the bucket, over and down into a hole scoured into the sand with water pumped out of the Gulf of Mexico. Eyeball for plumb, adjust, and on to the next one.

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But in fact they weren't sticks; they were 30-foot piles with 12- to 14-inch butts, and it took only a few minutes to realize how skilled Sprinkle is with the controls. By 3 o'clock — a short day — the pilings were in. After five days for settling, as required by the local building department of Dauphin Island, Ala., they were ready for the carpenters.

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Sprinkle is not one to make much of his abilities, or to question what the ocean can throw at a house on the shore. When I caught up with him a year later — post-Katrina — the house I'd watched him build stood nearly alone on that stretch of beach. I asked him whether there was any particular reason his foundation had survived when others nearby hadn't.

"No," he answered, shaking his head. "You never know what might hit a house in a storm." Sometimes it's just a close call — as in the case of the Louisiana oil platform that blew in on top of the 13-foot seas that crossed the island's western end two years ago this month.