As the seas of change keep rising along the Eastern Seaboard, residents of the Outer Banks are poised to lead in a new era of challenges, discovery, and innovation. Or not.
The Native Americans had it right when they inhabited the Outer Banks. They never tried to live right next to the ocean’s edge, where the coastal process had been churning away for millennia. From pre-Colonial times to the 1980s, our predecessors have understood the sense in keeping a distance between the places where they lived and worked and the edges of the sea.
In the years since the ’80s, housing and development have exploded on this tiny strand. That, in turn, has encouraged tourism and boosted our economy. But as the ocean creeps closer, resort, business, and residential properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars are in increasing jeopardy. Meanwhile, our legislators, seem to believe that ignoring these sea changes will protect those properties’ values.
That mindset continues to drive our legislators to largely ignore the rising sea level. And as climate-change denial gains in popularity, more than property values are being endangered.
Asked in 2012 why the state’s general assembly outlawed discussion of the term “sea level rise,” then-Senator Marc Basnight basically told me it’s too costly to acknowledge. He explained that, if the general assembly accepts sea-level rise as a threat, property insurance premiums would rise significantly. In addition, Dare County would have to raise all its roads, buildings, and bridges—and “it’s just not something that would be cost-effective right now.”
That mindset continues to drive our legislators to largely ignore the rising sea level. And as climate-change denial gains in popularity, more than property values are being endangered. Despite our best efforts, we and our children and our future generations face a growing threat to our livelihoods, homes, traditions, history, and, potentially, our lives.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. Instead, we in the Outer Banks and North Carolina have the opportunity to pioneer solutions that could benefit cities and towns up and down the Atlantic coast. We could tap into the ingenuity and determination that drove the Wright Brothers to make us the “First in Flight” and then opened the world to unimagined heights—even outer space. In other words, we could be first again. If we can build the community commitment to make it happen.
For many U.S. cities on the eastern shores, sea-level rise is an existential problem, especially with a skeptical Trump administration that plans to cut funding for environmental programs. (Laurence Mathieu-Léger, Oliver Milman, and Michael Landsberg, Source: The Guardian)
The signs are all there…the money, not so much
The Outer Banks coast looked quite different in the 1930s, before the Civilian Conservation Corps began building dunes along the beaches as part of the government’s first erosion-control experiments. Today, however, geologists and scientists tend to agree that such efforts do little to protect the vulnerable properties exposed by dune breaches. Simply stated, the amount of sand actually involved in erosion is far greater than just what the dunes comprise. Further, artificial dunes have an overall effect of flattening and narrowing beaches.
A N.C. coastal erosion study conducted in 2016 concluded that “human influences, such as dredging, beach nourishment, inlet relocation, and shoreline hardening, collectively affect how natural processes respond and shape the state’s coastal shorelines.”
Permanent erosion-control structures—groins, bulkheads, jetties, seawalls, revetments—can be engineered to offer a degree of protection for a period of time. There is, however, a trade-off: engineered structures often accelerate erosion along their seaward side. In addition, jetties, groins, and breakwaters interfere with sediment transport and will likely cause erosion in adjacent areas.
Referring to the Outer Banks in a 2014 National Geographic story, coastal geologist Stanley Riggs said, “Under the combined effects of storms, development, and sea-level rise, portions of this narrow, 200-mile island chain are collapsing. In the area of Hatteras Island between Avon and Buxton, the beach has receded about 2,500 feet in the past 150 years. That portion of the island has narrowed to just 25% of its original width. In Buxton and Rodanthe and farther north in Nags Head, houses and hotels once solidly on land stand on spindly stilts in the surf.”
And we know Riggs is right. We watched as the Nights in Rodanthe house was relocated due to the encroaching sea. We also watched as Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved for the same reason.
We’ve seen numerous closures to repair Highway 12 in Kitty Hawk, and storms have repeatedly buckled and washed out the highway on Hatteras Island. Oregon Inlet is subject to nonstop dredging, while the Bonner Bridge is undergoing major repairs because its support pillars no longer touch the bottom. It’s been washed away.
Obviously, coastal erosion will continue, but the subsidies for beach nourishment may not. A 2015 study by Duke University reported that, historically, the federal government has subsidized two-thirds of the total beach-nourishment costs incurred by coastal communities. In the seven years between 1995 and 2002, that subsidy amounted to $787 million. Since then, however, a number of legislators have called for deep cuts in the subsidies or for ending them outright.
Given Donald Trump’s and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt‘s total rejection of climate change, it’s hard to imagine the subsidies will continue. Yet, despite the very real risk of losing subsidies, coastal property owners still anticipate the government will continue providing them. At least, they hope so, and it’s easy to understand why.
If Congress were to suddenly end the federal beach-nourishment subsidies, the value of many oceanfront properties on the East Coast could drop both quickly and dramatically.
Dylan E. McNamara, associate professor of physics and physical oceanography at the University of North Carolina Wilmington explains, “Erosion-control measures have significantly inflated property values in many coastal communities.” But, he notes, if Congress were to suddenly end the federal subsidies, the value of many oceanfront properties on the East Coast could drop both quickly and dramatically.
“Values could erode by as much as 17% in towns with high property values and almost 34% in towns with low property values,” said Martin D. Smith, professor of environmental economics at Duke University. “This would be analogous to the bursting of a bubble.”
When have we heard that phrase before?
“It’s a complicated issue,” said Smith, “especially at a time when rising sea levels and increased storminess are projected. No one wants to foot the bill for unnecessary subsidies. But if you don’t pay for defensive nourishment and end up having to pay more in disaster relief, it doesn’t make economic sense.”
Storms, development, sea-level rise—what’s a coastal community to do?
The Outer Banks isn’t alone in facing the challenge of staying above water. The entire Eastern Seaboard is struggling. Along with sea-level rise and coastal erosion, communities are tackling the flooding brought on by storms like Sandy, Irene, and Matthew or by just a strong nor’easter. There’s also “nuisance flooding,” which can be spurred by rainfall or a simple spring tide abetted by unhelpful gusts of wind.
Several large cities, including Miami Beach and Atlantic City, are taking proactive steps to cope with incoming waters. In Atlantic City, where “flooding events have increased seven-fold since the 1950s,” Planning Director Elizabeth Terenik is plotting new sea walls, a curb on new development in flood-prone areas, and an underground canal that can funnel away storm water. She is also considering raising the streets and houses in one particularly vulnerable neighborhood.
Efforts like those in Atlantic City will no doubt teach us much. But without an overarching national plan for dealing with rising waters, and without strong state commitment, many coastal communities are left to sink or swim by themselves. That includes us.
Over the past several years, I’ve interviewed and talked with many OBX residents and business owners about the future of our island home. Often, just the mention of “sea-level rise” causes discord. So, let’s stop using and focusing on trigger words like that and “climate change,” which raise people’s hackles. Let’s start, instead, to address the issue of saving our beaches, our properties, and our way of life—not just as individuals with individual concerns but as one big, united community.
It’s obvious our representatives in the general assembly won’t work on behalf of coastal residents and their best interests. So it’s up to us to start talking, sharing ideas, and assuming responsibilities. We can begin with the suggestions offered in a 2016 coastal erosion study by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. They range from developing local beach management plans and using sensible construction setbacks to establishing stable, predictable funding sources and investing in beach management staff and partners.
Everyone here who remembers it can agree that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse move was a feat of engineering genius. We did that. Surely we can draw on our genius again.
We also need to think outside the box. We need to come up with our own multifaceted plan involving science, education, and technology. Everyone here who remembers it can agree that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse move was a feat of engineering genius. We did that. Surely we can draw on our genius again.
Maybe we create that genius by encouraging our local school boards to adopt geographically specific, science-based courses—ones that inspire our youth to become future engineers who then devise easier, more cost-effective ways to move at-risk structures.
Meanwhile, why not compile a list of every structure that will need to be moved or replaced over the next 30 or 50 years? We could also define trouble zones where erosion will occur and find areas where endangered structures can be moved.
Perhaps, in addition, it’s time for a community development fund. Certainly we can come together, pool resources, enlist benefactors and investors to ensure our beloved Outer Banks prevails without drowning in debt for the next century.
It’s troubling that efforts to confront rising-water challenges seem to be happening everywhere but coastal North Carolina. That being said, we do have time to accomplish what will need to be done. We just don’t have time to delay starting. We must commit, now, to making the Outer Banks a climate-resilient coastal community. It strikes me that our sense of local pride demands it.