When Mike Barden left his home on Wrightsville Beach before Hurricane Florence, he thought he’d never see most of his belongings again.
Barden, 46, who owns a surf shop, was born and raised on Wrightsville Beach, an island in New Hanover County. He’s seen several hurricanes on its shore. For the past two weeks, he’s been repairing storm damage to his roof and the siding of his house.
“It’s the price you pay to live on a sandbar,” Barden said. “And we have an amazingly resilient community that really steps up where and when you can.”
Almost 1 million people live on the more than 3,000-mile-long North Carolina coastline where Hurricane Florence caused record-breaking flooding in September.
The biggest challenge for coastal communities, experts say, is how to rebuild some of the state's fastest-growing areas while protecting those who want to stay in their homes.
“Then they’ll move to more long-term recovery that deals with the reconstruction of homes, police and fire stations, schools,” said Gavin Smith, director of the UNC Coastal Resilience Center. “And within the long-term recovery you have the question of hazard mitigation and risk reduction. How do you inject that into the recovery process?”
Reide Corbett, executive director of the UNC Coastal Studies Institute, said rising sea levels and warming offshore waters have a significant effect on storms and their impact on the coast.
Sea level on the North Carolina coast has risen 6 inches in the last 24 years, but scientists predict it will only take 15 years for that number to double.
“When I talk about sea level rise, it’s not just what people see as a slow rate — four millimeters per year — but add on a storm surge of 10 feet, and that may change whether your house floods or not,” Corbett said. “We can’t sort of separate those two things.”
A study by the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that researches sea level rise, found if Hurricane Florence had occurred in 1970, the state would have been spared a fifth of the damage due to the change in sea level. Additionally, increased land development meant 51,000 homes were impacted compared to 23,000 in the 1970 model.
But since Florence, North Carolina has faced renewed criticism for a 2012 law that restricted the science lawmakers could cite to regulate coastal development.
The law was passed after some legislators criticized a 2010 report by the Coastal Resources Commission that predicted up to 39 inches of sea level rise by the year 2100. In response, the legislation put the task of defining sea level rise to the commission and the Division of Coastal Management but said they could not do so for regulatory purposes before July 1, 2016.
The law prohibited state agencies from developing policies around sea level rise that were not based on this definition.
No state legislation has been passed since regarding sea level change and restrictions on land development along the coast.
But Corbett said policy needs to happen at the local level as well, now that communities are seeing weak points exposed by Hurricane Florence.
Thomas Lloyd, city planner for Southport, said the city’s local building ordinances were updated in August after the Federal Emergency Management Agency released new flood maps. The updates included height requirements on houses in the floodplain, flood vents or walls that break away without causing further structural damage.
Lloyd said city planners think about climate change and sea level rise when creating building and development ordinances for the future, but they also take into account state policies and what other towns are doing.
“Obviously you can’t take a boilerplate policy and apply it to everybody," Lloyd said.
Policymakers often struggle to find political will and funding for strategic plans that incorporate climate change and sea level rise, Smith said. Although coastal communities see an increase in funding for rebuilding efforts after a storm like Florence, it’s still a difficult task.
“It is going to be incumbent on local government to think through if they are willing to ask the tough questions,” Smith said. “Sea level rise may not be manifest in these communities for some time, and the person that’s in power today is going to be asked to make decisions that will influence the future."
It can be challenging, Smith said, when there is enormous political pressure to rebuild communities as quickly as possible, especially as they accommodate more growth.
In the last few years, the housing market in Southport has boomed, as more people move to the area, making Brunswick County the fastest growing county in the state.
“You have to make sure you’re holding all that new development to these policies and that they’re sticking to them," Lloyd said.
Some scientists have proposed residents move away from what is currently the oceanfront. But Jason West, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, said this would be difficult, especially because property on the coast is expensive.
“I think we ought to be thinking about retreat, but retreat could happen in modest ways,” West said. “Thinking of retreating entirely I think would be a lot, but even smaller changes in how we manage the shore might be appropriate.”
But people aren’t ignorant of the risks, Barden said.
“We live on a sandbar, and people have become complacent over a lot of years,” he said. “Things haven’t really changed since the Fran, Floyd, Bertha years. This should be a pretty big wake up call for people to bring things up to code.”
Corbett said high levels of coastal development are a worldwide issue, and when policies change, it’s hard to find a place for people to go. The solution, he said, is to work with the environment and society to create policies for a more resilient and safe coast.
“The coast in North Carolina is developed, and people aren’t going to move away from the coast,” he said. “They have homes, they have history and they have a culture about living on the coast.”
Smith said there is danger in viewing retreat as an all or nothing solution. He believes the future of addressing sea level rise will see some people rebuilding and others choosing to walk away or opt into incentive programs that encourage building in a safer location.
“It’s going to be episodic; it’s going to be following major disasters,” Smith said. “The idea of retreating systematically and thoughtfully is going to be one of the great challenges of the 21st century.”
Barden said the ocean is also a reason for staying on the coast even through storms.
“It’s a fantastic place to raise my kids just for the fact that we have an aquarium in our front and back yard,” Barden said. “It’s the ability to raise my kids the way I was raised.”
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