Who Moved My Boat? On Climate Change, Storms, and Bail-Outs.

Part II of "Do The Inuit Know Something That North Carolinians Don't?"

In a previous post, we contrasted North Carolina's leaders' silencing of climate science in favor of coastal development, to the adaptations of the Inuit, who are dealing with scarcer food, weakening tundra that makes hunting treacherous, and melting moraines crashing through their towns. Of course this climate change narrative is a bit simplistic, so it's informative to look a little more closely at some of the communities involved. Compared to the Inuit, North Carolinians have the resources to ameliorate the harsh consequences of storms, which are becoming increasingly common and ferocious with climate change. But it wasn't always that way.

New Jersey Transit Boat

Boat On The Tracks ( NJ Transit).

In August of 1893, back when storms were referred to by numbers, that year's "Hurricane 2" struck the South Carolina coast. Raking over the barrier islands, it moved on through North Carolina before heading up the East coast. In South Carolina, at least 2,000 people died, more than 30,000 homes were lost, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless, displaced, starving, and sick. There was no such thing as "disaster relief", so help was not on the way. The impoverished post-bellum nation couldn't help the Sea Island settlers, mostly poor African-Americans. Finally in October, Clara Barton stepped in with her newly founded Red Cross and began a ten month relief effort -- fledgling compared to what we think of disaster relief today. The economic impact on the islands and coastal region from what's now called the Sea Islands Hurricane lasted decades.

Now, over a century later, economics demands that communities recover more quickly than in Clara Barton's day. Our ability to predict storms, mop-up, and rebuild has vastly improved. Necessarily so, as storm after storm hammers the East Coast, eroding beaches, carving out new water inlets, and smashing man-made structures to bits. We efficiently patch things back up and continue on as we were. Devastated coastal communities assume large-scale aid of the sort that only organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can provide.

Topsail Island, North Carolina

Among the increasing hazards of climate change in the US, scientists predict more storms and rising sea levels. Since the US has 95,000 miles of coastline, their predictions demand attention. However, some businesses and states like North Carolina insist that global warming doesn't exist. They deny rising seas and carbon emissions, then act as if emissions don't need to be curbed, as if storms aren't perilous. They march forward, business as usual. This denial obviously helps the auto and energy industries, and perhaps less obviously, tourism and housing development.

North Carolina has the sixth largest coastline in the US, a boon for development and tourism but a total bust in storms. Barrier islands like Topsail Island are particularly vulnerable. Until the mid-20th century the island was basically uninhabited, used for years to graze herd animals, then as a military missile practice zone before being turned over for private development in the mid-20th century. A burgeoning tourist industry now brags that it's a relaxing island with an exciting past. Supposedly it was named "Topsail Island" because once upon a time the topsails of pirate vessels could be seen from the beaches. But these myths of past excitement probably pale to the future excitement that's in store for Topsail Island.

Since the 1980's, people have accelerated building and rebuilding of homes and businesses despite all evidence that if the storms had their way the island might just wash away. During Hurricane Irene, Topsail Island lost a third of its beach area. While it's a popular tourist destination, it's now also a poster-child for disasters and costly beach redevelopment, and even a field-trip destination for college biology classes studying the results of perennial beach erosion and reconstruction. Beach owners in the most exposed town, North Topsail Beach, lose 2-3 feet of beach per year and scientists have dubbed the town "the most hazardous [community] on the East coast" because of its precarious geography.

Beach Renourishment - Costly...Futile?

As we all know given the recent battles over Superstorm Sandy aid, storms are costly. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo cost the U.S. ~$5.1 billion. Hurricane Floyd cost $4.5 billion, Tropical Storm Irene: $16.6 billion, and Superstorm Sandy is predicted to cost over $50 billion dollars. In 1996 Hurricanes Betsey, Bertha, and Fran made landfall on the North Carolina Coast and did so much damage to Topsail Island that the state considered banning construction, and one senator said that the town of North Topsail Beach should have never been more than a state park. Lucky for residents, perhaps, FEMA produced $14 million dollars of funding for federal projects, $6 million to areas that were technically not supposed to get federal money. In 1997, 217 properties on Topsail Island had been built 2 or more times, at a cost to the federal government of $!0.9 million.1

Keeping sand underneath the East coast communities is increasingly challenging and expensive. North Carolina doesn't use seawalls and jetties, which scientists show excacerbate erosion problems. When beach is lost to erosion, engineers build the ground back up with vegetation, and berms and beach "renourishment" using dredged material or imported sand. The erosion and shifting sands from storms also cause waterways and inlets to "migrate", sometimes by miles.

Topsail Island Overwash

Topsail Island Overwash, Hurricane Fran 1996. (USGS).

So after the power has been restored, the dead counted, the injured hospitalized; after shelter has been found for displaced people, and destroyed roads and homes have been rebuilt, engineers must also reconstruct dunes and beaches, and redredge wayward inlets and waterways.

In November, 2012, the town of North Topsail Beach began to dredge an inlet channel that had migrated and filled-in to the point that the Coast Guard deemed it unsafe for boats. The construction project will also renourish some of the disastrously eroded beaches, where some condominiums are currently being prevented from washing out to sea by huge sandbags. The cost of renourishing about two miles of beach is ~$9 million. The long-term project will take place over the next few decades, funded with over a billion dollars of federal, state and local funding, and a multi-million dollar bond issued by North Topsail Beach.

The "Most Hazardous" Town on The East Coast Implores Congress to Say It's Not So Hazardous

Funding for such large projects is always controversial. Of course if you have a house in the town of North Topsail Beach, say, you want to protect your investment and keep your costs down -- if you live on the beach. But citizens of North Topsail Beach who live inland don't think they should have to pay for projects that will benefit only beach dwellers. North Carolinians who don't live on Topsail Island complain that their tax dollars are going to island towns whose citizens pay low taxes.

Nationally of course, people are increasingly disturbed about the amount of money FEMA spends bailing out storm soaked communities. However, the leaders of the town of North Topsail Beach (NTB) still don't think the government is doing enough.

On their website, the town recently posted a sample letter for residents to send to their congresspeople. The letter urged Congress to pass two bills on in the House of Representatives, H.R. 4311, and one in the Senate, S. 3561, that would overwrite the intent of a decades old Federal Act that minimizes development in vulnerable coastal areas.

The bills refer to a Republican sponsored act authorizing Congress to establish the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (COBRA), signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. The aim was to identify uninhabited land that was ecologically vulnerable and prone to damage by natural disasters. The act barred structures built after 1983 from participating in the National Flood Insurance Program. COBRA helps protect potential home buyers from purchasing home that would be destroyed in a storm, and also protects taxpayers from footing the bill for costly recovery costs after inevitable storms destroy vulnerable coastal areas.

Parts of Topsail Island were designated COBRA zones, including most of the town of North Topsail Beach. Despite the designation, the town continued its development. North Topsail Beach now claims that the government "erroneously" designated it environmentally precarious. The proposed laws would free parts of the town from the COBRA designation. Because of "this mistake" the letter complains:

"instead of paying nearly $1,400 on an annual basis for an average home worth $250,000, [homeowners] pay close to $10,000 for coverage in the private market. Tourists considering purchasing or renting vacation property in our Town shy away from doing so as a result of the stigma associated with high mortgage rates and the false belief in a higher flood risk in the area.

Reading the comment threads with titles like "Topsail Beach Erosion" on popular tourist sites, I'm convinced visitors don't harbor "false beliefs", they actually see the erosion. For years, similar U.S. Senate and House bills, all requesting that the town's maps be redrawn, have been proposed. The site GovTrack.com gave S.3561 a "1% chance of being enacted", and when the 112th session of Congress concluded, both of these bills died, as they have in previous years. So maybe the soft target of the letter is potential buyers or current homeowners clinging to hope that the erosion is a figment of everyone's imagination?

In the meantime, the very expensive dredging and renourishment projects continue, so if you're interested, there are lots of island properties for sale. Caveat Emptor.

1America's Most Vulnerable Communities edited by Joseph T. Kelley, Orrin H. Pilkey, and J. Andrew G. Cooper (2009) American Geological Society of America (GSA). Boulder, Colorado.


Acronym Required has written on Climate Change before. Here's a sampling of articles:

"FEMA, Storms Ahead?"

On Climate Change denial: Sea Change or Littoral Disaster

"NRDC Founder on Why the US Fails to Take Action on Climate Change."

Denial Will Live On During Climate Change, But the River May Not."

Business and Climate Change: "Carbon Emissions Disclosure Project"

Ice core research to study atmospheric conditions 650,000 years ago: "Holocene Days"

Politics and climate change: "Will Loose Lips - Or Global Warming - Sink Ships?".

Carbon emissions regulation after Katrina: "The Environment & Katrina-Slick Oil Fallout"

Drought in the "Amazon", and in "Australia".

Science research communication and climate change: "Research, Politics and Working Less", and "Science Communication".

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