The first question everyone asks: Are you staying or are you going? The next question: Do you know where I can get some gas?
The first question is a tough one. The second is easy: No. The police chief in Pine Knoll Shores reports tonight that all stations in Morehead City are out of gas. Walmart has some, but you better bring a sleeping bag. All stations in Swansboro are either out or soon will be, our police chief reports.
Other signs that life is gearing down to survival mode: Meetings of all kinds, from our Town Board’s to Alcoholics Anonymous – according to the crawl on the bottom of the TV – are being cancelled. No classes at public schools until further notice. ECU and UNC-Wilmington sent the kids home. Government offices close at noon tomorrow. Mandatory evacuations, from the Outer Banks to Sunset Beach, begin tomorrow. The governor of South Carolina wants a million coastal residents to leave. Even Camp LeJeune is evacuating.
When the Marines bail, it’s time to reconsider that first question.
Leaving is tough. Where do you go? In our case, we’d end up with Diana and Michael in Durham, but Florence will follow us there, possibly stalling and dumping as much as three feet of rain in the central part of the state. The Neuse and Cape Fear rivers and all their tributaries will spill over their banks, cutting off all roads leading home. It could be weeks before we get back to deal with any damage to our house.
My position as mayor pro tem complicates the issue. Our emergency-management plan gives me specific duties. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but I feel that I would be abandoning my town in its time of need.
So, we reached a Solomonic decision: Doris will leave for Durham tomorrow. It’s the safest thing to do. I will stay here and ride it out at our emergency-management center. I’ll be close by to deal with any problems at the house.
I’m not going to lie. I’m beginning to feel the same rush of adrenaline that I felt all those times that I headed east on the interstate to meet the storm, while everyone else was going the other way. This one might make history and that old reporter in me – he will never retire I now realize – wants to be there to record it and write about it.
Yes, it’s a mouthful – Vulnerability, Consequences and Adaptation Planning Scenarios – that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or inspire much excitement. In fact, it sounds like something that ranks just behind root canals and colonoscopies on life’s joy scale.
Had its developers been more attuned to marketing they would have devised a name that could be boiled into an alarming acronym, like STORM, WET, YIKES or some such. But they were scientists and VCAPS is what they gave us.
By any name, though, this is important stuff. In fact, it may be the best thing we have to prepare for the coming flood.
Because the seas are rising.
The ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt as the air and water around them warms. There’s no stopping them at this point. In fact, that melting will get worse as the century grinds on. Ice, of course, turns to water, which flows into the oceans. Even as big as they are, the world’s oceans can hold just so much water. Think of a bath tub. Fill it up and water spills over the side, covering streets in Miami and toppling houses in Nags Head.
Scientists expect the Atlantic to be a foot higher in 2050 and three feet higher by the end of the century than it is today. I think those, in the end, will be low-ball estimates. Six or seven feet by 2100 seems more likely. This will go on for centuries and change the world. A career tip for young students: Good cartographers will be in great demand.
But let’s think local for a minute. Here’s a visualization exercise for my neighbors in Swansboro: Take a tape measure and stand at the foot of Church Street at the edge White Oak River. Go at high tide. Splay out the tape vertically from the water’s surface. Where would the water be if it were a foot higher? Around your ankles? Three feet higher? Seven feet higher? What would happen to the docks and shops along Front Street? To the street itself? To downtown?
Now, you get some idea of what our descendants will face.
Since averting the flood is now just a fanciful wish, adapting to it is our only rational course. That’s what VCAPS is all about.
It’s a planning method that was developed by the federal Sea Grant program, the University of South Carolina and the Social and Environmental Research Institute. At it’s barest, it allows communities to assess the risks they face from increased flooding and higher storm surges so that they can then take steps now to minimize them. Climate change “adaptability” or “resilience,” they call it, and it’s a burgeoning field among planning professionals.
Swansboro is in the middle of a VCAPS assessment. We’re one of about 19 seaside cities and towns in the country that will have gone through a VCAPS process. Others in the state include Nags Head, Plymouth and Hyde County. Their plans took more than a year to devise. They were major commitments of time and money that involved dozens of meetings. Duplicating that effort in every community faced with the threat of rising seas isn’t realistic. Can the process be streamlined but still be effective?
We’ll find out here in Swansboro, the first community in the state to include a VCAPS assessment as part of our updated land-use plan. The N.C. Division of Coastal Management, which helps communities prepare their state-mandated plans, thinks it’s a good idea to include the effects of climate change in future land-use plans. It has given us a little bit of money toward that goal and is organizing the VCAPS effort, which will take about six months to coincide with our land-use plan update.
We’ve met a couple of times with state officials and folks from the Sea Grant program at N.C. State University, a leader in VCAPS planning, and from the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit that helps communities prepare for sea-level rise.
At our first meeting in July, we huddled around a big map of Swansboro. We identified areas that flood now during storms or extreme high tides and places we think will flood in the future. We marked sites, like the Public Safety Building and Town Hall, that must remain functioning during disasters and those that house vulnerable populations, such as schools and assisted-living centers. We paid particular attention to critical infrastructure, like N.C. 24 and the causeway, that would cripple they were flooded or in the case of the numerous sewage pump stations scattered around town would create an environmental disaster.
We got down to the real business of VCAPS at our last meeting a couple of weeks ago. Members of the Board of Commissioners and Planning Board, town staff and a few others sat down with state, Sea Grant and Nature Conservancy officials to talk about the effects storms and climate change could have on the town and the steps we could take to minimize them. This type of facilitated dialogue is at the heart of the VCAPS process. People talked among each other in small groups about what a rising sea, more frequent tropical storms, more intense rainfalls and other effects of climate change could do to Swansboro. I’m sure it was the first time many in the room thought seriously about this grim part of our future.
“The heart of this is getting at what you can do and what you don’t want to do,” Jessica Whitehead of Sea Grant told the group. She is one of VCAPS’ co-developer.
She and other Sea Grant and Nature Conservancy staff helped guide the conversations. They asked questions and took notes. They’ll summarize the four hours of talk and spirited debate into a flow chart that will include each of climate change effects, the consequences we discussed and the possible solutions.
Let’s take rising seas, as an example. It will flood streets and buildings, inject salt into the groundwater that we use as our drinking-water source, depress property values and adversely affect tourism. Those are some of the consequences. Some remedies? Protecting inland wetlands and coastal marshes from development, encouraging the use of more natural methods of erosion control instead of bulkheads that prevent marshes from expanding to response to rising seas and discouraging intense development in flood-prone areas are some policies the town could include in its new land-use plan.
The flow chart should be completed by the end of the month. We’ll then have a public meeting to explain it all. Maybe we’ll come with a snappy name for all this by then.
The Swansboro Board of Commissioners last night unanimously approved a resolution asking the state Department of Transportation to consider lowering the speed limit on western end of Corbett Avenue to 35 mph, from the current 45 mph.
In an otherwise uneventful meeting, we also approved an annexation petition from the owners of the new Moore’s barbecue restaurant and approved a permit to allow Swansboro High School to use town equipment and services for a marching band competition at the school.
The resolution starts the process of possibly lowering the speed limit on about 1,000 feet of Corbett, from the State Employees Credit Union to the start of the existing 35 mph zone. The road is a state-owned highway, N.C. 24, and only DOT can change the speed limit.
The agency studied how fast vehicles are traveling on that section of highway and found that 85 percent are moving at speeds close to 45 mph. DOT uses that 85th percentile to insure posted speed limits aren’t artificially low. I’m certainly no expert in these matters but I have to question a policy that seems to define the safe speed as what most drivers say it is. Had 85 percent of them been doing 57 mph, instead of 47 mph, would DOT raise the speed limit?
That end of Corbett is rapidly developing. A new intersection with a light is planned at Norris Road and the Walmart driveway. While current conditions may support DOT’s overly technical position, reality may soon dictate otherwise. Ken Jackson, our police chief, told us the speed limit should be lowered. That sealed it for me.
DOT said it would further consider the request if the board passed a resolution asking for the lower speed limit and guaranteeing that our police would enforce it.
A special-events application from Saltwater Grill for a beer garden during the Mullet Festival was removed from the agenda after our town attorney advised us that no permit was needed. The beer would be served on private property, in the parking lot at the foot of Church Street where the food vendors have set up for decades, and would not require town services. Thus, said our lawyer, no town permit is needed.
The Board of Commissioners last night elected Phil Keagy to fill an empty seat on the board. They also passed ordinances that allow beer and wine to be served at catered events at the Recreation Center, ban the release of helium-filled balloons and require the use of paper bags for curbside yard waste.
Filling the seat vacated when Commissioner Angela Clinton resigned last week was the night’s main event. Board members nominated three candidates: Keagy, Jeff Conaway and Larry Philpott. Keagy got two votes when the four commissioners cast their ballots and Philpott and Conaway each got one.
I nominated and voted for Philpott because he was the fourth-leading vote getter in the November election, missing the third available seat by less than 20 votes. He went through the public vetting of an election and was to me the logical and rightful replacement. Philpott has also remained involved in local affairs, serving on our Planning and Parks and Recreation boards.
Because none of the candidates received the required majority votes of the five-member board, Mayor John Davis, who votes only in case of ties, cast the deciding ballot for Keagy.
A native of Swansboro who lives downtown, Keagy served on the board until November when he chose no to run for re-election.
The new ordinance allows people who reserve rooms at our Rec Center for catered events to serve beer and wine. The alcohol must be served by the caterer and consumed in the reserved room. All state ABC laws must be observed.
The ordinance, like the two others, passed unanimously.
Released balloons present grave threats to wildlife, especially birds and sea turtles, which can mistake the deflated plastic for a squid. The ordinance makes it illegal to release “balloons” in town limits. The use of the plural and the judgment of our cops should prevent us from fining the kid at the Mullet Festival whose balloon slipped out of her hand. Swansboro joins Wrightsville Beach as the only towns in the state that ban the release of balloons.
Our Public Works Department picks up almost 10,000 plastic bags of yard waste each year. The bags can’t be recycled and must be emptied by hand and disposed of at the county landfill. Starting Oct. 1, our trucks will only pick up yard waste packed in paper “lawn” bags.
The Board of Commissioners may fill an unexpected vacancy on the board and consider two environmental ordinances – one prohibiting the release of helium-filled balloons and the other banning the use of plastic bags for yard waste pickup – when it meets Tuesday at Town Hall.
The board must fill the seat vacated by Commissioner Angela Clinton, who resigned last week because of a family health issue. Angela, the leading vote getter in last November’s election, was an able commissioner whose preparedness and attention to detail will be missed. I know all the commissioners wish her and her family the best during this trying time.
According to state law, the board must appoint someone who will serve until the election in November 2019. The names I’ve heard as potential candidates: Larry Philpott, Phil Keagy, Jerry Seddon and Jim Allen.
Philpott served on the board from 2009-2013. He ran for election last year and missed by a handful of votes of winning one of the three seats. Philpott currently serves on our Planning and Parks and Recreation boards. Keagy was a commissioner until last year when he decided not to run for re-election. The commissioners recently appointed Seddon, a relative newcomer to town, to the Planning Board. A longtime commissioner, Allen lost his re-election bid in 2015.
We may decide to choose among those or other nominees when we meet Tuesday or the board could delay the appointment until our meeting on Aug. 28 to allow more candidates to come forward.
Balloons may be festive additions to birthdays, weddings, graduations and such, but they pose a grave threat to animals once they get loose. Birds, sea turtles and other animals commonly mistake balloons for food, which can harm or kill them. Many animals can also become entangled in balloon strings, which can strangle them or injure their feet.
For those reasons, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Ocean Conservancy and several other organizations recommend banning the mass release of helium balloons. Five states and at least seven cities have done so, according to balloonsblows.org. Wrightsville Beach is the only town in the state with a local ordinance banning balloon releases.
Town resident Patricia Stone asked the board several weeks ago to consider a similar ban. The proposed ordinance would make it illegal to release an inflated balloon in town limits. Violators could be fined $250.
I support such a measure because I’ve seen what a deflated balloon floating in the ocean does to a loggerhead sea turtle that mistakes it for a squid. Biologists speculated the turtle died a slow death. I would, however, like to see the ordinance amended slightly to exclude the accidental release of a balloon. We don’t want to fine a five-year-old at the Mullet Festival whose balloon slipped out of his hand.
Our Public Works Department now picks up plastic bags filled with grass clippings, leaves and other small items of yard waste. We’re talking about thousands of bags a year. Because the bags can’t be recycled, each one must be ripped open by hand and its contents emptied. The town then pays a fee to dispose of the bags at the county landfill.
At our budget retreat in March, the commissioners agreed this seemed wasteful and expensive and directed the department to recommend a change. The proposed ordinance would ban plastic bags for yard waste and require “lawn-style” paper bags.
The meeting starts at 6 p.m. Hope to see you there.
We’ll have a public meeting next week on our new land-use plan.
After you stop yawning, I hope you’ll read on because the meeting is important. This updated plan will shape the future of our town, and the meeting gives you an opportunity to shape the plan.
The meeting will be Tuesday at Town Hall, starting at 4 p.m. You can drop in any time before 7 p.m. Town officials and the consultants we hired to help us will be on hand to explain the process and get your ideas about the type of development you’d like to see and where you would like it to go. We’ll even have food available and activities to keep the kids occupied.
Big deal. Another plan, you say. There are so many already attracting silverfish somewhere. You’re right. We have transportation plans, recreation plans, bike and trail plans, watershed plans and even a high-falutin’ Renaissance Plan and Gateway Plan. We’ve acted on some while others are propping up a bookshelf somewhere in Town Hall.
The land-use plan is different. Unlike all those others, it’s the only plan mandated by state law. It’s the only one that the Board of Commissioners must attest to when making any development decision. We can’t approve a project that doesn’t adhere to our land-use plan without also modifying the plan. The state can’t issue permits for projects that run afoul of our plan.
So that makes this plan different…. Or at least it can be if you want it to be.
A Bit of History
The Coastal Area Management Act, the now famous CAMA, was passed by the state legislature in 1975. Controversial then, it’s one of those high-minded laws that would be impossible to fashion in today’s highly polarized political culture. The law, a mirror of a federal law passed in 1972, attempted to address the rampant, virtually unchecked development that was threatening to overtake our coastal culture and overwhelm our natural environment.
At the heart of the law is the requirement that each of the 20 coastal counties prepare plans that would balance growth with environmental protection and would become the foundation for local development ordinances. In that way, the plans would serve as blueprints for future development. Fashioned by local people, the plans were meant to be their vision of what they wanted their communities to be.
The law gave cities and towns the opportunity to opt out of their county plans if they prepare ones that are more customized. Swansboro, like many coastal communities, decided to write its own plan.
The theory behind the plans was sound: Local people deciding how they wanted to live. The reality, though, was predictable. Decisions to control local growth often angers powerful, monied interests. Protecting shorelines, for instance, worth billions in real-estate value and millions in tax base requires courageous, inspired political leadership.
That’s a commodity that’s always in short supply. Instead, like water, most of the original land-use plans followed the course of least resistance, meeting the minimum CAMA requirements while erecting the fewest possible development barriers. Most counties dragged their feet to meet the deadline for their plans’ adoption. A couple even refused to fashion plans, forcing the state to undertake the job.
The original law recognized that good planning is ongoing and required that the plans be amended every five years to adjust for changing circumstances. Most communities were as enthusiastic to update their plans as they had been to write the originals. They assigned the task to consultants with orders to get the job done to meet the law’s requirements. A cottage industry soon developed. The plans became little more than boilerplate documents. Whole sections were lifted from one plan and inserted in another. Few contained any real policy directives. When development decisions violated any of the few policies, the governing bodies merely amended the plan to reflect the new decisions.
Recognizing that grim reality, the legislature a few years ago amended CAMA to remove the update requirement. Counties and towns now can volunteer to update their plans, and the state may provide a little money to do so.
So Here We Are
Swansboro’s commissioners decided this year to amend our nine-year-old plan. They appointed a steering committee made of up taxpayers, who represent a cross section of interests, to guide the new plan’s development. The committee, which I chair, hired Stewart engineering of Raleigh to help us. We’ve met a couple to times to begin forming the boundaries of the new plan.
Now, it’s your turn. This plan will only be as good as you want it to be. This isn’t the committee’s plan or the consultant’s plan or the commissioners’ plan. This is Swansboro plan. This is your plan. What do you want in it? Should we protect wetlands and green space, for instance? Should we limit development in flood-prone areas? Should we allow apartments and high-density development? And, if so, where should it go? What about development along N.C. 24?
All are important questions that need answers. Your answers. Tuesday is your opportunity to provide them. I hope you take advantage of it.
I also hope that you attend the steering committee meetings, which are open to the public. We meet the second Tuesday of the month in the auditorium of One Harbor Church. Come and help guide Swansboro’s future.
The numbers aren’t pretty. They paint a bleak picture of a drowning people.
In less than 12 years, 6,500 houses along the N.C. coast worth more than a $1 billion today could be flooded every other week by normal high tides. By 2060, the rising Atlantic will make dozens of coastal communities nearly uninhabitable. At least a 120,000 coastal North Carolinians could be climate refugees by the end of the century.
Like I said, grim stuff.
The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report several weeks ago that could be the script of a dystopian movie. It analyzed for the first time by zip code the effects rising seas could have on the country’s coastal communities at five points in time – 2030, 2045, 2060, 2080 and 2100. It looked at the number of existing homes that will be flooded by normal high tides as the climate continues to warm, the values of those houses and the property taxes at risk. It counted the people who could be displaced.
The scientists mean to scare you. They hope their report will then lead you to cry for a life preserver while there’s still time.
Smart people, like those who compiled this report, have been warning us for years about accelerated sea-level rise triggered by a warming climate and what it will do to buildings perched at the water’s edge, especially on a uniformly flat landscape like the N.C. coast. After Gold Coast of South Florida and the bayous of Louisiana, we may be living on the most-threatened coastline in the country.
There are several interactive, online maps that graphically display the rising water in creeping colors of red and purple. But assigning those dangers to a familiar number seems to strike closer to home. 28584, for instance. That’s Swansboro’s zip code. That’s me and my neighbors. To think that 60 houses, representing more than $20 million in current value, in the little place I call home could be regularly flooded by 2030 makes this downright scary. About 1,100 people, or almost 10 percent of the current population of our zip code, will be flooded out of their homes by 2100. As bad as that sounds, they’ll be in far, far better shape than many of their coastal neighbors.
First, Some Qualifiers
There are some important things to keep in mind before we go any further with this. The authors of the study assume that future flooding will reach a threshold where normal routines become impossible and coastal residents, communities and businesses are forced to make difficult, often costly, choices. They call this level of disruption “chronic inundation,” which they define as flooding that occurs 26 times a year, or about once every other week. It is important to note that this flooding is not caused by storms—it is simply the result of tides inching higher and reaching farther inland as sea levels rise.
The report also doesn’t attempt to predict future coastal development or population growth. All projections are based on current population and housing stocks. So, if anything, the numbers get more conservative as the predictions progress farther into the future.
Neither did the authors factor in sea walls, moving or raising houses or other measures that may be taken in the future to lessen the damage.
And, finally, they use the most-dire scenario. They assume that global sea-level rise will average about seven feet worldwide by 2100. That’s currently at the far end of predictions and would result if we do little to control emissions. That may sound extreme but keep in mind that sea-rise projections are forever edging upwards as the climate continues to warm and glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica continue to melt and we continue to do nothing meaningful. The current scientific consensus of three feet by 2100 was considered extreme a decade ago. A decade hence, seven feet may seem like a fond wish.
It Ain’t Just Beach Towns
If they consider the issue of rising seas at all, most people naturally think about the beach. Nags Head and Wrightsville and Ocean Isle and places like that are most endangered. The report’s numbers, though, reveal a far different reality that reflects our coast’s geography and flat topography. Much of the initial flooding occurs inland, away from the oceanfront and along the vast labyrinth of sounds, rivers and creeks. Only later are beach towns affected.
Stumpy Point, for instance, is a good 20 miles from the ocean as that crow flies. The small, unincorporated community off U.S. 264 in Dare County instead backs up to Pamlico Sound. About a third of the houses there could flood twice a month in just 12 years. Stumpy Point has, according to the study, the highest percentage of at-risk houses in the state in 2030.
Other inland communities aren’t far behind: Manns Harbor on Croatan Sound in Dare; Maple and its neighbor Barco along Coinjock Bay in Currituck County; Englehard in Hyde County; and Lowland and Hobucken in Pamlico County.
Chronic flooding becomes more widespread by 2060. It could threaten more than 30,000 existing homes along the N.C. coast with a current value of about $7 billion. More than 40,000 people currently live in those houses. That’s more than the population of New Bern.
The low-lying lands from eastern Carteret County, up the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula, to the Great Dismal Swamp on the Virginia border could be particularly hard hit. High tides in 2060 could threaten more than half the homes in Davis and Marshallberg in Down East Carteret. In Hyde and Tyrrell counties, 30 percent of existing homes could be regularly flooded. High tides could now reach more than a quarter of the houses in northern Currituck County bordering the swamp.
The beginning of the disintegration of the Outer Banks clearly shows up in the 2060 numbers. Almost half the houses in Frisco, Waves, Hatteras and Salvo on Hatteras Island could be subject to frequent high-tide flooding. While the effects are more limited on the higher, northern Outer Banks beaches, residential real-estate worth about $11 billion today could frequently be flooded in Nags Head, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills.
By 2100, the destruction of the southern Outer Banks is complete. High tides could flood more than half the homes in most of the beach towns. Flooding could hit 70 percent of the houses in Rodanthe and Salvo and 85 percent in Waves. Every current resident of Avon, Frisco and Hatteras would be displaced by high tides.
Three-quarters of the current population of Hyde County would also be refugees. The old, quaint fishing villages of Down East – Davis and Marshallberg, Williston and Gloucester, Smyrna and Sealevel – could become drowned ghost towns.
The coast’s major cities could also be devastated. Property currently worth $15 billion could be inundated in Wilmington. About 7,000 people in New Bern, or about a quarter its current population, could be flooded out of their homes. Almost half the current population of Elizabeth City could become refugees.
Are you sufficiently alarmed yet? Good. That’s what the report’s authors intended.
Now, they would want you to think about where we go from here.
Certainly, putting a lid on emissions is still at the top of the to-do list, but that requires national and international actions, and nothing meaningful has been done so far. We can all agree at this point that the Trump administration won’t do anything in the near term. In fact, it’s energy policies, if actually carried out, out would make things worse.
Also at the top of the list are things we can all do individually to be smarter energy consumers and to reduce our carbon footprints. We should, of course, do that and support the greener energy technologies that will eventfually replace fossil fuels. But, frankly, there’s really nothing you and I can do personally at this point that will prevent our descendants from being flooded out of their homes.
We can, however, prepare for the future they face. The state Division of Coastal Management has begun to take the first steps to help communities plan for the more watery future. Its teamed up with experts at N.C. State University and the Nature Conservancy to offer willing communities an opportunity to identify flood-prone areas and critical public and private infrastructure that are subject to flooding and storm damage and need to be protected. Communities can then use that information to devise protective local ordinances.
Swansboro is one of about 10 communities on the coast that have volunteered for the adaptation plan. The process just started and will probably take the rest of the year. A public meeting is planned in late August to get residents’ input. Follow this blog for more information.
It’s a good first step that every coastal community should be required to take it. The more prepared they are, the less it will cost all future taxpayers to bail them out – pun intended.
But that will take money and laws. The scope of the problem is too large for the small budgets of small communities, like Swansboro, to tackle. It will overwhelm even the largest cities. This is a problem that the state needs to tackle. This is a problem for the N.C. General Assembly.
The subject of climate change has in the past received a frosty reception in the halls of the Legislative Building. Beholden to special interest groups, legislators a few years ago even attempted to ban planning for future sea-level rise and were ridiculed worldwide for their efforts.
Now, they must step up. If they won’t, voters must replace them with people who will.
Your grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s futures depend on it. As the water rises around their ankles, they will wonder about our obstinacy and blindness. We should give them evidence that we haven’t totally lost our minds.
Here Are the Spreadsheet
The zip code spreadsheets in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ reports aren’t very user friendly. They lump zip codes by state with no other identifying information. Doing any kind of analysis is difficult.
Here they are, however, with the N.C. zip codes identified by locality and grouped by county. I’ve also summed up the totals by year and county.