‘Boro Readies for Rising Sea

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.

The band-aid approach: Sand bags offer this house at New River Inlet in North Topsail Beach temporary protection from the rising Atlantic.

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.

To Learn More

Author: Frank Tursi

Author, Journalist and mayor pro temp of Swansboro, NC

2 thoughts on “‘Boro Readies for Rising Sea”

  1. He who builds his house on sand near the ocean soon learns mother natures rules-
    We who have been screaming for 20 years know that it will be impossable to turn earth around!
    Good piece lots of facts –


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