Forty-eight hours before the arms of Hurricane Dorian locked on the coast, North Topsail Beach in Onslow County sounded like an untuned symphony. The roar of the ocean lay down a musical bed for the shrieks of seagulls, a concussion of hammers and the caterwauls of power saws.
Dozens of homes along and near the oceanfront were already boarded up, their inhabitants headed inland. Stragglers were folding their beach towels, collecting a few more seashells and abandoning their sand castles.“I’m going to hightail it out of here pretty soon,” said one man, scrambling toward the sea to soak in the final minutes of a long holiday.
The hundreds of homes along New River Inlet Road are among the most vulnerable to sea level rise and beach erosion on North Carolina’s southeast coast, according to coastal geologist Rob Young. A report, published by Young and the Program for Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, recommends a targeted buyout of many of these oceanfront homes, which are on “first line” of tropical storm exposure on the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts.
“There are very few buyouts on barrier islands,” Young told a crowd at a coastal resiliency summit in Havelock in June, where he previewed portions of the report. “But it’s a sensible solution.”
As the climate crisis intensifies, and with it, more frequent and devastating weather disasters, many communities in the U.S. – in Louisiana, Alaska, and even Princeville, NC – have contemplated the once unthinkable: Uprooting their towns and moving them, and potentially losing their sense of identity and social connections, as well as their home.
Doug Marcy, a coastal hazards specialist at NOAA, told those assembled in Havelock that there are social challenges involved in buying out property, even at market value. (Marcy was not involved in Young’s report.) “It’s intensified a lot of debate about the idea of ‘retreat’ and ‘takings,'” Marcy said. “We can engineer ourselves out of this, but it ruins the beaches.”
But most of the residential properties on this precarious stretch of North Topsail Beach are not “home” in the traditional sense. A Policy Watch analysis of 2,000 property records in this neighborhood, and south, along to Ocean Drive, Topsail Road and Island Drive, showed that just 8 percent – 165 homes – are owner-occupied. The rest are owned by investment companies, estates and trusts, and people from other parts of the state, other states, Canada and even Russia. That’s not to say they don’t have fond memories of laid-back summers at the beach, but the emotional investment of say, G&L Capital, which owns several properties on New River Inlet Road, is less than that the fourth generation of a family who lives on a century-old farm.
The benefits of a buyout program —$57.6 million — still outweighs the costs: $54.8 million, including inflation, the report says. The price includes purchasing the properties at their full assessed value, plus inflation and appreciation. Over 30 years, the savings would still total nearly $3 million.
Young said that state or federal buyouts of “a tiny fraction of the tax base” – “just 7 percent” — could free up money to invest in the sustainability of 93 percent of properties. “Slightly changing the map of this community with a targeted acquisition would not mean the end to a prosperous beach town,” he wrote in the report. “Far from it. This proposal is a plan for strengthening the vast majority of the tax base for the long run.”
Young and his colleagues adapted a vulnerability analysis, originally developed for the National Park Service, to determine the locations of the most vulnerable properties. The initial study area encompassed 2,523 parcels over 2,886 acres, including empty lots and all types of single- and multi-family homes several blocks south of the New River Inlet. After analyzing federal and state data about storm surge, inlet hazard areas, flood maps and oceanfront erosion rates, researchers zeroed in on 347 properties where it would be cheaper in the long run to buy them than to maintain the beach and rebuild or repair the homes.
Other costs include $4.25 million to remove the homes and sandbags, as well as the $15 million to $20 million in lost tax revenue to Onslow County.
Yet the savings still outweigh the costs, according to the study. Without the cost of beach renourishment, maintenance and sandbag replacement, the county would save $57.6 million.
Young acknowledged that he didn’t consult town officials or other interested parties for the report. “It’s as much a philosophical as a financial analysis,” he said.
North Topsail Mayor Dan Tuman said Young’s analysis low-balls the true costs. He told Coastal Review Online in an email that he had not previously seen the report, nor was he consulted on it. “At first blush, he is uninformed of the area that this report concerns. Had he consulted with the Science Panel of the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) and the personnel of the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, the inlet hazard area that the town is developing engineering plans to protect is much larger than his report covers. Since the buyout of affected properties he recommends approaches $100 million, not the $30 million he reports, his analysis totally collapses and North Topsail Beach’s planned effort to stabilize the shoreline adjacent to the inlet and protect the adjacent property is justified using his arguments.”
But many coastal and inland residents, as well as scientists, say living on the vulnerable oceanfront is no longer tenable. (Island Drive in North Topsail is one block from the ocean; at least two multi-family homes are under construction.)
Retired from the EPA, Sherri White-Williamson lives in Sampson County, which was pummeled by Hurricane Florence. She now works on environmental justice issues. “The state has got to stop allowing people to build in flood plains,” she said.
Even with the flooding threat, businesses and residents still want to build in vulnerable seaside areas, said Frank Tursi, mayor pro tempore of Swansboro, in Onslow County. “A pizza place wanted to open, and I told them their front door is about three feet above sea level. But we have nothing on our books that says you can’t do it,” Tursi said at The Coming Storm, a coast resiliency conference at Duke University last month. “We have a continuing cycle of storm damage, recovery, rebuilding, and then we do it all over again.”
“Hurricane Florence has changed the conversation,” said Karen Willis Ampacher, executive director of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center on Harkers Island, in Carteret County. “People are raising their houses and talking about the next storm. They’re saying climate change and sea level rise are real. Well, it’s been real for a long time.”