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Rising tides, erosion wreak coastal havoc

Beach house that collapsed along North Carolina’s Outer Banks rests in the water on May 10, 2022, in Rodanthe.

Posted on April 3, 2023

If a picture is worth a thousand words, Daniel Pullen’s photo published in the New York Times on May 14, 2022, and a Washington Post image from March 14 this year say about all you need to know regarding changes along North Carolina’s 330 miles of coasts.

Rising tides coupled with beach erosion are destroying once beautiful waterfront properties, causing them to crumble or be uninhabitable.

Are these just photos taken during storms, or is this the new reality? We asked an expert on coastal changes, Reide Corbett, executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute and professor at East Carolina University, to help us understand.

Raised in eastern Carolina, Corbett is following in the footsteps of legendary geologists Orrin Pilkey from Duke and Stanley Riggs of East Carolina. However, Corbett is focusing more on how we can adjust and deal with these challenges rather than just warning us against further coastal development.

Acknowledging that this is a difficult subject to raise with developers, property owners, visitors and public officials, Corbett says reality is that rising sea levels and beach erosion are a scientific fact of life. No matter how much we love this region, its recreation and beauty and don’t want it to change, we must accept that reality.

What are the facts? Corbett says the level of sea rise in the past 20 years is currently greater than in the previous 30 years. And the science projects these trends will accelerate, as much as another 1-foot rise in sea levels by 2050.

Why this is occurring? Various factors are involved, such as the melting of large ice packs, warmer temperatures and increasing coastal development.

Former President John Kennedy often said that a rising tide lifts all boats. Economically, this is true. Coastal development brings more residents, businesses and tourism — in short, prosperity that provides employment, improves livability and generates tax revenues. But these rising tides also have a downside of eroding these great assets.

We’ve tried beach renourishment, dune replenishment, planting sea oats and building groins, Jersey jetties and bulkheads hoping to stop the problems. Most are little more than temporary Band-Aids that slow the inevitable. And this is where ECU and the Coastal Studies Institute are pioneering. Corbett is working with communities, property owners and public officials to engage in honest discussions to acknowledge the science and probe what can be done and which roles various players can provide.

Serious public policy questions beg answering. Are these just problems for those who own coastal property, or is the public affected? Is there a role for government, and if so, what is it? Should public tax dollars be expended to benefit private property owners? Should all residents share in providing public spending, or just those in the affected communities? The same questions are valid for state tax dollars.

The fallout of these changes can affect everyday life.  Further erosion will threaten roads and transportation arteries, making some impassible. We know the increasing frequency of flooding on N.C. Highway 12 along the Outer Banks and the need for clearing sand and repaving.

Erosion can affect septic systems, municipal or private, spewing waste and contamination. Stormwater management must be addressed, and the water quality of municipal water supplies can be threatened. Electrical substations and distribution lines can be affected, and police and fire protection face challenges. Local — and perhaps state — office holders will be asked to review and revise building codes and zoning regulations.

Here’s my spin: While not making headlines or attracting major media attention, our coastal region is staring down a barrel of significant impending change. We cannot stop the science, and hiding our heads in whatever sand remains isn’t an option. Neither is throwing up our hands and giving up.

The Miami-Dade region of Florida experienced these problems years ago and has been proactive in finding solutions. Through cooperative discussions and planning, stakeholders there have secured grants and public funding to raise road elevations, install more pump stations, protect buildings with temporary flood panels and even build artificial offshore reefs to keep ecosystems healthy and support fishing.

Aquaculture is being explored and canals dug to transport water to desired outlets. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they are strengthening and improving evacuation routes for almost certain future storms.

North Carolina’s coastline is one of our greatest assets, and we also need to be proactive in finding solutions. We are encouraged that Reide Corbett and the ECU Coastal Studies Institute are willing to help facilitate this process.


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