Thursday, February 24, 2005

Ocean, beaches, storms, and money: the Outer Banks

Skip this post if you are not interested in the interaction of nature and human arrogance. Published in the Charlotte Observer on 9/28/2003:

Building mounts despite Outer Banks erosion
Desire for beach homes backed by state policies
by Bruce Henderson

The sea is rising on one of the most hazardous coastlines in America, erosion is accelerating and Hurricane Isabel just sliced up Hatteras Island.

In the inexorable logic of coastal development, that makes the Outer Banks an even more desirable place to invest. Experience says new homes will pop up amid Isabel's wreckage like mushrooms after a summer rain.

The aftermath of a hurricane on the N.C. coast conjures an odd mix of gung-ho rebuilding spirit and sober vows to rethink state policies that allow development on the most shifting of sands. Taxpayers, meanwhile, help foot billions of dollars in recovery costs.

Backed by flood insurance, property rights and compliant politicians, owners usually rebuild. New owners rush to join the party.

"We have a (state) policy of what to do after a storm," said Todd Miller of the N.C. Coastal Federation, the coast's leading conservation group. "And that's to build it back bigger and better and more dangerous than ever."

With high-energy waves and a gently sloping shoreline, the Outer Banks are among the East Coast locations with "very high" vulnerability to rising sea level, concluded a 1999 report by the U.S. Geological Survey. In such places sea level typically rises more than one-tenth of an inch a year.

On northern Hatteras, state maps show, the ocean shoreline is eroding as much as 16 feet a year. Four other stretches of beach on Hatteras face double-digit erosion losses. Average erosion rates appear to be rising across the N.C. coast, state officials say.

Rebuilding dunes to protect N.C. 12, which runs the length of the Outer Banks, is worsening erosion in some places, coastal geologists say.

While Isabel was a massive but relatively weak Category 2 hurricane, skeptics worry a more fearsome storm will someday wipe the coast clean. Four hurricanes have smacked the N.C. coast in the past seven years, and some authorities believe Atlantic hurricanes are in an upswing cycle.

The Division of Coastal Management gets about $1 million a year from the state parks trust fund for beach communities to buy unbuildable lots for public access. But beachfront property is too expensive for most grants.

The Coastal Resources Commission endorsed hazard notifications to potential property owners, Moffitt said, but the Real Estate Commission didn't agree.

The coastal commission has supported ending public subsidies that encourage unwise development, she said, but has no authority to make it stick.

... Oceanfront communities provide most of the property-tax revenue for their counties, she added, providing more incentives to rebuild.

... Fran whacked North Topsail Beach, on an island off the southern N.C. coast, hard. The storm left about 350 lots unbuildable because of heavy structural damage and erosion.

Federal authorities had previously declared much of the low-lying northern portion of Topsail Island too damage-prone to offer flood insurance. "We need to get out with the least amount of cost possible and don't come back," state Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare, said after touring Fran's damage.

Yet North Topsail is now bigger than ever. The state paid to repair the island's main road after Fran. A beach-renourishment plan is in the works.

"We've exploded with building" this summer, said Sue McLaughlin, the town's planning, zoning and coastal-management permits officer.

See part one and part three of this series.

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