From Portsmouth to Aurora
Bouncing Forward: New Resilience Programs for Coastal North Carolina
BY SARAH SPIEGLER
As impacts from climate change heighten, our state finds new strategies for new challenges.
Instead of rebuilding, we now aim to bounce forward from a disturbance or a disaster, whether it is a hurricane, long-term chronic flooding, or sea level rise. This means planning for current and future conditions in coastal North Carolina.
Such planning is vital, because climate change impacts are happening now and are continuing to worsen.
In November 2021, we had a King Tide event that caused flooding and road closures in downtown Beaufort, North Carolina, and it was more than a mere nuisance. Saltwater flooded cars in downtown parking areas, and businesses were forced to close in the Front Street shopping and dining district to keep water from flooding through the doors of their shops.
Higher water levels will cause events like this to occur more frequently over the next 30 years. A recent Nature article reports that the East and Gulf coasts have experienced sea levels rising five times faster since 2010 than the average for the 1900s, driven by warming oceans and fluctuations in the Atlantic Ocean circulation patterns.
In addition, Hans Paerl at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Science in Morehead City published a 2019 study noting six of the state’s seven highest-recorded precipitation events had occurred in the previous 20 years. Increasing rainfall and hurricanes— such as Floyd (1999), Matthew (2016), and Florence (2018) — have brought catastrophic flooding, adverse economic impacts, and ecological damage that has included the increased runoff of pollutants into coastal ecosystems and estuaries.
Portsmouth: A Testament to Times Gone By
Last year, I had the opportunity to attend the Portsmouth Island Homecoming on a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, an event jointly hosted by the Friends of Portsmouth Island and Cape Lookout National Seashore. Portsmouth Island in Cape Lookout National Seashore sits just across the Ocracoke Inlet from Ocracoke village and is accessible only by boat.
As the passengers boarded the small ferries that day — skiffs run by local Ocracoke residents — with the warm salt breeze, we marveled at the beautiful weather and our good fortune in anticipation of spending the day there. The day’s festivities included celebrating the once bustling sea village, which in its past served as the major shipping center in the Outer Banks.
In the 1800s, there were over 600 residents on Portsmouth Island, and in 1842, over two-thirds of North Carolina’s exports passed through Ocracoke Inlet, adjacent to the island. Now, the National Park Service describes the village as a historical and rich cultural site, a “testament to times gone by.”
Portsmouth lost its residents over time due to a combination of shoaling, storms, war, economic hardship, and isolation. The last two permanent residents left the island in 1971, and today the National Park Service manages the historic village. Even though there are no permanent residents on the island now, descendants and community members still look forward to the biennial homecoming.
Of course, climate change still impacts the island. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian caused widespread flooding and damage to the neighboring island and village of Ocracoke, and the 7-foot storm surge that came across Portsmouth damaged all of the 20 historic buildings in the village.
“I have not seen total building impact to a historic district anywhere or anytime in my career,” said Jeff West, Cape Lookout National Seashore’s superintendent, after Hurricane Dorian. “This is personally hard, professionally difficult.”
Much time was spent on building repairs after Hurricane Dorian, and at the 2022 Homecoming, West thanked his staff and volunteers for all their hard work and dedication in maintaining the historic village for visitors.
The 2022 event transformed the island from a historic site to a place full of people, laughter, and the making of new and old connections for a day. Descendants of former residents gave speeches, and attendees mingled and enjoyed each other’s company and stories at the traditional potluck lunch after the ceremonies.
What does it mean to adapt to climate change?
While climate change is affecting our communities and our coastal ecosystems already, planning is challenging because of the complexity and uncertainty involved.
In the dynamic systems of coastal North Carolina, we can’t continue to plan by looking at data from the past. We must help communities adapt to changes they are already experiencing on the ground, as well as potential future changes, by providing tools, resources, and education. This includes reducing risks, while staying flexible and taking advantage of any opportunities that could arise, such as potentially longer growing seasons in some agriculture regions, and — as North Carolina Sea Grant fisheries specialist Scott Baker explains — possible changes to our fisheries as ocean temperatures rise.
“I think we’ll eventually have increased access to some species, new species moving into the area or species staying longer or starting migrations sooner,” says Baker. “And we’ll have less access to others for the same reasons.”
Adapting to a changing climate can include preserving trees, installing living shorelines, allowing for marsh migration, relocating infrastructure to higher ground, and a number of other strategies. At Sea Grant’s 2022 North Carolina Coastal Conference, NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser deftly stated there is no “one-size-fits-all solution” to the changes we are facing in our state.
Adaptation will require a range of innovations, including social, economic, and environmental strategies to help our state’s communities adjust to life in a changing climate. It also will require partnerships and trust building for collaborative decision-making, as the range of strategies and actions will vary by communities. In the case of Portsmouth, residents moved away, while also continuing their connections by remembering their history and forming new community bonds in remembrance of this history.
What are we doing to help communities adapt to climate change and prepare for an uncertain future?
Climate change is a global issue, but implementing adaptation often falls to local governments and communities. In North Carolina, conversations were already beginning about how to plan and move forward with the changes we are experiencing at our coast and in our communities prior to 2018. When Hurricane Florence came ashore near Wilmington in the fall of that year, it caused $22 billion in damages to the state, with many communities still in the recovery phase today.
Much of the hurricane’s extensive flooding occurred in inland counties and low-income communities, which often have the least resources and limited staff expertise to address climate change. The immense impact and damage from Florence also acted to drive the urgency of conversations about under-resourced communities and climate change with many leaders in the state, including lawmakers, state agencies, universities, and community members.
In the fall of 2018, less than two months after Hurricane Florence, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper issued Executive Order 80 (EO80), “North Carolina’s Commitment to Address Climate Change and Transition to a Clean Energy Economy,” and the state subsequently developed the 2020 “NC Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan.” (Read more about EO80 and the 2020 plan in the Winter 2020 issue of Coastwatch: “Plan, Respond, Recover, Adapt: Building Resilience in Coastal NC.”)
The resilience plan also recommended a NC Resilient Communities Program, which resulted in the creation of two new state resilience programs in 2020 and 2021: the NC Resilient Coastal Communities Program (RCCP), led by the NC Division of Coastal Management, and the Regions Innovating for Sustainable Economies and the Environment (RISE), led by the NC Office of Recovery and Resilience (NCORR).
Both programs provide technical expertise in resilience planning for small and rural communities at the local level and regionally.
This process of building resilience in a statewide, coordinated approach is still a novel process in North Carolina. However, throughout the state at every level, climate partnerships and bridges between agencies and organizations are quickly forming to sustain these efforts. The strengthening of these partnerships and cross-cutting efforts is helping to create a roadmap to support adaptation and resilience efforts in the long-term. For example, the state-led RCCP program partners with NCORR, the Nature Conservancy, and North Carolina Sea Grant.
Both the RCCP and RISE wrapped up their pilot phases in 2022. Early successes and lessons learned will inform these programs going forward, while working with North Carolina communities most in need of resources and assistance to address climate change impacts.
What can we learn from the Town of Aurora?
The Town of Aurora was one of 27 communities that initially participated in the RCCP. Aurora is a small Beaufort County town of about 450 people, according to the 2020 census, with minorities comprising about 50% of its population. Aurora sits near the mouth of the Pamlico River, mostly on land that is low and flat — about 3 feet above sea level — which means the town is vulnerable to riverine flooding, heavy precipitation events, erosion, and increased tidal-related flooding.
The town owns and operates a wastewater treatment lagoon in constructed wetlands. Aurora’s water treatment plant, a critical asset, almost flooded during Hurricane Irene in 2011, and Florence provided a fresh reminder of the plant’s potential vulnerability — part of what motivated the town to participate in the RCCP.
Through the RCCP, the state matched the town with a consulting firm, RK&K, as well as with the Mid-East Commission, a regional council of government that serves a five-county area. Jamie Heath, a planner with the commission, worked closely with Aurora as part of the RCCP program.
“Aurora residents were largely concerned with nuisance flooding — with or without a hurricane — and the critical assets in their town that were at risk,” Heath says. “The town has strong cohesiveness, community involvement, and an enthusiastic volunteer base, which was essential in the town successfully completing the pilot program and subsequently applying for and receiving two grants using the results that came out of the town’s RCCP efforts.”
This includes the town’s Wetland Restoration at the Wastewater Treatment Plant project, funded by the state through the RCCP, which is nearing completion of its engineering and design plans. The Town also received funding for the “Town of Aurora Drainage Ditch and Tributary Maintenance and Easement Plan” through the Golden Leaf Flood Mitigation Grant Program.
Both projects are part of the “Town of Aurora and Richland Township Resilience Strategy,” developed during early phases of the RCCP and adopted last year. All told, the town strategies include seven prioritized projects to improve the community’s resilience to flooding.
“As communities look to address impacts of a changing climate, the RCCP and RISE are paving the way for a more resilient future,” says Cayla Cothron, who has spent the past year working with communities through both programs as the coastal planning specialist at North Carolina Sea Grant.
“By establishing a baseline understanding of risk and vulnerability in communities across the coastal plain,” she adds, “and by providing frameworks and resources that communities can build upon at the local and regional levels, these programs provide communities with the foundation to tackle pressing issues in the short term — as well as to integrate these considerations into long-term planning and decision-making.”
How can we achieve “mainstream resilience”?
Climate changes are impacting so many areas of our daily lives and operations that adapting to these changes needs to take place both at the community level and on a greater scale. Since Hurricane Florence, our state has experienced a huge increase in attention, resources, funding, and partnerships to holistically address the changes we are experiencing now, while also keeping an eye on how we can plan for and adapt to future conditions.
A holistic resilience framework will include developing systematic and collaborative processes to “mainstream” resilience into all facets and areas of doing business. We are still learning what that fully comprises and how to approach it. Programs like the RCCP and RISE directly support community resilience, and many government agencies, non-profit organizations, universities, and community members are coalescing around resilience efforts. There are also now more local decision makers considering climate change, flooding, and sea level rise in their planning efforts.
However, there are still barriers and challenges for communities in implementing adaptation efforts. This includes coordinating resilience efforts and recognizing that many best practices for adaptation, such as avoiding building in low-lying and vulnerable areas, still face many hurdles.
In addition, responses and resources for building more resilient communities usually fall unevenly based on social and economic thresholds. Many of our communities that are on the frontlines of change, or that live on the margins of society, are the most impacted, with the least access to resources to address these changes. (Read about North Carolina Sea Grant’s work in an under-resourced New Bern neighborhood in the Spring 2023 issue’s “Resilience and Redevelopment in Duffyfield.”)
Furthermore, capacity, time, and expertise for staff and communities to address these issues can be quite limited. Jamie Heath notes that one of the main challenges the Mid-East Commission faces in working with communities is staff capacity.
“There are many relevant grant opportunities,” Heath says. “But communities often lack the expertise to apply on their own and may rely on agencies like the Mid-East Commission, which also only have so many resources and a certain capacity to assist the communities in their region.”
Heath says another challenge is balancing the bottom-up need to take small steps at the local level, which directly affects our communities and residents, with top-down large, systematic change and guidance from state and federal levels.
“But,” she adds, “being able to point to guidance from the state in the RCCP was essential for helping communities to think about future risks.”
In order to strengthen resilience in coastal North Carolina — and to realize social, economic, and environmental opportunities for our state — we continue to seek out and apply new strategies, as well as build climate partnerships at the federal, state, and local levels that address the needs of all of our communities and residents.
Of course, working within the tensions of community, regional, and state expectations — while also balancing the urgent and increasing impacts of climate change — in some cases will require communities to implement strategies that buy them more time as they consider how to plan for a changing coastline and increasing climate threats. After all, Portsmouth residents didn’t disperse all at once because of a single storm or a specific event. The island’s population declined over time, and the abandonment of the town was ultimately unplanned.
Yet, the Portsmouth community persists. As Jeff West noted at the 2022 Portsmouth Homecoming: “We shouldn’t, but. . . we forget the importance that people attach to a place.”
Portsmouth Island demonstrates a kind of resilience and dedication to a place through ongoing community and National Parks Service efforts, even 50 years after it lost its last residents. As we build coastal resilience in North Carolina, we can learn from the important connections, past and present, forged because of Portsmouth Island, remembering what was lost — but also committed to moving forward.
Based at NC State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology in Morehead City, SARAH SPIEGLER is the coastal resilience specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant.