Crews work to repair man-made sand dunes on along NC 12 on Pea Island in the Outer Banks, NC. Photo: Greg Kahn.

Climate Change

Slip Sliding Away

While locals on the Outer Banks tussle over whether global warming is real and causing oceans to rise, the islands themselves are gradually, inevitably going under.

When a family from the Midwest looked up satellite images of the house at 23267 Midgetts Mobile Court in Rodanthe, North Carolina, they saw that it was separated from the Atlantic Ocean—sparkling, even in the photograph—by another mansion. But when they arrived there this past July, they were mystified, if not at all disappointed. The six-bedroom, 4,500-square-foot vacation rental, for which they were shelling out $8,000 a week, was now oceanfront property.

“I swear on the map there was another house here,” the father puzzled.

There was. There still is, on Google Maps, a sprawling structure enchantingly but, as it turned out, recklessly, ill-fatedly close to the waves lapping the beach. The family didn’t know if it had been moved, its owners paying to lift the McMansion whole and transport it to another plot farther inland. Or maybe, like dozens of houses before it, it was simply sucked into the sea.

The dad, a businessman back home, couldn’t help but divine a savvy strategy for investors in the local real estate market. “Buy a cheaper house a few blocks back from the waterline,” he said, mildly tempted himself, “and wait until the waterfront comes to you!”

“What we have here is wild, one of the highest-energy coastal systems in the world,” says Stan Riggs, a marine and coastal geologist who’s been working on this barrier-island chain for 50 years. The thin, nearly 200-mile sandy band off the coast of North Carolina and a bit of Virginia, collectively known as the Outer Banks, hosts a lot of weather “events.” It erodes constantly, sometimes rapidly; in 2011 Hurricane Irene alone carved two new inlets into the coastline. It is home to some 20 towns and communities, with about 40,000 residents and millions of visitors per year, restaurants and national parks and nature sanctuaries, and billions of dollars’ worth of real estate. It is also home to several long-running feuds. There are signs on the beach saying to keep off for the sake of nesting birds and turtles. There are also signs on storefronts and car bumpers advising environmentalists to go screw themselves. There are op-eds in the local papers that plead with fellow islanders to accept that climate change is real and upon us, and others that staunchly insist it is not.

“It’s pretty volatile,” says Reide Corbett, an oceanographer and Outer Banks resident. Here, in America’s most dramatic proving ground for the impacts of climate change—where land, locals, and policy makers already struggle to cope with a rising sea, with a lot more likely to come—he is not just talking about the weather. 

 

The UNC Coastal Studies Institute is housed in 90,000 square feet of buildings on a humid patch of land covered in tall grasses. It’s an unusual research and outreach establishment, bringing together academics from many disciplines and five universities across the University of North Carolina system, right on Roanoke Island, a gateway to the Outer Banks. The main building is sleek and airy. It’s gold-rated by LEED, the campus smart and forward-thinking right down to its wood, glass, and cement construction.

“There are programs here that do work on [erosion and sea-level rise] from a variety of different, but integrated, perspectives—engineers, economists, geologists, ecologists,” CSI’s director, Nancy White, explained in an email responding to my request for a meeting. Speaking of volatility, though: The note got surprisingly hostile fast. “[I]t would take a concerted effort on your part to get up to speed on the real issues beyond the typical talking points we see in the paper and on TV,” she wrote. “If you are willing to actually do some work on this and dig past the 1"-deep PR around very complex issues that have real impact on the environmental as well as human ecology of the world . . .”

White has reason to be concerned. The typical talking points she’s referring to are as follows: In 2009 the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission asked a group of scientists to produce a report on the possible impacts of climate change over this century. Much complicated math was done. Then, in 2010, the scientists released a report saying that they felt one meter of sea-level rise by 2100 was a reasonable prediction. It wasn’t a particularly drastic assessment; plenty of other reports have said essentially the same thing. But it meant that significant portions of the Outer Banks would, in the not-too-distant future, be underwater.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

“The development community freaked,” says White, who is actually quite charming when we eventually talk. Some of its members—realtors, builders—formed a group to fight any possible related policy changes. A bill was introduced in the North Carolina House that outlawed using the report’s predictions for planning and policy decisions. And though the original version was altered, a moratorium on climate-change-accounting regulations did pass. 

The rest of the country, which considers making fun of Southerners a national pastime, made fun of North Carolinians. On the Internet, in newspapers, on TV.  “If your science gives you a result that you don’t like,” Stephen Colbert said on his show, “pass a law saying that the result is illegal. Problem solved.”

In an act bordering on self-parody, the state government ordered a new, shorter-term report. A working draft was released late last December, and it said exactly what insiders predicted: much the same thing that the first one did. Except that it forecast only 30 years into the future—when sea level around the Outer Banks is projected to have risen just 12 inches and before the effects of climate change, which are cumulative and exponential, begin to accelerate intensely. 

“We haven’t recovered,” White says, as far as community divisions and entrenched stances are concerned. “That one incident made people mistrust science. It drove people to their corners.”

Brian Winnett, left, hauls in a blue fish near a stretch of condemned homes on the beach in Nags Head to fish on the Outer Banks, NC. Photo: Greg Kahn

One could argue that they were already there. In 2007 the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife sued the National Park Service and a handful of federal defendants, demanding the regulation of off-road-vehicle use on Outer Banks beaches, which are crucial habitat for sea turtles and bird species, including Black Skimmers, Gull-billed Terns, and the threatened Piping Plover. The Park Service complied, placing 26 of the 67 miles of beach off-limits to ORVs, more during nesting season. To this day bumper stickers depicting a raised middle finger addressed explicitly to Audubon abound.  

Andy Keeler, program head of public policy and coastal sustainability at CSI, calls the whole event a “debacle.” “Conservationists around the world have known for decades that if you want to protect the environment, you have to work with the local population,” he tells me. People are still so angry, Keeler says, that “park rangers aren’t welcome in some businesses in Buxton.” He’s a wiry, animated guy with glasses and curly gray hair who wiggles around in his seat with the energy of his gesturing and enthusiasm. He says the lawsuit may have saved birds, but it alienated the local government. (“Litigation is not something Audubon takes lightly,” responds Heather Hahn, Audubon North Carolina’s executive director, when I run these complaints past her. “We basically had no more nesting birds or sea turtles. There was conversation for years and years and years, processes that tried to get [us] there, and we weren’t getting there.”)

Stephanie O’Neal, whose parents own the Sea Sound Motel in Rodanthe, a quaint community toward the south of the Outer Banks string, insists that the locals can take care of their own. “People have lived here forever; they can protect it,” the mother of three says when we’re chatting one morning in the motel office. She has a way of leaning forward conspiratorially when she talks, and veritably seethes at the idea of “outside influence” or “outside environmental groups” telling local people how to live on their land. But she also concedes that the concept of “outside” is extreme here. Although she lives in Rodanthe, and her father is from Rodanthe, she was raised in Nags Head, an Outer Banks community 22 miles to the north—making O’Neal a “townie,” not a Rodanthe “local.” She’s really lucky she’s not from Kinnakeet, though: One Rodanthe resident explained that while only a mile away, the village is considered so separate and backward that “you might say someone is from there as an insult, and if you had a blood relative who lived there, you might not say so publicly.” 

Given this level of insularity, you can imagine how locals might feel about the rich people who come in to build and rent mansions on the waterfront. “We don’t feel bad for them,” O’Neal says, when they have to move the houses at great expense, or lose them to the water. Actually locals get mad, because they’re the ones who suffer the pollution it causes: the avalanche of windows, countertops, pipes, and septic tanks that fall with the houses into the surf. “They made a stupid investment. Historically you didn’t build houses right on the water. Look. You won’t see old houses on the water.” This motel, for example, is not (it’s the Sea Sound, not the Sea View). “Even the lifesaving stations”—buildings staffed by a 19th-century federal program with the aim of rescuing shipwrecked mariners off the U.S. coast—“are built way back, where they watched the water from there. Or they made houses easily movable—just hitched them to horses to go inland when the island shifted.”

Everyone on the Outer Banks knows that the islands shift with the waves. It’s a geological process that erodes sand off their front and redeposits it on their backside. People used to routinely move houses, and even the highway, with it. They’ve moved the landmark lighthouse on Hatteras Island. But the modern, permanent infrastructure on the islands has interrupted that process. Add that to rising sea levels, and you’ve got an emergency on your hands.

“This used to be a culture of survival. Now people make decisions based on a culture of greed,” O’Neal says. “The island’s supposed to move; now it can’t move. All the troubles are self-caused.” She is frustrated with her neighbors who don’t accept that they can’t keep interrupting the natural roll of the island without consequence. “I’m like,” she says, agitated, “ ‘We gotta roll, bitches.’ ”

But rolling would entail a cascade of fiendishly complicated and expensive consequences. It would affect commercial fishing ports, for starters, not to mention untold numbers of buildings and homes. Then there’s the highway, which is critical to tourists and residents alike; it would have to be moved, as it last was in 2003, along with the islands, with not-unlimited public funds. They’d also have to figure out how that would affect birds and wetlands, and a new, necessary, unbuilt bridge (itself the subject of yet more litigation between the state and different wildlife groups, which say it will disturb a local refuge).

Stan Riggs, the geologist, made plenty of enemies when he wrote a book concluding that the state should do without the road entirely and return to a system of connecting the islands via kayaks and private boats, like back in the fishing-village days (suggestions that CSI’s Nancy White calls “inflammatory” and alienating). Andy Keeler, whose discipline is economics, suggests that climate-change-intelligent planning here will come only after government flood- and wind-insurance programs stop allowing people to rebuild and repair their properties in the same way and the same place just to be damaged over and over by worsening storm systems. He points out, wryly, that a lot of people who hate the government and don’t want it intervening or regulating here still want FEMA bailouts when disaster comes through.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the dire predictions for the Outer Banks’ future are just that: predictions. Erosion is a natural process; what if it’s got nothing to do with climate change? If sea level is rising now—and it is, more than four measured millimeters per year in some Outer Banks towns—maybe in the future the rate will slow, rather than speed up. “Science isn’t always right,” Keeler allows. “But it’s better than anything we’ve got. And it tends to be right more than other stuff.” Unfortunately, “all action happens after short-run hazards. We’re looking at long-term change. Humans are terrible at long-term policy decisions.”

That numbing mega-scale involved in these problems is what Audubon’s Hahn invokes when I mention the oft-repeated sentiment on the islands that the ORV lawsuit turned people off all forms of environmentalism. “The reason why we’re not talking about sea-level rise in a meaningful way, it has nothing to do with Audubon,” she says, laughing. “That has nothing to do with us and the Outer Banks. It’s so much bigger than that.”

For the moment, the Outer Banks is literally shoring itself up, the best it can. Out here, unmoored and unprotected in the middle of ocean, the sort of floodgates being discussed for New York Harbor aren’t an option. So in 2011 the people of Nags Head spent $36 million of town and county money to replenish 10 miles of its beach with 4.6 million cubic yards of dredged sand. Rodanthe recently received $20 million of federal funds to do similar work. The area that was replenished includes a community called Mirlo Beach, where three whole rows of homes have been lost to the Atlantic in the past 30 years or so and where the slogan on the welcome sign says, “Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream.”

 

There is at least one thing that the locals and the governor and environmentalists and scientists plus millions of other Americans agree on: The Outer Banks is a national treasure.

Up in some of the more northern, famous, and populous towns like Nags Head, the water is breathtaking. And heading south toward Hatteras Island, where development has been curbed by the presence of a national seashore (the aesthetic beside the beach up north could be described, charitably, as “commercial,” with strip malls and souvenir shops crammed into every available space), there are fewer buildings. The vibe is quieter. Beautiful, peaceful. In the film adaptation of Nights in Rodanthe, a Nicholas Sparks novel that takes place in that town, Richard Gere arrives to sudden postcard views of sand and sea, orchestra music swelling, the camera panning to soaring heights. It is not quite that dramatic in real life. But at a restaurant down the street from the Sea Sound, the breeze is balmy while windsurfers sail around beneath the sunset visible from an outdoor patio. O’Neal told me that when she and her sons go swimming, loggerhead turtles sometimes join them, one of them nipping her son on the stomach once, and when they go out kayaking, dolphins jump all around.

National treasure, indeed. And the people treasuring it are . . . people. People as unpredictable—and often as irrational—as weather patterns.

“As an economist, you’d predict that people would stop building 15-bedroom houses on the beach and build things that can be moved,” says Keeler. But real estate on the islands is up a healthy 5 percent. A commercial on local television tells me that there’s a new luxury housing development with 30 lots going up and one could be mine. When I stop by one realty office, an agent sees no issue with telling me in the same conversation that she recently sold an empty lot to a couple forced to move their flood-inundated house and that I should really consider a house here. “That’s just the price you pay to live in paradise,” says O’Neal, whose own yard has recently started flooding.

“Retreating off the islands is not realistic,” says Reide Corbett, the oceanographer, who is also part of CSI. (Keeler calls the very idea “wacky.”) One of the authors of that 2010 study that caused all the hullabaloo, he nevertheless bought a house here for himself and his family—but, very purposefully, one that is nine feet above sea level. “In a hundred years, if there’s three-foot sea-level rise, I’ll still have six feet to go. But,” he says, pausing for dramatic effect: “What about a Category 2 storm?”

That would likely bring a storm surge that would swamp all his worldly belongings. He’s willing to take the risk. “I would live here forever,” he says.

Jason Heilig, a 38-year-old surf shop owner who’s been in Rodanthe for 14 years, has made the same pledge, although storm-related devastations are more than hypothetical for him. “It’s very exposed,” he says of the house he built for his family in 2004. “During [Hurricane] Irene, we got a lot of damage. After Arthur, we had significant damage again. Fifty percent of the roof blew off. The sheetrock was damaged, we got mold, we had to rip out the ceilings. We have to replace some windows.” Insurance—wind-and-hail and flood insurance that cost him a lot in premiums—pays for some of this, but the money always runs out before the job is done. “I won’t say it doesn’t get exhausting and discouraging sometimes,” he says. “But while the house is getting beat to shit every year, we don’t see ourselves going anywhere.”

And he’s not even a true local. Consider Ernie Foster, who wasn’t just born here but whose parents and grandparents were, too. When I meet him at his charter fishing business in Hatteras late one afternoon, the sky is gray. He apologizes that his hands smell like fish. It starts sprinkling a little, and the wind blows cold. Foster, 69, is wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, and keeps jokingly accusing me of bringing the crappy weather.

“I do not question the validity of long-term science,” he says, perched on a bench in his little boathouse. With white hair, blue eyes, and the tanned legs of a man half his age, Foster is the media’s unofficial Mr. Outer Banks. He is quoted in many articles. He is wholly of the local people (he thinks 100-year climate predictions seem extreme, and calls one of NOAA’s former enforcement officers a “first-class prick”), but he is simultaneously the embodiment of Balance (he agrees that in three hundred years, these islands will probably be gone). He is for commercial fishing but also for conservation. He believes in climate change but also thinks scientists and conservationists have come at the Outer Banks all wrong.

On the wall behind Foster is an amazing array of yellowed, old-timey photographs that look like they’d be in a museum or novelty shop: his ancestors—catching fish, cleaning fish, making caviar. As we talk in the wooden shack, the wind picks up further, and starts howling hard. He had to cancel his charter this afternoon.

“Let me reiterate my belief that we live so close to nature here that there is a great appreciation for it,” he says. “That doesn’t always mean a great understanding.” But when the whole rest of the state or country and science and government are coming in with concerns and proposals like “ ‘I’m so smart and so knowledgeable, and you are so unnecessary to this island’ . . . when you have three, four, five generations of family buried here, that message does not resonate.”

Foster doesn’t mean this theoretically. After we talk for more than an hour, I ask him if he’d ever consider leaving, and he jumps up from his seat. “Come here,” he says.

We get in his truck and drive a little ways, down the street and across. We park next to a house he grew up in and still owns, and walk toward the backyard. His family cemetery is here. It’s small and unassuming, grassy, full of headstones. “There’s my parents,” he says, gesturing casually. “There’s my grandparents. There’s an aunt. There’s another aunt.” He takes a few steps to the corner of the little plot. “I’ll go right there.”

 

That night something happens that would be inconsequential almost anywhere else but is potentially catastrophic on the Outer Banks.

It rains.

It’s not that heavy. It’s not even raining or blowing hard enough to drive a reluctant, intimacy-skittish Diane Lane into Richard Gere’s arms in the critical storm scene/turning point of Nights in Rodanthe. However: There is standing water several feet deep in some places on the only highway. A staffer at my inn tells me he drove his Ford Focus through, but barely; the water swelled so high in the wake of cars traveling in the other direction that it picked up his bumper. I walk to the beach, on the Atlantic side of the island, where surfers are looking at but not touching the crashing waves. Their peak height that day exceeded 11 feet.

I’ve checked into The Inn on Pamlico Sound in Buxton, yet farther south, the hotel gem of Hatteras Island. Some of the rooms face the sound with walls of glass, and nothing more lies between the view of the riled water and gray sky than a few yards of wetland. Is it precarious? Either way, it is spectacular. Except that the rainfall screws up the local water pressure, meaning my toilet stops flushing and I have to keep filling a garbage can under the Jacuzzi tub faucet and dumping it into the bowl to restore water pressure, which is possibly not the least but definitely not the most romantic thing I could be doing in this luscious B-and-B suite.

Flooding remains days after a storm on N Tower Circle in Buxton, NC. Photo: Greg Kahn

The next day it’s raining again, and the situation is the same. The only ways to get off the island are: (1) braving the flooded highway back north toward the bridge to the mainland; (2) having my car towed through the deepest stretches of water, once a tow operator has time to do so between picking up cars already stalled all over the road after having attempted (1); or (3) driving south. This last option leads to a ferry to the next-southern island, but the landing terminal is on its northernmost point, so I’ll still have to drive the length of that island (which may or may not also be flooded; reports are mixed) to get to its southern terminal, where boats leave for mainland North Carolina. If, that is, the ferries remain running.

In the end I choose option (1), my every muscle tense, for more than an hour of traffic crawl and high water shooting loudly into my undercarriage, waiting for my engine to stall. When trucks going in the opposite direction pass, a tidal wave washes over the top of my roof, enveloping me for a few terrifying seconds, leaving me blind to the road.

“It was just a rain shower,” Riggs says when I meet him in person, finally, later that night, at an inland freeway-side McDonald’s. “Hurricane Sandy would’ve wiped it out.” If that storm had hit the Banks directly instead of veering north, he says (inflammatorily), there wouldn’t have been any Outer Banks left for me to write about. As long as those roads and structures constrict the islands’ natural processes of shifting and breathing with the ocean, the ocean will be an even more imminent threat.

Riggs calls the new, 30-year report “a distraction.” “Most of the Outer Banks, they’re simple barrier islands. Nothing but shoal. There’s 12, 13, 15 feet per year of shoreline eroding. Right now they’re getting away with it because it’s highly subsidized. People who don’t move houses hope the feds or state will come in and pump sand, rebuild the beach for them.”

Even now the Outer Banks are not exactly getting away with it, as people whose houses have been swallowed by the ocean can attest. And recently a small-business association approached Riggs to ask him how to mobilize the locals in the face of the ever-more-stark difficulties coming at them. In the past couple of years, the association told him, many mom-and-pop shops, from T-shirt vendors to charter boats, had closed up because the road was always out.  

Though Riggs, a gray-haired, bright-eyed academic, has the posture of a man exhausted or resigned, at least on the day I meet him, he says he’s optimistic. “The ocean’s gonna rezone that [island chain] whether we like it or not. And if we don’t learn to live with it, we’re not gonna be there either. The locals know it.” He thinks they’ll organize from the inside, which is where, he says, any organization needs to come from.

But so what if the residents of the Outer Banks—America’s Kiribati—all got together and believed, and adopted every possible local adaptation to oncoming climate change, and themselves went zero-carbon? They’d still have to depend on the rest of the world to implement a sensible climate policy that would help keep superstorms and sea level at bay.

Keeler, the economist, has not totally given up on this latter possibility. “What happened in South Africa, with apartheid ending, gives me hope in humanity,” he says. “I worked on Waxman-Markey,” the bill more formally known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. “I thought that’d be a big change. But I was wrong.” Waxman-Markey failed to pass the Senate.

“You can’t expect us to turn on a dime with energy,” Keeler adds, “but we have to start turning now.” By enforcing its artificial 30-year horizon, North Carolina “has done nothing to encourage people to take this seriously,” given that scientists don’t think things will get really ugly until the 2040s. “Nothing radical will happen in the next 30 years,” Keeler says with a smile. “After which, I hope to be dead.” 

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Fidel Sanchez dumps a wheelbarrel full of sand onto a growing pile as he and other workers try to clear out the Cape Hatteras Motel in Hatteras, NC. The motel, located on the beach, not only had several feet of sand in the stairwells, but in the parking lot behind the building. Photo: Greg Kahn
Brian Winnett, left, hauls in a blue fish near a stretch of condemned homes on the beach in Nags Head to fish on the Outer Banks, NC. Photo: Greg Kahn
Sand piles up along homes on Seagull St. in Rodanthe, NC. A recent Nor'easter brought 16-foot waves, flooding roads and leaving several feet of sand to dig out from. According to Dr. Stanley Riggs, this area is the fastest eroding on the Outer Banks. Photo: Greg Kahn
Dr. Stanley Riggs of Eastern Carolina University, has been studying the Outer Banks of North Carolina for many years, often battling locals and government officials on how to protect the islands from further damage. Photo: Greg Kahn
Flooding remains days after a storm on N Tower Circle in Buxton, NC. Photo: Greg Kahn
Stephanie O'Neal, works at the Sea Sound Motel in Rodanthe on the Outer Banks, NC. Photo: Greg Kahn
Dr. Reide Corbett, Coastal Processes Interim Co Program Head at UNC Coastal Studies Institute lives and works on the Outer Banks. Photo: Greg Kahn
Ernie Foster, who lives in Hatteras, runs the Albatross Fleet, a deep-sea fishing business on the Outer Banks. Foster's family can be traced back several generations in Hatteras. Photo: Greg Kahn
Grave markers at the Salvo Campground Cemetery in Salvo, NC, are slowly making their way into the Pamlico Sound. Photo: Greg Kahn

Mac McClelland is an award-winning journalist and author who has written for a wide range of publications. Her most recent book is Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story.

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