Tale of Two Cleanups: Bertha Stirs Class Conflict

Jeff Peterson owns a two-story beach house here. Preston Warren runs a bait shop in the muddy backwater of the Intercoastal Waterway. All that separates their properties is a quarter-mile of windblown sand.

But as both men puttered around their buildings surveying the damage wrought by Hurricane Bertha, they spoke in vastly different terms about hurricanes, about the lure of the sea, and the pace of oceanfront development.

Their differing viewpoints reflect the tensions between well-heeled seasonal residents who come to the Atlantic in search of tranquility and year-rounders who fish the ocean's chilly waters for sustenance. The friction here, made more apparent in Bertha's wake, is emblematic of the class conflicts that often stir up passions in oceanfront communities nationwide.

"You couldn't give me enough money to live on the ocean," Mr. Warren says, shouting over the sputtering cough of a water pump. "I'm just as close to the beach as I want to ever get. I don't even go over there to get in the sunshine much."

For 20 years, Warren has operated a bait shop just across the bridge that connects Surf City, N.C., to the mainland. The storm ripped apart his docks and swamped one of his shrimp boats on the spongy shore. He says he's one more storm away from ruin.

To him, life on the Carolina coast is tied to the murky waters of the Intercoastal Waterway, rich with shrimp and speckled trout. He makes his money during the summer months selling bait in his roadside store, and he spends nearly every free moment running his boats.

It's a way of life he's known since childhood, long before Northerners began building harborside condominiums and $300,000 beach houses that sit vacant most of the year, and long before his property taxes more than doubled.

"All this development is irritating to people who live around here because we're paying such high taxes," he says. "The county ain't spending no money back here at all. The county don't spend nothing, and yet we're paying 90 percent of the taxes. That's what hurts."

Each year, Warren, says, the noose draws tighter. He never can afford enough insurance. And when a storm like Bertha hits, he has no choice but to pick up his tool belt and set to work.

"I'm an electrician and a plumber and an air conditioner and refrigeration mechanic," he says, standing on the dock he has built and rebuilt three times in the last decade. "We don't have a choice but to start all over. This is how I make my living."

Across town, the Petersons have just pulled up in their Chevrolet Suburban after driving down from their home in Cary, N.C., to assess the damage. Aside from some loose siding and a few dozen missing shingles, their two-story bungalow is largely intact. Their roof will detain a contractor for only a few hours.

Perched on stilts behind a grassy dune, the Petersons' beach house is the family's vacation getaway. Since they bought it two years ago, they have been able to break even on the insurance bills and property taxes by renting it out in the summer when they're not using it. Their biggest concern is the condition of the beach.

"What we're really worried about is erosion," Mr. Peterson says. "This is an investment for us. Being on the ocean makes the place easy to rent. If the beach goes, we'll have to move the house back across the road," which hugs the shore.

For the Petersons, retreating to safer ground is unthinkable, even if it would lower their insurance costs considerably. The first reason is convenience. Living on the beach makes it easy to supervise his children as they play in the water, he explains. And if you live across the road, he adds, "you have to pack up every single thing you have and cross the road if you want to sit on the beach."

But beyond that, Peterson says the beachfront site means falling asleep to the rhythm of breaking waves, launching a sailboat in the backyard, and unencumbered sunrises. These, he explains, are experiences that transcend concerns about property taxes, insurance rates, and political feuds over spending county funds to support a summer population.

"People are drawn to beaches," he says. "It's some deep, natural craving that you can't satisfy in the city."

"I don't apologize for loving it here and taking some risks," he adds, bending over to pick up a shingle. "You can't keep me away. Bertha or no Bertha."

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